Easter morning, I surprised my friends by going to church. That’s not usually part of my routine, but on this particular Sunday, I knew the music would be worth the trip. Good tunes attract me and I know where to find them. I dug out a rarely worn suit, found a semiclean white shirt and reminded myself of how to affix a tie round my throat — when I left my anchor life at Channel 12, I donated several suits to Goodwill but held on to a couple for weddings and funerals. Odd how the dress for a wedding is much the same as for a funeral.
So, it was Easter Sunday, and I didn’t want to look like a bum. Once crammed into my old suit, I headed in the direction of River Road Church eagerly anticipating the music. The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah is always on the Easter menu. But the “Hallelujah Chorus” is not a tune to be fooled with. For that reason, most choirs don’t attempt it — or shouldn’t. I knew the choir at River Road was up to the job.
We were early of course — a requirement if one wants a seat on Easter morning. I had little choice and had to sit behind an older woman wearing a large, god-awful hat that she no doubt thought looked wonderful. Within moments my attention to the hat evaporated and instead I was enjoying the talented voices of the choir, assisted by a powerful five-manual pipe organ and accompanying brass ensemble.
These are professional musicians who take their work seriously. The sanctuary reverberated with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and other music that I love but can’t always identify. During those moments, I feel the power of religion. I get over it pretty quickly, but for a little while it’s wonderful.
A bit of background: My dad was a preacher, a good man but not a good speaker. If he’d been more talented, we might have enjoyed a bigger, better-paying church. But he wasn’t and we didn’t. For that reason, he spent his life in small churches that didn’t demand that much from the pulpit — and was paid accordingly. The music program wasn’t all that special either.
There was a lady in my father’s last church whose dedication could not be questioned, but she insisted in singing in the choir, loudly. Hers was best described as a country whine that stood out from the rest of the choir, because she wasn’t only the loudest, she was worst. On those rare occasions when she sang on key it wasn’t that bad — but those occasions were rare.
Switching gears now … but not really. Later this month, I’ll host the annual Jimmy Dean Music Festival at the Beacon Theatre in Hopewell. Loretta Lynn will be the featured performer. I don’t expect her or anyone else at the festival to sing Handel, but that doesn’t mean the music won’t be good. Great music can come from anywhere, and I anticipate an inspiring evening. Since the Old Dominion Barn Dance was revived by Donna Meade, a singer in her own right and Dean’s widow, thousands have flocked to Hopewell to hear the music. The performances are almost always sold out. People know what they like, and they know where to find it.
And great musicians appreciate good music, whether it’s opera or the Grand Old Opry. A well-rounded listener can enjoy sophisticated religious music or bluegrass picking and grinning. If it’s done well, we want it.
One of my great regrets is that I never had enough musical talent to be part of a group. I tried for a while, but it was painful for my audience. The choir lady in our small church spent her life singing, but it never occurred to her the damage she was doing — and nobody would tell her. She just whined on, year after year. Bless her heart.
But whether it’s Andrea Bocelli or Loretta Lynn, I’m thankful for those who can make good music. I wish I could do it, too, but I can’t.
But that’s OK, because I know where to find people who can. S
Gene Cox is an author and inventor, who retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.