Four Part Harmony

Last weekend I attended the memorial service for Ed Bryant. I saw a lot of old friends, grieved, laughed an enjoyed Ed. His childhood as a farm boy reminded me of my father’s, not that they had much in common. But it occurred to me that some of the old stories need to be preserved in some fashion.

There’s a unique heritage involved in being a Mennonite, pacifists, who for many years had the second largest relief organization in the world behind the Red Cross. The Mennonites moved over the centuries from eastern Germany and Holland, into Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. All to avoid being forced to fight in the army. At last, after maintaining a cohesive in-group culture through all of that, they came to the United States in the 1870’s. Ironically, with the advent of television and the Internet, automobiles and mechanized farming, the US accomplished what no other country or culture could do from the 1600s on. The US has proved fatal to Mennonite culture. Where once 100 families farmed, now there are three. The churches are gone, the culture is all but a memory.

My grandparents, Henry and Minnie, married in 1920. I’ve written a fictionalized account of their courtship that I hope to publish soon. This one is about my dad, born in 1928. Henry and Minnie had a daughter, Ruth, followed by five boys, my dad being the third. The fourth, Ruben, died in infancy. They’d hoped for a daughter in there somewhere, but ended up with four boys.

Now, part of the Mennonite heritage is music. When I worked for my uncle on the farm during college, the Mennonite church on the country corner had special music each week. “Special” meant that someone, often a young person, organized a song, recruited two to four others, practiced and sang it.  This was an expected part of participating in the fellowship, in the culture, even if you couldn’t carry a tune. It was what you did, starting in High School if not earlier. If you were a Mennonite, you sang. At my cousin’s church here in Denver, the congregation sings acapella four part harmony better than most church choirs.

For my father, they also had the radio. Although, not in the house. In the Depression, they couldn’t afford such luxuries.  But the car had a radio. Thus, the boys would pile in the car, and drain the battery listening to the Carter Family on scratchy AM radio. Thus they learned all the classics, Red River Valley, Working on the Railroad, and all the gospel songs. And, being Mennonites, the four boys sang.  Four part harmony on the Great Plains.

For their entire lives, they sang, at least until their hearing went. So we, my cousins and siblings, grew up on four part harmony too. Recently, my 91 year-old uncle sent us recordings of my dad singing for my uncle’s wedding and at a high school event. He was really, really good. Until the last few years, he sang with these guys:  I only heard them a few times, but I remember having no interesting in listening to them. I wanted to sing with them.

This weekend, with Ed’s memorial, it reminded me of the sadness here too, that the Friesen boys’ four-part-harmony will not be heard again. The oldest died a few years ago and the others can’t hear well enough to hit the notes any more.

And yet the heritage is not gone. Both of my children sing. One writes music. Both will sing all their lives and pass that on to any children they might have.  While the four part harmony is gone, the music lives on.