- I Love You. You Have Nice Hands
When I was singing I always wanted to disappear so the audience could hear the song better and not have to look at me. I almost felt I'd achieved this on some occasions.—Anne Briggs
I couldn't see who or where it was coming from, but I heard a disembodied voice in Target intoning, "In the summer I like to lie in the sun and watch the birds." It was a gentle, meditative voice, a voice that sounded as if someone advised it, Voice, use your inside voice.
A few years ago, in New York City you could walk into an art gallery, pick up a phone hanging from the wall, and listen to C. D. Wright's voice reading from her book-length poem One Big Self; if you listened hard enough, you'd hear cicadas' voices underneath. Those were our cicadas.
A guitarist I know who grew up in Kentucky—my good friend's father—is sensitive to voices. Innocuous, piped-in singing at the department store can set him off, or inconsequential conversation in a restaurant dining room. The sound of loud, raucous female laughter incenses him. The sound of barbershop quartets makes him cringe. Bluegrass, the music of Appalachia, causes a strange reaction—uncomfortable laughing, a quick rerouting of the playlist so it comes back around again to English Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch, Canadian Joni Mitchell, Californian Tom Waits. But their music is only by small degrees removed from southeastern Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee. For some of us these are the throbbing places and it's best not to listen.
("Come all you fair maidens take warning of me, / Don't place your affections on a sycamore tree, / For the top it will wither, and the roots they will die, / And if I'm forsaken, I know not for why.") [End Page 48]
My great-great-grandfather, they say, stood on his porch in Kentucky with a shotgun when his daughter stepped off to go walking with boys. This same woman indulged my mother when she was a girl with two matinees in one day and all the ice cream she could eat. When you grow up poor and come into cash, you can go one of two ways: stingy or lavish. Great-grandmother Steelman, they say, was lavish.
We'd spent all day in the cemetery looking for my mother's dead grandparents, then in the mausoleum, her dead mother. I was pregnant and exhausted, so eventually I just sat down on a bench and let her walk back and forth, back and forth, until I heard her call out cheerfully, "Found her!" Then I got up again.
I know the infinitesimal modulations of her voice intimately. I sensed in it forced friendliness and an underlying panic. It was from her I got my soprano, my particular way of speaking to small children and animals. A work colleague, seeing me with my daughter, once said something like, "Now your voice has a purpose."
"Here's where the funeral was," my mom said, and pointed to a little chapel built into a wall's recess. I laid my palm down on a patch of wood wainscoting. Organic material, some say, soaks up energy and holds it. Everything cries. Hear it?
When I put my children to bed, I turn out the lights and try not to sing or even speak. I avoid eye contact. I rock them in silence, lay them down, slip out.
I tend to sing idly through my day instead—snatches of things I've heard, things I've made up or changed to suit whatever task: diaper changing, bottle-warming, dressing. Singing soothes all of us, distracts everyone. I insert the kids' names and the names of our cats. I let words or phrases I hear nudge out tunes I carry around from my childhood with my mother who does exactly the same thing—constant, random singing. She likely picked up the tic from her own mother or even her biological father she met only once as a grownup and who she found to be, like her...