Little Singing on the Prairie
by Martha Henderson
No matter what kind of winter we have had here in Minnesota, by April, we
think it should be time for spring. But we seldom get it this early. Oh,
maybe we have brief hints of spring, one or two days of sunshine or warmth to
tantalize us. But the weather, like an opera diva, likes to let us know who
is the boss. We get, at this time of year, a lot of sulking and maybe a
final tantrum or two before at last we are allowed to break through to
So it was last week. After a few days of warm weather, during which we
thought all our troubles were over, winter came back like the cat in the
Garrison Keillor song. It hung on day after day, dreary, bleak, and cold.
The only thing to do was to go south-- to Omaha, where they were preparing
for their sixth annual all-day singing on the first weekend of April.
To refresh my memory about how to get there, I called Alice Love. She said,
"Go down to Des Moines, and turn right." That sounds like an
oversimplification, but it isn't. Straight down one side of a square I went
for 212 miles, until I made a 90 degree turn and then headed straight west
for another 150 miles.
Iowa is cruise-control land. The road is so straight and unpopulated that I
could almost do as the old ship captains did when going for a long time
without changing direction: They would tie down the wheel and let the ship
just go on and on, with no one needing to steer it. So for mile after mile,
I sailed in my little ship across a sea of grass. Along the way, I
rediscovered what I had known before: That though late winter in Minnesota
is bleak and brown, there is hardly anything more desolate than an interstate
in the flat, empty parts of the Midwest, especially in early spring. Away to
the horizon the landscape stretched dull brown and grey, with hardly a tree
to obstruct the view.
Fortunately, I had recorded books with me, the saving grace of the weary
traveler. And the bare landscape of Iowa, with nothing to distract from the
story, is the perfect screen on which to project scenes of the stories one is
hearing. So even though I was actually looking at a vast expanse of empty
space, I saw, with Moll Flanders, the streets of 1722 London, and the horror
of Newgate Prison. I stood with Peregrin Took on the green fields of
Ithilien. I struggled with Frodo and Sam up Mount Doom, went home with them
to the Shire, and watched with Sam as Frodo took leave of the world on a ship
at the Grey Havens. Just at the time that Sam journeyed back to the Shire,
walked into his house, sat down at the table and said, "Well ... I'm home," I
arrived at Alice Love's house.
Next morning, the singing's start time of 10 a.m., and the fact that Alice
lives about 10 minutes from the church, gave us ample time to sleep, and then
to visit over breakfast, before heading out. As I walked out the door, I saw
what I had come to see: green grass, forsythia bushes in bloom, and a
beautiful, sunny day.
Despite Alice's proximity to the singing, we still did not arrive at the
church on our first attempt. However, we weren't far off. Alice teased us
good-naturedly about getting lost, but we weren't lost; we were (as someone
said many years ago after a wandering adventure at my summer camp) just
When I arrived in Omaha the night before, it had seemed to me that Omaha is a
place of wide, straight streets that go on for miles, lined with huge,
monumental churches. But the church that the Omaha singers have found to
sing in is a small gem set in a quiet neighborhood. Simple, oblong, made of
brick, it features a downstairs social room of just the right size, with a
low plaster ceiling and a tile floor, which made the singing sound just
right. Because the church has no steeple, I might have thought I was in a
Baptist church down south, had it not been for the Greek Orthodox icons
hanging on the wall of the social hall.
There were a number of morning refreshments available, including TeaSource
Red Berries tea (which made me feel almost as if I were back in St. Paul), in
my opinion one of the best things for the voice, along with lemonade and
ginger-honey-lemon tea. The latter is really the very best thing ("It brings
the dead back to life -- the vocal cords, anyway," said one singer), but I
had not thought to bring any with me, so I drank Red Berries instead.
On the registration table was a vase of lovely daffodils, hyacinths, and
other spring flowers from someone's garden -- a sight for sore eyes for
someone weary of winter.
