April 17, 2009

Songs of Youth

Category: News — Ira @ 5:50 pm


“And they called back to him forgotten memories: Old songs, old faces,
old memories, and all strange, wordless, and unspoken things men know
and live and feel, and never find a language for…”

—Thomas Wolfe

I didn’t think I’d go at first. When my Amish friends invited me to the youth singing at their home a few weeks ago. Scheduled for the following Sunday night. I wouldn’t know anyone. And everyone would stare. Deep down, I’m really a pretty shy guy. So I told them thanks, but I probably wouldn’t attend. I’d keep it in mind in case anything changed, I assured them. That’s what you always say, when trying to maneuver out of an invitation to somewhere you don’t particularly want to go.

Sunday night rolled around, and I had second thoughts. Got a hankering to go. Or a notion, as my Dad would say. The singing started at 7:30. I could slip in a little late. So I changed into “going away” clothes and headed out.

My friends live only a few miles from my house. As I approached, dusk was settling. Line after line of gray/black buggies sat parked neatly in a nearby field. Lancaster buggies. Rectangular boxes with distinct rounded tops. I inched into the drive, drove Big Blue into the field and parked beside a temporary volleyball court.

I heard the soaring voices as I approached the shop where they were singing. Walked up to a back door and slipped in unseen. Took a chair behind the men. The shop was long and low. Two bench-tables had been set up. Girls sat on one side of each table, boys on the other. Benches lined the remainder of the floor behind each table, benches filled with row after row of Amish youth. Girls on one side of the room, boys on the other.

They were singing German songs. Fast tunes, with some English choruses. The music swelled and rolled and echoed from the shop’s low ceiling. Perfect four part harmony. About 150 youth, singing their hearts out. Someone noticed me and handed me a song book. I found the page and sang along. Scanned the room around me.

Everyone was singing. The youth, the married men, the women. Even the children. Everyone was absorbed in the moment, or so it seemed. They were a part of this system. This group. This community. And suddenly I was struck by a deep brooding sense of loss and sadness.

They belonged.

I didn’t. I was an intruder.

The song ended. Another was promptly announced and someone started it. Off they soared again, the swelling rolls of harmony pealing through the building and outside into the night.

It was breathtakingly, hauntingly beautiful and it took me back. I sat there, silent, lost in the moment and in the mist of memories from the past.

Back twenty-seven years or so, to one of a thousand summer nights in Bloomfield, Iowa. A small Amish community at that time, consisting of two districts. The youth all gathered as one group for the Sunday evening suppers and singings.

They were a diverse group, assembled from a wide swath of Amish communities, big and small. Bloomfield was just a young pup of a settlement in those days. Families had moved in from fairly progressive places like Kokomo, Indiana and Arthur, Illinois. And from such regressive areas as Fortuna, Missouri and Buchanan County, Iowa. And every shade between.

It made for an interesting mix of young people. They developed into groups, loose factions, as those with similar interests gravitated to each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A tall lithe young man walked among them. Dark complexion. Wild shocks of curly, coal black hair. Always a ready smile. Intelligent. Good natured. Quick to laugh. Outgoing, intensely loyal to his friends.

His brooding brown eyes absorbed all that went on around him. The things he saw and lived and felt, he considered in his heart and carefully stored in the recesses of his memory.

There was sadness too, in those eyes, and a hint of something restless and lost. He was a part of this group, these youth. These were his people. Yet, he sometimes felt detached, alone.

These were his people, but he knew there was so much more beyond this world, out-side its secure borders. And its ancient ways. Out there, waiting for him. He’d left once or twice, short spasmatic excursions into that other world, then returned. Tasted the forbidden fruit for a time, before nostalgia and homesickness drowned out reason and turned his face again to the place from whence he came.

But he found home wasn’t quite the same. It would never be again. Could never be again. And he could never truly return. Even as he participated in the community, its life and customs. He loved the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging. But, wherever he was at any given moment, the grass always seemed greener on the other side. When he was home, he heard the siren’s song of the outside world. When he followed that song into that outside world, the memories of home tugged at his heart and pulled him back.

Even so, he lived in a perpetual state of vague undefined optimism. He would live forever; he had no grasp, no concept of the rapidly accelerating flow of the river of time, and the years. The nebulous dreams, the joys, the pain, the turmoil of youth stirred in him. Always the thought, the dream, the knowledge, the great promise of a shining tomorrow. Where the intense passions and desires that burned in him would be soothed, requited.

