If a song was written in 1904, is it a traditional folk song? Maybe not, but I didn’t care because I was in fourth grade, and I didn’t know the song was written in 1904, or that a version of it had been in an early 1960s Finnish movie. Our teacher had probably picked that one to make our music class a little more contemporary.
It didn’t, but I didn’t care. I just loved singing the song.
I sat in the front row, as I often did, being a small kid. The big kids could see from behind a smaller one, but us shorties wouldn’t have seen anything sitting behind a big, we were told, so I sat in the front row even in music class, even though it didn’t really matter there.
The whole class was singing the song, and I was into it. I loved the song, and I thought I had found my groove so I belted it out.
By the third verse, I was so into it that I thought my voice echoed in the entire classroom, and I saw the teacher had a happy smile on her face, so I kept on going. For the first time ever, there was a clarity in my voice, and it was enough to make angels weep.
The song ended, and our teacher exhaled.
“That was beautiful,” she said, and walked towards my desk, and then took a right and walked a couple of steps past me.
“Henry, there’s such clarity in your voice,” she told a boy sitting way in the back, “and it’s enough to make angels weep.”
“I hope you’ll join the school choir,” she said, and suggested a round of applause for the boy.
She got what she wanted.
I’ve never been a great singer, probably not even a good singer, although I’d rather not get an honest appraisal of my voice. I like to sing, although naturally never in public, just on my own at home, in the car and, of course, when walking with kids.
As a kid, I sang to the songs on the Beatles tape I had at home, and in our fifth grade school disco, I sang every single Paul Anka song that was played to whoever I was dancing with. I remember the astonished look on a classmate’s face when she realized I sang “Put your head on my shoulder”. Not because I sang so well, but because I knew the lyrics by heart.
Whatever illusions I may have had about my voice, they all disappeared one late summer’s day when I recorded my own singing of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven”. Of course, I didn’t have a karaoke machine – karaoke was a concept still to be imported to Finland – so instead, I just played the song on my Walkman, which wasn’t a Walkman, but a “walkman”, so loud that when I recorded it with my boom box, you could hear the music, but not Bryan Adams’s singing. Especially with me singing on top of it.
Excited, I pressed “stop” after my first take, rewound the tape, and listened to myself.
It’s the only tape I have ever destroyed on purpose.
By the time karaoke made its way to Finland, I had forgotten about that experiment, and was back to singing out loud in the car, thinking I was pretty good. So what if I switched keys in the middle of a song (without realizing it), I still thought I could hang with the best of them.
Until one night, when I found myself standing in front of a screen, staring at the lyrics of Richard Marx’s “Hold on to the nights” and a bouncy ball jumping from one word to another. And I was paralyzed, petrified – and mute. I stood there listening to the song, before I sheepishly put the microphone on the speaker and shook my head to my colleagues who were there with me.
“Don’t worry about it, it’s a tough one,” one of them said.
I haven’t even tried singing at a karaoke place since then, but since time heals all wounds, I do sing at home, and as I said, with the kids. In fact, I sing to them a lot, and often make commentaries in song lyrics. I’ve told them there’s a song about everything, and the only word they’ve managed to stump me with is “fork”.
A friend often reminds me of Dirty Harry’s words of wisdom, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and as far as singing goes, I now should know mine. And yet, I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential.
Both Son and Daughter will be singing during the St. Lucia and Christmas celebrations at school. I heard them rehearse the songs today, and I was reminded of a December evening in 2000 when I was singing the St. Lucia song to Wife in the kitchen of our Stockholm apartment.
I think I was fine the whole way, but once I hit the end notes, I really startled myself with my voice. There was a new clarity to it. It was, I felt, enough to make angels weep. Wife didn’t say anything, she just smiled.
So I keep singing, chasing that voice. I know it’s there somewhere.