Several people from Omaha, like the southerners they are (well, south of
Minnesota, anyway), made it a point to thank us graciously for coming. Then
the singing was called to order. I had to be on my toes because I had been
asked to pitch. (Evidently, where I like to sing the songs is also where a
lot of other people like to sing them, which works out great for all of us.)
No daydreaming between songs, as I sometimes do. No dawdling getting to the
page, and no thinking that I don't need to open the book because I know this
or that song. Especially, no forgetting that I was supposed to pitch! I
didn't want to happen what had happened at another convention: I was sitting
there waiting to sing the next song, when I noticed that the room had fallen
very silent and everyone was looking at me. They were waiting for the pitch,
while I, forgetting my role, had been waiting for someone else to give it.
However, everything went off pretty well.
It was a small singing to start with (about 20 people), and it grew to about
30 during the day. I missed a number of people who had been there in past
years, who were not there this time. But those who were there sang with
enthusiasm and skill. The songs I led were probably not very familiar to the
class, but you wouldn't know that from hearing them.
Lunch, as always in Omaha, was not to be missed. There was so much delicious
food that, if you went hungry, it was your own fault. I heard high praise
from others for the baked ham, while I was partial to green beans and
lasagna. Fried chicken was available as well. And of course, there was one
table reserved for desserts, and it was full -- no space left anywhere. It
was difficult to decide which to choose.
After lunch, when singing resumed, I noticed that the person leading looked a
lot like the man in the icon on the wall next to him! If the leader had been
wearing ecclesiastical robes, he and his icon double would have been dead
ringers for each other. I looked from one to the other, and back again, not
believing what my eyes said to be true. After the singing, I pointed this
out to his wife. I think she got a kick out of that.
The singing wound down, and while my throat gave out, everyone else made it
to the end. It had been another good day of singing, well-organized by a
dedicated group of singers. But the best fun was yet to come. We adjourned
to Alice Love's house, where we ate even more food and sang some songs from
the Cooper book. Then Denise Kania pulled out her collection of gospel songs
by Albert Brumley and others (see brumleymusic.com). We sang "Twilight is
Stealing," "Turn your Radio On," "Palms of Glory," "Camping in Canaan"
(which sounds a lot like Easter Parade), "Daniel Prayed," and "Just a Little
Talk With Jesus." As someone said, songs like this are "a hoot and a half to
sing," and that proved to be true this evening. Denise and Jenni
Wallace-Grate had a wonderful alto thing going (just seat me between the two
of them and I will sail off into a land of bliss), and Larry of Omaha did a
great job of sight-reading that lightning-fast bass part in "Just a Little
Talk with Jesus." Several of us gathered around him, squinting to see the
one book, while he held the whole song together. That was a memorable
Still, all good things must come to an end. To remind me of this, next
morning, snow was falling heavily in large, wet flakes. All through the
western part of Iowa, I drove through nasty weather that didn't look at all
like spring; at one rest stop, the snow was actually blowing sideways.
Magically, just north of Des Moines, the storm dried up and the temperature
rose 6 degrees.
Near Clear Lake, I stopped at the Guardian Angels roadside chapel. This
small chapel was built by the side of the highway in honor of a woman from
Clear Lake who was convinced that guardian angels had protected her in some
very dangerous situations. It looks like a miniature church, inside and out,
and it's a good place for three or four people to sing a few songs. Outside,
there is a yard swing for people to rest themselves on, but it was too cold
to do that this time.
The chapel is always open, but it seems never to be vandalized. Perhaps the
people that bother to stop there treat it with the respect due to a place
that exists to rest the souls and bodies of weary travelers.
One of the stained-glass windows made reference to a Bible verse, Isaiah 2:4.
I looked up the reference in the Bible on the pulpit: "And he shall judge
among the nations, and shall settle disputes for many people; and they shall
beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Nation
shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any
more." One of the other windows just said, "Peace." I thought it odd that I
had not noticed those windows the other times I had been there. It seemed
like a message just for this time.
Across the rest of the winter-wasted prairie I sailed. At home, I fell into
bed, with memories of gospel songs floating around me.