Some time around 1979, my dad, mom, and my dad’s sisters and their spouses formed a gospel singing group called The Family Circle. Lugging around their sound equipment and matching outfits, they sang to gospel music cassettes at assorted church events on the weekends.
Eventually, they upgraded from a van pulling a trailer to a full-size coach bus decked out with bunk beds, a kitchen and dining area, and a bathroom. Since my grandfather owned a campground in New Hampshire and spent winters in Florida, The Family Circle ended up driving that coach all along the Eastern seaboard. We called it “the bus.”
I came along in 1982. By the time I was four or five, I had my own song, called My Mommy Told Me Something. I don’t remember singing it, to be honest, and at least in the one video recording I saw of myself flanked by my cousins in front of a church, I mostly stood there mute and stared at the congregation, microphone in hand.
My memories of time on the bus are a ragtag collection of snippets: Uncle Larry microwaving Lebanon balogna sandwiches, the teasing over Coke versus Pepsi, learning the “Fifty-Nifty United States” song when travelling during the school year, lots of sunburned shoulders, getting foot massages from Aunt Diana (a reflexologist), watching Top Gun in the back bedroom, sleeping on the bottom bunk on the right side across from my cousin Justin, the youngest of the group.
And, of course, all the singing.
Interestingly, what I cherish most is not our time spent singing in churches, though I love love loved it and knew by heart (still do) every song my parents sang.
No, it’s the bus singing, as we drove hour after hour after hour.
For example, since there were twelve of us (before my younger cousin Rebekah came along), we each were assigned a “day” of the Twelve Days of Christmas, in descending order, by age. My dad was the oldest, so he was “twelve drummers drumming,” and I’m pretty sure was happy he only had to chime in once. I was the second-youngest, so I was always “two turtledoves.” We kids relished bellowing out our individual parts, being especially silly. My cousin Brian became a pro at ‘Five Goooooooold Rings!”
And then–and these were my favorite–there were the old-school, silly campfire songs.
Plant a watermelon on my grave, and let the juice... <slurp>... slip through! * Oh you can't get to heaven... in daddy's shoes... cuz God don't allow... no big canoes... * I'm a Ford, I'm a Ford, I'm a Ford, honk-honk, rattle-rattle, beep-beep... * Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side... you'll feel no pain, as we drive you insane, so just keep on...
And many, many more. I love these songs. I still sing them. A lot.
After J and I got married and were living in Texas, we came home to Pennsylvania for a brief visit. I think it was over my birthday, and my dad asked me what I wanted. A family sing-a-long, I replied. No joke. I wanted everyone to get together, my aunts and uncles, grown cousins, everyone, and I wanted us to sing the old songs. I wanted J to hear them for himself.
And I wanted to hear them again.
I’ve since learned from J, who also comes from a family that sings quite a bit, that my family’s version of songs often includes secret tag lines and extra choruses not typically sung. For example, after the normal “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” song, apparently most people just sing the “Fee, fie, fiddly-I-O” chorus. I’m sure you all know what I mean.
My family adds on something else completely unrelated after that:
Under the bamboo, underneath the bamboo tree, if it's good enough for you, my darling, it's good enough for one-two-three-four, and when we're married, happy we'll be, under the bamboo, underneath the bamboo tree.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, we add,
If you'll be M-I-N-E-mine, I'll be T-H-I-N-E-thine, and I will L-O-V-E-love you all the T-I-M-E-time. You are the B-E-S-T-best of all the R-E-S-T-rest and I will L-O-V-E-love you all the T-I-M-E-time, rack 'em up, stack 'em up, hang 'em on the line, match in the gas tank, boom boom.
This is by far my favorite song to sing to Little Bean. (Okay, maybe second favorite, after the Arky-Arky song.)
Which is really why I started writing this post. I’ve been cogitating about how the songs we sing to our children say a lot about the communities we’re from. So more on that over the next few days.
*By the way, this post was really fun to write because I called my mom to ask her some questions about The Family Circle’s early days, called my dad to find out if he had old pictures and records of the group, called my brother to ask what silly songs he remembered…