It sounded like a flock of dying cats. Whining, howling, singing voices, accompanied by out-of-tune guitars and laughter.
It was marvelous.
My neighbor. His family was in town for the holiday weekend. While their grill smoked, they sat on the porch working up a good beer-glow, singing.
I sat outside, my ear cocked toward them.
They sang tunes like: “Uncloudy Day,” or, “Peace in the Valley.” And when they got to “I Come To The Garden,” somebody’s wife joined in and put them all to shame. She knew every verse.
I remember my grandaddy saying once, “Record players stole common folks’ voices.”
As a five-year-old, all I could do was reflect on this, and answer, “Did you know butterflies can taste with their feet?”
Which is true.
He ignored me and went on, “Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man sing it. And if you liked it, the only way to own it was to learn it.” He tapped his chest. “Then it was your song.”
Well, he would’ve known. He played nearly every instrument there ever was. He had long fingers, and a voice like someone who worked a plow.
They say he sang on the radio. But that didn’t mean much, the rural station only reached about twenty people.
On a good day, twenty-three.
The broadcast headquarters was a shack the size of a feed-shed with a tower beside it. It sat in an abandoned wheat field. There, he played guitar, singing into a microphone that looked like an empty snuff can attached to a mattress-spring.
His singing was probably imperfect. His voice would’ve been shaky from teenage nerves. The man operating the electronics advised him to take a nip from a bottle to calm himself. It didn’t work. He sang anyway, and got a nickel.
The words of his antique songs wouldn’t make much sense in today’s world. After all, it’s difficult to understand songs about poverty while listening to them on a seven-hundred-dollar smartphone.
I’ll never know what that young man sounded like. Though I imagine he must’ve sounded off-key, nervous, and just a little sad.
It happened so long ago, it seems almost foreign.
So, maybe it’s true. Maybe the music of my ancestors has disappeared, and the only traces of it remain on iTunes—God help us. Maybe the record player really did steal common people’s voices.
Either way, one thing is certain.
It hasn’t taken anything from my neighbors.