Farmers like to sing while they work because they think no one can hear them. They especially like to sing on the tractor where the motor noise improves their singing by drowning out the raw edges of their voices. They also think the motor drowns out their renditions from the neighbors’ ears but just the opposite is true. Their hearty wails carry better than the motor noise and scare cows and neighbors several hundred acres downwind.
My father did not know there were raw edges to his voice. He was as tone deaf as a stump which is probably why his favorite barn song was “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” The first line of this song’s chorus contains probably the most difficult passage to render correctly in all of American music. If you can manage the first seven notes dead on key, a cappella, you are ready for anything Brahms, Mozart, or Handel can throw at you. Dad didn’t know or care if he hit the right exact notes. He just sang because the words of the song expressed his happiness.
If by some miracle, he got through “Oh-What-A-Beautiful” okay, he was sure to murder the first syllable of “Morning,” his voice sliding desperately from one half note to another all over the scale. Every morning, the rest of the family would wait, from other parts of the barn, for him to intone the song, and then we would lapse into fits of laughter as “Morning” came out sounding like the bearings on an old disk that have not been greased for three years.
The best place to sing on the farm is in the silo— in the spring when it is nearly empty. Singing in the shower does not at all compare to it. The round silo walls send the forlorn wailings of the human voice up into the stratosphere with amplification equal to a bank of Fender loudspeakers at a rock concert. A friend likes to tell about a hired man he once had named Zeke. As so many hired men used to be, Zeke was shy and quiet most of the time, without much concourse with the rest of society. It was difficult to pry more than two words at a time out of him. The only place he was seen regularly other than the farm was in church. Then he discovered the marvelous way that a silo could increase the decibel count of any sound, especially the human voice. In the silo, years of pent up silence and bashfulness fell from him. He could see no other human, nor could other humans see him. He figured he was alone with God. He liked the hymns he had heard and memorized in church since childhood, especially the Latin ones, no doubt because of the sonorous roll of the Latin vowels when emanating from a silo measuring 20 feet in diameter by 50 feet tall.
One morning, my friend likes to recall, a salesman arrived at the farm and came striding across the barnyard, his mind no doubt full of visions of the wondrous corn planter he thought he was about to sell. About then, Zeke, alone in the silo, cut loose with the ancient hymn, “Panis Angelicus.” The sound roared up the silo, scattering both the pigeons roosting in the top of the wall and the clouds above.
Fit panis hominuu-uuum
Da-aaat panis coelicus
The salesman stopped dead in his tracks, looking up, down, sideways. Surely some wild beast or mad bull was penned in that barn someplace. He started backing away and when the awful bellowing did not stop, broke into a run, jumped in his car, and roared away.
I like to think that farmers sing because for the most part, farming is a happy, satisfying life. Many days, the morning IS beautiful, the corn IS as high as an elephant’s eye, the old weeping willow IS laughing at me, and all the sounds of the earth ARE like music. YES!