Always he grasped, with tenuous grip the anticipation of something, something great and grand and fine. Something beyond. Always tomorrow, with its visions of splendor and a shining city. Always the dreams of adventures in strange and distant lands, to come home again after wandering the far country, tired, satiated, ready to settle down in peace and solitude in the quiet land. Always a brighter future of happiness and contentment, always just beyond the tip of his outstretched hand.

But that tomorrow never came. It would never come.

And so he mingled in, immersed himself in the vibrant details of life around him.

He enjoyed the singings, mostly. The buggies clattering as they gathered, around 6:30 or so, on a Sunday night. Rattling steel rimmed wheels on the gravel roads. The horses unhitched and tied up in the barn or at flatbed wagons strewn with chunks of hay. Small knots of youth drifting toward the house, where supper would be served. Hanging with his buddies as they all gathered in. The house father calling everyone to attention, all heads bowed for silent prayer.

Then the serious business of eating the evening meal with his friends. A long bench-table set up in the kitchen, laden with large pots of starchy foods. Mashed potatoes, noodles, some form of hamburger-helper laced meat, baked beans, potato salad and bread. And they filed slowly past and dipped great globs of sustenance onto plastic picnic trays. Walked outside to sit under shade trees or benches in the yard, and wolf their food.

Then dessert and coffee and hanging out, the swaggering boisterous talk, the local gossip, who was dating who, swapping tall tales, or adventures about hunting and fishing and trapping, or work about the farm.

Sometimes they played volleyball after supper, over makeshift nets, with rubber hoses as boundary lines, or baler twine. Shouting, leaping, hair flying as they played. Not a whole lot of strategy involved; everyone just merrily whacking the ball over the net.

As eight o’clock approached, a quick trip to the barn for “business,” then everyone standing about combing and patting down unruly heads of hair. He and his friends often filed in early, so as to grab the treasured back bench against the wall. Two reasons: they’d have a wall to lean against, and they could get away with more monkeyshines, unnoticed in the back. Bloomfield didn’t use tables at the singings, just row after row of benches. A row of boys, a row of girls, a row of boys, a row of girls.

At eight sharp, the first song was announced. And they sang. He didn’t consider himself much of a singer (he wasn’t), but he enjoyed it. Some nights, it was fun and inspiring. Other times, it was something less. All depended on how the evening started. And on the room’s acoustics. A small room with low ceilings, the singing swelled and echoed. A large room or heaven forbid, singing outside, and it just did not go so well. The first forty-five minutes they sang German songs, then English songs for the final half. In four part harmony, a practice Aylmer had never allowed, and one that was almost banned in Bloomfield.

And the minutes crept by, and they sang and sang. The old classic hymns. And the more edgy stuff. “No, no it’s not an easy road.” “You gotta walk this lonesome valley.” And it seemed to him sometimes, as the harmony swelled around him and his spirit soared and he consciously reveled in the mellow waves of song, that he could never leave, never forsake this ancient heritage, this priceless legacy. That no sacrifice would be too great to draw these things inside and keep them in his heart.

And the evening passed, and 9:30 approached. Someone announced and led the parting song. After its last notes faded, the young men got up from the benches and walked out single file. The singing was over for one more week.

They milled about outside. Socialized and chatted for awhile. Those who were dating were the first to scurry away, the young men to hitch up their horses. Each one pulled up to the walkway, where his date would hurry out, wrapped in a black shawl, head covered in a bonnet, and step up into the buggy. And off they clattered. In Bloomfield, courting couples tended to leave post haste for the girl’s house, because the date was decreed over at midnight.

And one by one, he and his friends hitched up their horses and left. Out onto the graveled or blacktopped roads, a long convoy of buggies with blinking orange lights.

When there was no opposing traffic, they sometimes raced their horses. Turned the highway into a drag strip. The challenger pulled up close behind, then lurched out to pass. And the challenged gradually released his reins, the horses opened up into full stride. Side by side, at breakneck speed, the buggies rocking dangerously, the horses straining with every possible ounce of muscle and sweat. Until one or the other pulled ahead and the loser conceded. Sometimes a car approached in the distance; the challenger was expected to pull back in line.

Then onto the gravel road, and up and down the hills surrounding his home. And eventually up the half mile long lane to the house. He and his brothers, laughing and discussing the day’s events. Scoffing at this thing, chortling at that. One of them led the steaming horse to barn or pasture, and they all gathered around the kitchen table for a few minutes, snacking on whatever goodies they could scavenge, before retiring for the night.

