Singing has never been my strong suit. Be glad this is a written document and not an audio file; hearing me sing makes grown men cringe and weak men faint in agony! The one exception to this was the Wednesday Night Sings at the Tabernacle in the Campgrounds. It was a big old building; essentially just a roofed structure over a concrete floor, supported by wrought-iron columns. A small stage was off to one side, and then chairs and benches faced it. It had no walls, but the outer columns had thick canvas curtains, closable for privacy.
During the summer, every Wednesday night, the Camp Meeting Association would hold sings. We'd amble over there sometime after dinner, and walk down one of the aisles to find a nice spot. At the entrance to each aisle was a small table with a basket on it; the songbooks were in there, and people couple just help themselves. Of course, "old timers" like me and my family - and our friends - we usually had songbooks in our cottages and brought them along. This was despite the fact that the books had printed on their backs: "Property of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, Do Not Remove from Tabernacle."
Most "regulars" pretty much ignored that. Such daring criminal types, weren't we?
Up on the stage was the Emcee. Every year, the same man - I never did get his name - and the band. He'd open his book and tell us to turn to page such-and-such, and get ready to sing... whatever. The songs were all the old-fashion sorts of songs you'd expect to hear in movies like "Music Man" or "Carousel"; the songs of old-fashion small town life - and we loved them!
There were simple songs like "Down in the Valley", "Bingo", "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Old Smokey" and "Billy Boy", and then there were ones that truly lent themselves to - what you could call - "audience participation". First, there were songs like "Kookaburra" and "Tommy Tinker", where you could repeat the final refrain as many times as you liked. Oh, sometimes we'd go on and on and on, forever. It'd almost be like a contest, one side of the audience against the other to see who'd quit first.
Then there were the long songs - like "Tree in the Woods." It started with the tree, and then went to a limb, and then a branch, and a nest, and an egg in the nest - and so on. It was supposed to stop when we got to the feather on the bird (inside the egg), but sometimes we'd get a bit goofy, and keep going. There'd be a dust speck on the feather, and then a... well, you get the point; it could go on for quite a while! All the while, the Emcee would be up on stage "acting out" the verses. For my friends and me it was quite amusing.
Then there was "The Swiss Navy." If ever there was an "audience participation" song, this was it. It had several verses, and in each, we had to stand up and act out something. Being in the artillery, or marching in the infantry, or... again, you get the idea. Finally, we'd put it all together, act it all out and always end with the same refrain: "I want to be in the Swiss Navy."
A very fun song, indeed
Of course, as the saying goes: all good things must end. It would get late, and the little kids would get tired. We'd always end with the same song: "Sing Your Way Home." The Emcee would start, the band would play and we'd all slowly get to our feet and start down the aisle. Getting to the end, some people would drop their copy of the songbook in the basket; some kept them.
No one ever minded. After all, we'd be back next week. It made sense to keep them.
The first time I took my girlfriend to the Island, we went to a sing. The first time we took our daughter, we went to a sing. Our last visit, we didn't manage to. This summer, I'd like to. I have to wonder, do they still do it the same way; has that aspect of my childhood survived to the "Internet Age"?
I hope so; there are some things worth keeping - more than we realize - and we usually don't know that until it's too late.
Oh, and yes - I still have my old songbook.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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