Family, Music


It must have been about 7 years ago, a hot July night. It was time to celebrate the 10th birthday of my dear friend’s 2nd child. Three families gathered, with three children each, the oldest all about 11, the next pair 9 and 10, followed by a couple of 7’s and a 6, with The Very Little Princess the youngest at 3. It was about a week after the 4th of July, and, really, it was hot, hot, hot.

While we were passing out pieces of cake on this hot, hot, hot night, the two oldest boys burst into a spontaneous rendition of “Sit Down, John,” the big opening number of “1776,” with its chorus: “It’s hot as hell in Philadelphia.” Now, this didn’t surprise me; the two oldest boys had gone to New York the previous summer to see Brent Spiner (Data, in case you’re not a Star Trek geek, although if you’re not, that won’t help) on Broadway in the musical’s revival.

Yes, we’re geeks. And we are especially “1776” geeks. There was a summer we kept the movie out at the video store so long that we might as well have bought it (although we actually waited for the DVD, in part because it restored the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men; clearly I’m not kidding when I say we’re geeky…). If I’m going on a long car trip, I never fail to bring along the “real” cast recording, the one with my hero, the very short and persnickety William Daniels. The rousing fife and drum overture, his angry rant to God and about Congress, his love for his wife, the sickly Abigail, his bad-tempered outbursts–ah! the man is my hero! (Please do not reveal to my relatives in Virginia, or my departed father, that I prefer Adams to Jefferson. It will be our secret.)

Well, back to the birthday party. The two boys (who are now at Wesleyan together and still friends) began to sing the words of dear John Adams and his Congressional colleagues, and I am charmed but not surprised. After all, I can sing the whole song myself, every single part, and I can’t help singing along. (“Someone ought to O-pen up a window!”) But what surprises me is that the other parents seem to be taking up the chorus. And every child there, right down to the smallest. Yes, even The Very Little Princess could sing along with “1776.”

Remembering this impromptu sing-along begs reflection. Why do we all love it so much, that arcane musical about our founding fathers that ends not with a song-and-dance but rather with a tableau of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

I believe it is because we do, indeed, hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that even though the founding fathers said “men” and didn’t include people of color in their definition, they were onto something. They were on to the truth, that we are all equal. And it’s the calling of those of us who find ourselves to be “more” equal–by virtue of intelligence, education, social advantages, gifts and talents–to redress the balance wherever possible, not to manipulate society for our own enrichment.

The children of those three lawyers, with their stay-at-home moms (plus one part-time seminarian), all bright and gifted, all young people of faith (more Jewish than Christian at that gathering), are the antithesis of what the general public presumes “religious” kids would be. They care. They will make the world a better place.

I want to think they will be brave when they need to be. I believe they will remember John Adams and his obstinant courage, and Thomas Jefferson and his elegant brilliance, and Benjamin Franklin and his wise wit.

But what I don’t believe is that they will ever be able to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “America, the Beautiful” with the kind of feeling I have for them. Yesterday while driving #2 Son to camp, I was listening to the repeat broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, recorded at Tanglewood on Saturday night. I remembered this trip on the same Sunday last year, and how much I enjoyed joining in to Garrison Keillor’s sing-along of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I wondered if he would do it again. I love the way he won’t let the political right steal his patriotic songs, nor let the old hymns be ruined for him, either. (Best sing-along ever? Abide with Me.)

And so I was excited when he announced they would sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” in the fairly singable key of G.

And by the time the song was over, I had goosebumps.

But #2 Son was slumped in his seat, and it was an effort of will to leave him in his place of ennui while I remained in my mood of cautious optimism.

This morning I am angry to think my children won’t have the feelings I had about this country. Perhaps it is their calling to set things right again, and mine to tell them what that might be like.

For “… when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Hear that, King George. Hear that.