This was who he was. In time, he would conclude this was all there was.

And it was not enough.

I sang along again that night with the Lancaster youth. The first time in more than a decade that I’d attended a Sunday evening singing. Around nine, the parting hymn, and it was over. The young people sat around and visited, the few I knew came and shook my hand in welcome. Soon the buggies trickled out and headed down the road.

And I sat there for a spell and visited with my hosts. Thanked them for their gracious hospitality. Someone asked if the singing that night had stirred in me old memories of my youth. I nodded.

“It was so long ago,” I said.



  1. This brings back memories of all the singings I attended during my years in Aylmer. For the last couple of years I have longed, wanted to return for just one Sunday evening singing. I want to see if everything is still done to the T. I want to see a long table of youth singing. I want to see their eyeballs roll toward the opposite side of the table. I want to figure out who has an interest in whom. I want to see a pinched mouthed adult who is frowning at a few youth. I want to see and experience an Aylmer singing just one more time…

    Comment by Katie Troyer — April 17, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

  2. I didn’t know that adults attended the singings. I’m guessing they are the chaperones or something similar? Ugh for them (the teens). ha ha I wonder how many of those boys are thinking the same things that you were thinking in your day? Or even the girls? I think the “shoulda” “woulda” “coulda” hits all of us from time to time. The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost IS your life, you know it? We all face choices and we all live with the choices we make – and we all “sigh” – whether it’s a sigh of regret or a sigh of relief, or just a plain sigh of wonder.

    That was a neat post – very introspective. Thanks for another week ~

    Comment by Bethrusso — April 17, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

  3. Brings to mind the words of Johnny Cash’s song….

    ” . . .Then I headed down the streets and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin,’
    And it echoed through the canyon like the disappearin’ dreams of yesterday. . .

    . . .Cause there’s somethin’ in a Sunday
    That makes a body feel alone.”

    Comment by Amos - Leola — April 17, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  4. You’d have to have been Amish sometime in your life to fully appreciate this writing. We still have singings in our homes, but way different, smaller, more loosely organized. If someone feels like sharing something, they do, but some of those old songs will stay with me as long as I live. “Ich kom nicht huet zu der Hochzeit” was one of my favorites.

    You always knew in your heart where the youth were truly welcomed, and where they were watched for any tiny mismove, one place I think of now (and there were many others) was Monroe and Mary Hershberger, Bloomfield. They always happily opened their home and were great hosts. The reason probably I mentioned them is because of her sudden passing last December. Sitting there at the funeral, that was one thing I truly remembered about her, she would mingle and visit with everyone, a gracious hostess, and we loved to go there for the singing.

    Comment by Rachel — April 18, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  5. Your post sure brought back memories. “Back then” will always be a part of who I am.



    Comment by R. H. — April 18, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  6. Wow, what a poignant post. Brought back a lot of memories as a child way back when. I still enjoy occasionally to sit and listen to the Amish youth of Kalona sing. It seems they have maintained a love for the old, and also have embraced some of the new songs. I often wondered who stepped outside the line to listen to the Chuck Wagon Gang long enough to learn their songs and then introduce them to the whole group.

    Keep up the good work. I really enjoy the reminiscing posts.


    Comment by Ray Y. — April 18, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  7. Ira,

    I am beginning to realize that it is not just that you can write. You can “feel.” And are willing to express it honestly. Not an easy task. Your honesty helps me recognize this.

    You have a great heritage. Now, I married into an Amish-Mennonite family, and there are echoes of this rooted, Christian, cultural outworking in their social groups as well. It’s not “Old Order” I know (and so do they!). For me, courting was something of a cross-cultural experience, but in my case not an unwelcome one. I still find it a legitimate expression of the Christian teaching. Not the only possible one (and that’s where I differ from some of them), but one, for sure. And I see some really good fruit. My own non-AM children benefit (as they also do from other Christian traditions).

    I want to relate one evening, which may give another lens for the appreciation you express; a perspective from someone who did not grow up in a “traditional” culture.

