I was sitting quietly in church on Sunday, minding my own business and picking fuzz from my sweater, when the choir stood up to sing their song for the day. Lately, the director who is a brass pal of mine has been choosing old gospel tunes from the early 1900s and having his choir sing them a capella. I like that he keeps the old traditions alive when they otherwise might be discarded. Their song this week was No Tears in Heaven, and when they started singing, I couldn't help but mouth the words. I grew up singing that song and remembered almost all of the lyrics.
My grandparents in Alabama in the 1970s
When my mother was a girl in the 1930s, her father was asked to lead the singing one Sunday afternoon for one of those all-day occasions with dinner on the ground and lots and lots of music. He agreed and decided to bring his family along as the special music for the day. They had formed a quartet with my mother and her siblings, and my grandfather on bass. The man had a booming voice that would scare the hound dogs out back if he wanted it to. They stood up front and belted out their first performance number—No Tears In Heaven. From then on, the family was a feature at tent meetings and church gatherings for miles around.
My grandparents kept a mismatched collection of old yellowed and mildewed song books, the kind with the shaped notes and four-part harmony. When we would visit them in the summers, I liked to plunk out some of those songs on their piano. It had a twangy sound to it, partly from age and neglect and dust and cigarette smoke and partly from humidity—those Alabama summers can be real soakers. I have a distinct memory of playing No Tears In Heaven one afternoon, and that song brought my grandfather in from the kitchen to join me. He stood behind me and sang with his aging but still strong bass voice, and I nearly cried, ironically. This was after my grandmother had died. Granddaddy never stopped missing her, often sitting in his chair with his head in his hands, and I thought he took the lyrics to heart.
So, when my yankee church that likes to sing contemporary songs and hardly uses the hymn book anymore listened to this traditional gospel tune, I felt a connection to the past, an important connection that needs to be kept alive for future generations. And I have been singing the sentimental old thing to myself every day since. I have sung it here for you—never mind my congested voice and lack of twangy piano and fiddle.