“Music is God's gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to Earth, the only art of Earth we take to Heaven.” - Walter Savage Landor
I first sang in front of a group of people when I was about 11 years old. I sang with another girl a year or two older whose mother was teaching our small choir group at Beach Baptist Chapel on St. Joe Beach. I only remember the feeling of fear, and the comfort of knowing that my friend was beside me and her mom was in front of us, coaching us through Rock of Ages. I don’t remember how we did, but that wasn’t the point. The ice had been broken; my first time was done. I was a singer.
I stayed in youth choir throughout middle school and high school at church, and somehow our sweet leader and friend India Miller convinced me that I was a good singer. I began, with her encouragement, to take the occasional solo verse in a song the choir was doing, and continued growing as a singer from there. She would sit at the piano with me and play each note for me to make sure I got it. Then we’d sing it together, her beautiful voice harmonizing with my melody. I loved it.
I moved on to sing many solos in church, on college mission teams, and later at weddings and funerals, as well, considering it an honor to be a part of those important, emotion-filled days for families I cared about. I sang with my friend Regina, I sang with my beautiful little sister Sherrin (who turned out to be a much stronger singer than I, by the way), and I sang more and more frequently with India. I enjoyed every moment of those magical musical partnerships.
As wonderful as those experiences were, though, nothing beats the feeling of singing harmony with a larger group of singers. My favorite moments involved standing around the piano in the empty church on Sunday afternoon with a handful of women and men, harmonizing on a beautiful old hymn or Southern gospel tune. Songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” ”In the Sweet By and By,” and ”Without Him” were some of our standbys. We’d sing to practice for the church service, then we’d keep going just for the pure pleasure of singing together.
The feeling I get when singing harmony with a group like that, or even just when harmonizing in the car driving around with my sister, more recently, is so special. It’s uniquely fulfilling to have the voices sort of wrap around each other to make a new, beautiful sound. I consider it a special gift from God that it happens when we all do our part in the song, and stay in step with one another. Something new and wonderful happens. Seems like there’s a life lesson in there somewhere, doesn’t it?
Years have gone by since I last sang harmony with those good folks at Beach Baptist Chapel, but I had an enjoyable flashback to those experiences a few nights ago. Sherrin and I had gone to a little town in East Texas called Ben Wheeler, where there was a tribute concert featuring artists playing the songs of legendary Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, God rest his soul. We enjoyed the concert, which featured six artists playing their guitars and singing their favorite Van Zandt songs: ”Pancho and Lefty,” ”If I Needed You,” ”Tecumseh Valley,” and other greats.
After the show, we were invited to step outside and join those performers around the blazing fire pit as they continued to play and sing. Of course we did that, being lovers of both music and campfires. We listened to the men play their favorites by various artists, and then one of them said, “hey, let’s do a singalong!” and he started playing I’ll Fly Away, and segued into Will the Circle Be Unbroken. As we joined him on the songs, a good 20 voices or so, I felt those same ethereal feelings as our voices harmonized and were carried to Heaven on that night’s chilly breeze. It was a gift to revisit those sweet memories and to sing with that group of new folks, too; a special night, all around.
I share this story simply because I was reminded of some really important things because of that experience. I was reminded that a church family can be important in the encouragement of young men and women just beginning to figure out what they’re good at. I was reminded that even in a world fraught with unrest and worry over politics, Wall Street, and strange new viruses, people can still gather together around a fire, forget those concerns for a little while, and just sing together under the stars. It’s important for us all to stay connected to music, to our common human-ness, and to each other. Somehow, music helps us do that.
I hope you find yourself singing today. Sing with your spouse, your kids, your friends, or your radio. Just sing. Have a bonfire, a campfire, or a fire in the fireplace, if you can, and sing some old songs that make you remember good things as you stand around it. Remember joy and remember loving your neighbor. It’s better than worrying, any day.
Just in case you’re hungry after all that singing, have a nice batch of my friend Robbie’s campfire beans ready to go. They’re full of flavor and will fill you right up in the best possible way. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
by Robbie Shoults, Bear Creek Smokehouse
1/2 pound diced smoked bacon
One yellow bell pepper, chopped
One purple onion, chopped
Two jalapeņo peppers, seeded and chopped
Three cloves of fresh garlic, minced
Three 15 ounce cans of pinto beans
One medium tomato, chopped
One can of chicken broth, or your favorite beer
2 tablespoons of Guajillo chili powder
1 teaspoon of cumin
Pinch of salt, or to taste
In a large skillet, cook bacon then add bell pepper, onion, jalapeņo pepper, and minced garlic, and stir over medium heat for five minutes.
Add pinto beans, tomatoes, chicken broth or beer, and spices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. You can do this in a cast iron pot over the campfire or on your stovetop, whatever works best for you. Enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who love to hang out around campfires. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.