Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do You Call That Religion?

There was an old piano in our dingy, crowded basement. Mostly it served to hold a little radio that was strategically placed to catch the a.m. radio broadcasts of the St. Louis Cardinals. But occasionally someone would sit down and plunk out a tune on the piano itself. Almost from the beginning of our time on North George Street we owned a console model of a crank Victor Victrola and a collection of 78 rpm records, some suitable for sing-along purposes. In later years a beat-up, undersized guitar came into the household, later still to be joined by a harmonica and a Jew’s Harp. Eventually our sister, Istra, would bring her string-band friends for weekend concerts. But, for most of our music-making we had only our voices.

Mom and Istra sang duets trading between harmony and melody. Donald and I sang together but with both of us singing melody. I have no memory of Dad or Marvin singing “formally” although Dad was a “whistler” and a “hummer” both traits I unconsciously inherited from him. Our songs fell within the narrow range of hymns, camp meeting songs, folk songs, and popular country songs. Later Southern Gospel quartet songs would be added to the mix.

In the early years, when all the kids were still at home, during evenings, we would sometimes gather in the living room to make music. On one occasion everyone brought out their comb and by laying a small sheet of wax paper over it and humming with our lips pressed to the wax paper, we could make a bazooka-like sound, or more likely a hornet’s nest-like sound. It was high good fun and even those who lacked the confidence to “solo” or “duet” (Marvin and Dad, primarily) could hum away with abandon. When the concert was at its peak there was a loud knock on the front door. The concert abruptly stopped and we all looked at each other, waiting for someone else to answer the door and explain to the visitor the reason for all the commotion. Eventually someone mustered the courage and found Mom, grinning, enjoying her joke immensely. She had slipped, unnoticed, out the back door and circled around to the front. It was very likely she who had started the concert in the first place and no one who knew her would doubt that she might have had the whole scheme in her mind from the start.

On another occasion most of the family had gathered in the kitchen to shell popcorn into a large washtub around which we were all seated on stools or chairs. I was leading the group in an enthusiastic rendition of “Do You Call That Religion,” a lively little refrain that repeated after each of the many verses that detailed behaviors (lying, anger, gossip, etc.) that did not qualify as good religion. The clinching phrase in each round was, “Do you call that religion? No, child, no!”

In some manner that I’ve forgotten I managed to slip and strike my lip against the edge of the tub we were shelling the corn into. No damage was done to my lip as far as I recall but it did end my enthusiasm for the song. In fact it evoked the kind of instant rage that often accompanies an unexpected strike or a blow to the face. The others were amused at my sudden change of mood and their amusement amused me, not at all, triggering tears and a “rare” flash of anger.

The chorus was immediately struck up again, with one sulking boy the butt of the punch line, “Do you call that religion? No, child, no!”

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