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October 18, 2003
Louis Armstrong toured what was then the Belgian Congo in 1955. Then as now, the country was embroiled in a terrible civil war. But both sides stopped fighting to go and hear Louis Armstrong play.

It was Christmas Eve, 1914. German and Allied soldiers faced each other across the yards of blank no-man's-land that separated the two rows of trenches. There was no fighting right then; the starry night was silent. Then someone from the German side began to sing "Stille Nacht." More German voices piled onto the lone tenor, and from the allied trenches came still more voices, in English: "Silent, Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright." When the music died away, the men came up out of their hiding places, deep as graves, and shared treats from home: biscuits and sausages, cheeses, Christmas puddings, cakes, cigarettes. Young, they were. The best of their generation. Some of them played a game of football between the rows of barbed wire. Most of them would be dead by the time another Christmas came around.

Command on both sides put a stop to those impromptu musical evenings, at once. Of course. It never happened again. That's no way to condition a fighting man. He can't afford to see his enemy as a man like himself. To sing his songs. Not while they're shooting.

Enslaved people in the American South sang spirituals that their masters thought were about going to heaven. And they were about going to heaven. But they were also about going to Ohio: "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home." The wife smiled at the husband up in the big house when they heard the sweet singing: "Oh, listen -- they're just happy by nature, aren't they, dear?" But the chariot is the big dipper. It is low on the horizon at dusk in the spring, when a person might have a prayer of getting to the river. Leave early in the evening, so they won't miss you until you're already twelve hours from here. Comin' for to carry me home.

It was a British wag who first sang a one-verse "Yankee Doodle." It was an insult to the colonists' lack of proper uniforms: "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni." A macaroni was an Italian fop, a male fashion plate. The Americans seized on the insult and turned it to satire, making their rusticity a virtue. And, in a guerrilla army, rusticity is a virtue. As the outcome of that contest would soon make clear to all concerned.

The Taliban banned the playing of music, public or private, except for unaccompanied religious chant. No musical instruments allowed. There were bonfires of musical instruments. Dancing, too. The arts were as completely veiled as the women, in a fear of beauty we cannot understand. No music. It makes things too possible.

Let's sing more in church for the next few months of conflict in our branch of the body of Christ. Let's have some extra hymns. Let's choose our favorites. Let's sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Let's sing "Simple Gifts." How about "Come Down, O Love Divine?" Can we sing "Ubi Caritas" again?" And "Dona Nobis Pacem?" "Blest Be the Tie That Binds?" "I Come With Joy to Meet My Lord?" Let's sing hymns that cry out for harmony, and let our voices settle lightly, one upon another upon another: not all singing the same part, necessarily, but coming together in a beauty that reminds us: With God, nothing will be impossible.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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