Matthew Vollmer

Cult Hymn

A

sked son—who was loudly singing to a song on his phone while dutifully completing his homework, which he does, every day, without being asked, as soon as he comes home from school—to be quiet. Son kept singing, so I yelled his name, got his attention, said, “Could you please stop doing that?” I’d been trying to concentrate, trying to read something, and boy’s falsetto was like a happy demon flitting about in the otherwise peaceful sanctuary of my mind. But I felt stupid afterward, like what kind of father tells his son not to sing? A self-centered jerk, that’s who. A heartless doofung—a word the boy made up and uses in lieu of the traditional “doofus”—who attempts to quash the childlike and improvisatory and utterly necessary-to- development that one associates with singing? Son suggested, correctly, that I should relax. Exact wording, if I remember correctly, was “chill.” Rolled eyes. Shook head. Remembered telling own mother to “chill,” a thing which own mother always made fun of. But none of this mattered, really. Regardless whatever ironic historical precedence might exist for requesting silence upon part of singing son, I still wanted son to stop singing. Did I know, at the time, that there has never been any human culture, no matter how remote, that does not produce musical sounds with the voice? I did not. As it turns out, everyone sings—or has sung, or would, if they were so moved and had a working larynx. Even my wife, who, in her own words, can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The first time I heard her sing, I asked her, point blank, if she was tone deaf. This wasn’t, I’ll admit, the nicest way of putting it. Too embarrassed to say she’d didn’t know because nobody had asked her the question before, she said yes. I hear her singing, off-key, sometimes, but I don’t have any memories of hearing her sing to our son, who himself doesn’t remember the songs I sung to him as a baby in his rocking chair, the same songs my grandmother sang to me in a warbling vibrato I did my best to mimic as I crooned “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day,” a song that was first popularized by Paul Robeson, who used his deep baritone to promote Black spirituals and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time. Though that was my favorite song to sing, my son preferred “Hush Little Baby,” whose lyrics I changed to “Hush Little Baby/ Don’t say a word/ Daddy’s gonna buy you a mocking bird/ and if that mocking bird don’t sing/ Daddy’s gonna buy you a diamond ring/ And if that diamond ring don’t shine/ Daddy’s gonna buy you a bottle of wine/ And if that wine don’t make you drunk/ Daddy’s gonna buy you a big fat skunk/ And if that big fat skunk don’t stink/ Daddy’s gonna buy you an ice skating rink/ And if that ice skating rink burns down/ You’ll still be the sweetest baby in town.” According to Wikipedia, there are multiple versions of this song; there are simple revisions to the lyrics, but all remain true to the promise of rewards for being quiet. As far as I know, there are a number of not-normally sung verses but no different versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song I used to sing, diva-style, with extravagant runs to steamroller my son’s anguish during his diaper changes, which he hated. In 1989, when I visited Abidjan, West Africa, with my family, my father taught his sister’s African gray parrot to whistle the first few notes of our national anthem, which it sang over and over and drove everyone crazy. My mother never liked repetition in music; if we rode together in the car and we were listening to a mixtape I’d made I became attuned to a song’s tendency to repeat and anticipated, tensely, my mother’s negative response. My father, on the other hand, can’t believe I can’t read notes and sing, which means that if I were to sing a hymn in church I couldn’t sing the harmony, unless somebody else was singing it. The world’s oldest song is a cult hymn, the notes of which were discovered on a clay tablet in Syria, and praises the god Nikkal, the Akkadian goddess of orchards and wife of the moon god Sin, who had a beard of lapis lazuli and rode on a winged bull. As a kid in elementary school, when it was my turn to select a record, I always chose the “William Tell Overture,” by Gioachino Rossini, partly because it reminded me of William Tell splitting the apple on his son’s head with an arrow shot from a crossbow and partly because it reminded me of the Lone Ranger, and I loved the Lone Ranger, though I can’t say why, maybe the bullets and the mask but maybe even the song. According to Richard Wagner, “The human voice is really the foundation of all music; and whatever the development of the musical art, however bold the composer’s combinations, however brilliant the virtuoso’s execution, in the end they must always return to the standard set by vocal music.” And according to John Koopman, whose website A Brief History of Singing supplied me with the above quote, “There are no bones in the human larynx, so archaeological remains offer no direct physical evidence of the vocal apparatus of prehistoric man.” Thousands of years ago, boys rubbed flint together over bunches of dried grass to make fire, and probably, as they did so, they hummed, or warbled unselfconsciously, enjoying the warm vibrations in their throats; whether their fathers told them to stop it’s impossible to know, but I can imagine a better dad than me coming up behind a singing son, his face aflicker with firelight, and gently cupping a hand over his progeny’s mouth, then raising a finger to his own, and—because words haven’t yet been invented—pointing to his ear, and then they both hear it: a wail, a cry, the song of some distant beast who, now that night has come, is looking to slake its hunger, so get that fire going, get those flames higher, and as for singing, maybe it’s best if you don’t make a sound.