    After coming into a personal relationship with the Lord, partly through a Gideon’s Bible given out on college campus, I attended an evening in which a group from the “Old World” was sharing their ethnic heritage. Some place west of Russia, I think. It was not a Christian thing. Just something allowed on a liberal arts campus. The group introduced one dance by saying this had been passed down for generations, through hundreds of years. As they moved in the ancient rhythms of a celebration of life … I wept. It came from deep within. Surprised at the emotion, I reflected that as a son of America’s melting pot non-culture, our media-formed, rootless “flow” —that there was something missing that comes with A Culture. Granted, there is a cost to maintaining such a culture. Intrinsically, rejecting that which would change it too much. (Roots support branches and new growth. Else it is a different plant.)

    But I found it interesting…surprising…enlightening…that I had a natural nostalgia for what I had never known. You are blessed to have experienced what your family and community provided for your nurture. Thanks for sharing it.

    Comment by LeRoy — April 18, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  8. Great post Ira! Several years ago my parents secretly invited me to church and singing. It was great to sit in with the youth again. It brought back many memories, some good, some bad. All in all I enjoyed it.

    Comment by LAVERN YODER — April 19, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  9. You CAN so sing…I have fond memories of buzzing along in your old T-Bird, you singing along with Vern Gosdin.

    Comment by Dorothy — April 19, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  10. This was expressed beautifully. Pretty much everyone who is out in the world can relate.

    Comment by Katie H. — April 19, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  11. “While going down life’s weary road..” kept playing in my head while reading this post, up until you wrote “No, no it’s not an easy road.” Well, no it’s not, but there isn’t one on earth no matter where you end up, Amish, Mennonite, wherever.

    Comment by Monica — April 20, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  12. Matthew 11 does tell us that if we yoke with Christ, it is easy.

    Comment by DLY — April 20, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  13. Since we are 3 fold creatures, it all depends on which part one is talking about. [post 11 & 12 ]

    He never does promise those that are His an easy life in the flesh. Rather otherwise.
    There is the principal of… we simply cannot lay up treasures where moth and rust do not corrupt without going thru tests/trials/sufferings here.

    Consider the life of Jesus. Our example.
    Hated, rejected/despised of men. Misunderstood time and time again. Told He was of the devil.
    They got so fed up with Him they thot they would get rid of Him by killing Him.
    Then towards the last there, there was the time when He was in so much agony over what He was facing that He sweated drops of blood.

    Or Paul. His life here on earth certainly was very hard/difficult. Almost beyond our comprehension in today’s world. Stoned and dragged out of the city and left for dead. Beaten with rods 3 times. In shipwrecks, perils for his very life…and on and on it goes.
    Yet, it is those very things that he went thru, that are going to make him very ‘rich’ in the world to come.

    Status of a saved person;
    Spirit is at peace. [most of the time] It is the spirit of a saved person that wouldn’t trade salvation for anything in the world;
    Soul is going thru a transformation from being a ‘natural/carnal/sensual/fleshly’ one to becoming spiritual. It doesn’t really care for this transformation….but thru the pressures/influence of a quickened spirit….it will go thru it.
    It is switching from the status of living according to the ‘wisdom from below’ to living according to the ‘wisdom from above’.
    So a lot of agonizing is going on there;
    Flesh is as lost, rebellious, wanting to go it’s own way, as it ever was, and is still under the sentence of death.

    So 2 out of the 3 are not having it ‘easy’.
    And even one’s spirit can go thru agonizing times…at times.

    We have the principal of ‘night and day’ set before us.
    Genesis lets us know that from the time of the ‘salvation’ of the earth [light spoken into it’s existence] to it’s becoming ‘very good’, there were many ‘nights’ involved in the process.
    Night time is a period of darkness…preceding the coming of light.

    The earth could not progress from day 1 to day 2 without going thru a period of darkness.

    We simply cannot have it easy here and be rich in the world to come.
    Oh, i wish we could.
    But, i didn’t get to set things up the way i think! :)
    For some reason He saw fit to set it up otherwise.

    Comment by fritz — April 21, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  14. Last night, I did some driving for some friends who needed to connect with a bus back to Indiana. I purposely drove through the settlement where they used to live–past doddy and mommy’s first Upper Valleys home, then past their own home farm where their sons now live, then past their retirement farmette. Two homes we passed were hosting singings. One had a small group of youngie, but the other was full to brimming. It was quite dark, the fireflies were illuminating the corn and tobacco fields, and the sounds of the young voices floated uphill to our slowly passing car. I think everyone is young again when they hear those corny old songs–A Tramp on the Street, Silver Sandals, Standing on the Promises. What’s the opposite of youngie, Ira? Altie?

    Comment by Katie H. — July 27, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

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