by Alita DeBerry
Mama used to sing a lot, despite the fact she wasn't gifted with a musical voice -- so she sang loudly to make up for it. She would hum a tune as she peeled peaches or snapped beans or did the churning. That's how we knew things were okay with the world.
Especially, she loved Steven Foster’s songs like Old Folks at Home or My Old Kentucky Home, and the singing was melodious enough to tell us that things were running smoothly and according to schedule. We felt all was right with the world. "I would not marry a railroad man, and this is the reason why; I never saw a railroad man who wouldn't tell his wife a lie. . ." (The Roving Gambler) When Mama sang this, sister Dorothy said she felt Mama was being disloyal to Daddy, who was a railroad man.
There was a time when the sound of someone singing as they worked was more common than rare. Daddy always, on heading out to the barn, whistled his way, or sang. He sang and whistled to his pet shoats. He sang shelling corn. Usually it would be snatches like: 'Look down, look down that lonesome road, before you travel on.' Other times, it would be 'I wandered today to the hill, Maggie. . .', or 'She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes. . .’
And Zilla, the bosom buddy of my childhood, and I sang, I guess, a thousand songs and shared as many adventures, and everything we saw would bring to mind another tune.
Sundown, and we'd burst into 'Red Sails in the Sunset'. There was 'Blue Eyes'; 'You are my Sunshine' and 'Birmingham Jail', but especially the tear-jerkers: 'Letter Edged in Black', 'In the Baggage Coach Ahead', 'Barbara Allen' and 'Floyd Collins', and ‘Froggie Went A-courting’.
Farmers sang as they plowed; truck-drivers sang or whistled on their route; store clerks hummed softly between customers.
Alas, times have changed. Now it’s the exception, not the rule, to find people singing at their work. And I'm at a loss to figure it out. Is it a change of attitude? Is it related to the nature of the times? Or has the onslaught of technology brought a dulling inertia to our spirits? Is it that we're just too rushed? Or that we allow all the piped-in entertainment to do the job for us?
And one day at the dentist, as the doc filled my tooth, I was amazed to find he kept up a constant happy humming all the while. I told him his humming inspired confidence -- just as having a pregnant Ob-Gyn somehow did when I first went to Dr. Donna Breeland.
Are people who sing as they work happier or more content than those who do not? I don’t know, but I have a feeling they are. It does seem to make things go better. It certainly brightens the day for those around them.
We had a neighbor once, Roy Demmings, whose early morning songs were a constant joy and reassurance in my childhood. Every morning about daylight we'd hear him. The notes of his songs in the sad, minor key of assorted blues or hymns would roll across the lower pasture, echoing up the rise to our house. And sometimes on an early autumn day the north wind would catch his song and send it trailing through the big oaks and pines and sweetgums, leaving only fragments to reach my ears, to say all was well and running according to plan.
Maybe some people can feel good without singing. But I cannot. It’s a habit of long- standing. Probably got that from Daddy. I always sing when I'm driving, especially on long stretches alone. It makes the time go better.
I'm the only one of Daddy's five children who followed his example in song. As a little tyke, carrying water to the field, I'd belt out, "Bring me a little water, Sylvia; bring me a little water now; bring me a little water, Sylvia, every little once in a while. . ." Or perhaps 'The Crawdad Song', 'Billy Boy', or 'Billy McCoy', whatever came to mind, for I knew them all.
Nor had he ever employed a whistler who was not thoughtful and economical. (From the Troy, Missouri Herald, June 30, 1875)
And remember, cowboys sang to the herds when they were restless, saying it calmed them.
Perhaps I'm investing the old times when people sang at their work with more charm than they deserve. I don't know, but I have a feeling singing just makes things go better.
Alita DeBerry has been writing professionally for twenty years, starting as a correspondent and feature writer for the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL. For most of this time, Alita was also writing a column for several weeklies in the South. Her column has been published in the Atlanta JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and her travel articles have appeared in several magazines.
Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.
The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.
And here's another: "Fresh Flowers"
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