Last Friday the Minnesota Freedom Band performed as a sort of pep band for a fundraiser for District 202, an organization that provides support (and a community center) for lgbt youth. The fundraiser was held at a local dance bar, and was essentially a drag show. I was quite skeptical that it was the right sort of venue for the Freedom Band; the move from cabaret recorded music to live loud marching arrangements is jarring, to say the least, and probably doesn't show anybody in their best light. The logistics themselves were less than ideal; there was no place for us to gather and no place for us to tune up and run through the music. I'm all for this sort of community involvement, but when you are volunteering your time and paying for parking and giving up your weekend evening it's hard to remember your charitable impulses when you have to stand around uncomfortably crowded into a back corner of a loud smoky room for 90 minutes.
Then, suddenly, without even any warning from the producers, we were told "Now!" and we quickly picked up our instruments and our drum major counted off and we began. And you know what? Magic happened. Yes, really. We had a strong group of players that night, and not just strong players but good sports and nice folks. They just went with it. The room came alive, to my stunned surprise. There was huge cheering for us. We played a few small peppy things, including our marching holiday music, cutting our set short (as per the request of the beleaguered running-way-behind producers), but the crowd didn't want us to stop! (This is not the usual reaction to a marching band.) We pulled out Beer Barrel Polka and people danced around the floor. It felt wonderful. People were shouting for more even after we played two encore pieces.
On Saturday evening I attended the annual Holiday party of my good friends Bob and Julie, a party at which there is an awful lot of music. The basement pub fills with people playing old-timey music and the dining room becomes contra-dance music heaven (with the occasional swing tune) and we all feast on the food we bring in quantity and we drink Bob's homemade brew. A group of us usually try to take over a room upstairs for singing, but this year that didn't look likely as a second upstairs room had become the home for yet another set of stringed instrument players.
What I hadn't counted on was that among the guests at this party, in addition to the Morris community friends with whom I sometimes sing, were the members of the Eddies, a local a cappella folkie singing group. These guys have big voices and they love to sing. I've sung informally with them once or twice before. They pushed hard to get us to start up some singing, so we went into the empty upstairs room (which had no door) and we began. Within minutes the instrumentalists were forced to close the door to the room they were using, as we, with just our voices, were overpowering them.
We traded chorus songs for a while and at one point that amazing inexplicable blissful something that happens occasionally at a singing came about, that glorious sense of voice and harmony and joy that you can't plan or predict but which, once felt, keeps you coming back to sing again and again in the hope that you might achieve it once more. There was a period, a small period all told, when this became what we call "a good singing". I was very happy. I remembered some things I had been starting to forget.
I know that I am not making this up or describing something that was wholly internal, because the next evening I ran into somebody who'd been at the party who started gushing about what he heard coming out of that room. He said, "I usually ignore you Morris dancers when you go upstairs, but last night I heard something wonderful. The guy I was with nearly cried."
I know you won't believe me here, so absurd is this story.
On Sunday I went over early to the Beer Bust at the Eagle because I'd had some news that day that made me feel as if I wanted to sit and sip some beer and ponder things. Mostly I wanted just to get out a little, but not to do anything organized. During the Beer Bust, at the video bar connected to the Eagle, they show musical clips from a variety of sources. So I could sit, mostly alone, and lose myself in showtunes before the bar filled up.
They played a clip I hadn't seen before, which I have since learned is from a late-sixties television special. Carol Channing came out dressed as Reb Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof and sang "If I Were a Rich Man" (at pretty much the same pitch as Zero Mostel). The absurdity of this, particularly out of context, is beyond measure, and transcends camp. And yet...
She sang this song absolutely straight, and respectfully, with more vocal expression and skill than I have ever heard her sing anything else. I have checked the Internet for things people have written about this, and it seems that most people do not agree with my assessment. Nonetheless, to my sensibilities, she performed with a dramatic directness. It was as if she plowed right through the bizarre nature of the costume and the circumstance and even the 35 years since the recording took place, and spoke right to the heart of that schmaltzy song, without schmaltz and without histrionics. After my initial sense of amusement I was, unexpectedly, quite moved.
Sometimes you have no idea where this sort of thing will come from. The key is to go with it, whether it's a pep band at a drag show in a smoke-filled dance club, or a traditional British chorus song in a small warren of unaccompanied singing in a houseful of loud instruments, or in the emotional directness of a camp figure in an ancient video clip at a leather bar on a Sunday afternoon in December, with a mug of truly bad beer in your hand.