I learned to drive a John Deere tractor when I was eight or nine years old. Spending summers on my grandparent’s farm, I used to drive the noisy, green machine up and down long rows of freshly cut hay as the old wagon and loader tagged along behind. It was heavenly. Hot summer days, not a cloud in the sky and singing at the top of my lungs in harmony with the engine. Yes, with the engine. My grandparents were on the wagon or walking alongside pitching hay. They occasionally yelled at me to slow down or speed up the pace, of the tractor, not the song.
No one could hear me belting out the hit tunes of the 70s. Everything from the Carpenters’ “I’m On the Top of the World” to John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. I was fabulous! It didn’t matter that I sang the same songs over and over again. It didn’t matter that I may have missed a note or two. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know all the words. I was singing.
I used to sing in the junior choir in my mum’s church. It didn’t last for long. I used to sing in my elementary school choir. It didn’t last for long either. Somewhere around Grade 5, while sitting on a school bus coming home from a school trip, the Music Teacher, Miss Delavan, tapped me on the shoulder during the group sing-along and said, “Marilyn, why don’t you let the other kids sing?” I was done.
Somewhere deep inside I knew that I wasn’t a great singer, but to be told to stop singing stopped me. I stopped singing “Happy Birthday” at parties. I mouthed the words from then on. I stopped singing “O Canada” out loud. I either stood at attention or mouthed the words if I knew that someone might judge my closed mouth. The farm was long-gone by the time I was a young adult; there were no more sing-alongs with the tractor.
Music has always been an integral part of my life. From 33 rpm records on our family stereo, to cassette tapes and 8-tracks, there was always something to sing along to in our house. My mum and dad always sang aloud, and on car drives with my dad I remember harmonizing with him to “You Are My Sunshine”. At least, he said I was harmonizing. I loved the cocoon and safety of the car, where no one else could hear me sing. I secretly wondered if by harmonizing, he meant that I was singing in my own (off)key.
As an adult, I desperately wanted to learn how to sing and even took singing lessons from a professional teacher. I explained that I simply wanted to learn how to sing “Sentimental Journey”. She insisted that I learn the scales. I was doomed. There was no joy on Saturday afternoons. I lasted ten lessons.
When our daughters were born, I sang to them all the time. They could not talk back, so the relationship was perfect. From Broadway to Folk to old-time Gospel music, as infants they heard it all. As they aged, I made up songs about brushing their teeth, washing their hands, cooking macaroni, and how to spell their names. However, as they got older, my self-consciousness returned and my singing all but stopped.
“Let the other children sing, Marilyn.” That was over forty years ago.
A Honda CRV has an excellent sound system. I occasionally drive to visit my oldest daughter who lives two hours from me. Last weekend, during my drive, I was listening to The Chicks, driving past hayfields, barns, and farmhouses and it struck me; I was singing with abandon! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was fabulous. I didn’t know all the words to every song, (although I can rattle off “Goodbye Earl” without missing a beat), and I may have missed a note or two, but it didn’t matter. I was singing. Out loud. I had to pause a moment to realize that I was physically and mentally happy from the actual act of singing. I felt as if I was back on the John Deere again. I felt free.
We each have our own feelings of self-consciousness that can hold us back from feeling joy and happiness. There are certainly enough laminated posters sold that tell us to “dance like nobody is watching”. My epiphany came on a highway, listening to The Chicks, sing “Some Days You Gotta Dance”. To quote from their song,
“Some days you gotta dance
Live it up when you get the chance
’Cause when the world doesn’t make no sense
And you’re feeling just a little too tense
Gotta loosen up those chains and dance”
I’ll be singing “Happy Birthday” the next time I have a chance. I don’t care if I hit all the notes.