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She Sang Amazing Grace

September 14, 2009

Glenda Fay sang in church yesterday. She sang “Amazing Grace” during the offering, and it won’t leave my head.

It was that beautiful.

She can’t read music—doesn’t know a lick about music. I’ve heard her try to practice and she has trouble with high notes, hasn’t got a clue what it means to switch to a lower octave to compensate, and doesn’t even understand what a “key” is, let alone how to request an appropriate one.

Part of me was curious about how this black woman from the hills of North Carolina, with no musical training, would mesh with the little old white lady from Reno who plays the organ at church. Would they be able to communicate?

Before the service, Edith, the organist, played a couple bars of “Amazing Grace” and Glenda said, “That’s too high for me. Can you play it lower?” Edith said, “I think so,” and proceeded to do so. So much for that.

They say music cuts right through communication barriers. Apparently so.

I’ve heard her sing before and this time was no different. Somehow, when the time comes, 5’5” Glenda, with no musical training or vocal lessons, opens her mouth and huge, earthy, beautiful sounds come out, perfectly on pitch. She freestyles like a professional and even manages to hit the high notes.

Unlike her, I have musical training. My parents paid for music lessons when I was little and I spent three years in my junior high school band playing a trumpet. So I can read music, understand keys, and I’m guessing I have about a 20% chance of hitting any given note correctly during a hymn. It might be lower than that—I’ve been told that I highly overestimate my singing abilities.

So I have trouble grasping what I heard yesterday. I suspect it’s a blessing from God, but who am I to say?

It’s important to understand something here: Glenda is a lifelong UAW factory worker for General Motors sneaking up on retirement age, who never did any singing in her life until recently when I happened to hear her singing along with a Gladys Knight CD and said, “Whoa! That’s your voice?”

Listening to her sing in church made me feel like some guy who found a Rembrandt in the attic.

The congregation raved. The pastor even changed the programmed service, shortening the final hymn and requesting that Glenda come back up and sing the last verse of “Amazing Grace” as the benediction. After the service, a young woman asked for a hug and said she wanted the sound of Glenda singing to be the first thing she hears when she gets to heaven.

“I’m serious,” she said. (Cynical me, I’m thinking: “Doesn’t that mean Glenda has to die first?” Maybe this attitude is why it wasn’t me that God blessed with singing ability.)

A while later I heard the organist apologizing to Glenda in the lobby. “I’m sorry, but at one point I just started listening and forgot to play. I said to myself, ‘Edith, you’re supposed to be playing!’”

I have all kinds of stuff I need to write about President Obama, healthcare, Joe Wilson, ACORN, and other dastardly things—stuff that is bursting to get out of me. After all, this is supposed to be a political website.

But all I keep thinking about is Glenda Fay singing in church, how beautiful it was, and how good it made everybody feel. Maybe this was a nice reminder for me that no matter what man does in his affairs, God’s blessings transcend.

The political stuff can wait a couple days.



From Reno, Nevada, USA


Followups:

May 2, 2010

Wintley Phipps: Amazing Grace - The Black Notes. This YouTube video from January 4, 2007, was sent to me by my cousin Patti. It has interesting information about Negro spirituals in general and Amazing Grace in particular, plus a beautiful rendition of the song by Wintley Phipps.


October 14, 2009 - Wow!!! Now I am mad at myself for not insisting she sing while we were in Seattle... I almost had her talked into it. I think you should record her for YouTube so we can all hear her beautiful voice!!! - Mary, Ohio

J.P. replies: She's already on YouTube, but it's for fishing, not singing: Glenda Fay in "The Big One"


September 15, 2009 - Your best column yet. I agree wholeheartedly. The woman is a blessing even when she's NOT singing! :) - Bree, Seattle
J.P. replies: No, I'm the one who provides a blessing by not singing.


September 15, 2009 - I know what you mean J.P. I know her and love her and I am absolutely amazed by that voice. A few months ago, we lost a brother and when we arrived home for the funeral, we had to find someone to sing at the services. After much coaxing, Glenda agreed to sing. I was not prepared for the sounds that came out of her mouth, none of us were. When she sang, I could hear sniffling from the rows behind me and I turned to look. The whole freaking church was crying, OK, so it was a funeral, but we were not sad that my brother was gone, he had suffered so much...her voice, I felt helped me to feel ok with it. She sang "How Great Thou Art", with no microphone. Sitting in that church, I realized what an awesome gift she has been given, another awesome gift! I thank God for her every day, my gift, my twin sister...Glenda. - Star, Tennessee
J.P. replies: Hey, leave the overwrought, sentimental, emotional writing to me.

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