By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 16, 1933.
“There’s an idea!” shouted Jimmie Frise, jamming on the brakes and bringing our car to a stop. In the night, grouped under a street light in the quiet residential neighborhood where we live were four men.
They were singing Christmas carols.
“Now,” said Jim, “that’s more like! Singing. The waits. There’s a dear old custom for you.”
We wound down the car windows and listened to the four voices singing “Good King Wenceslas.”
“It’s better,” I said, “than a cornet. A cornet wakes all the babies in the block.”
“This,” said Jimmie, “would soothe a child. Even a sick person would love to hear such sweet melody in the night.”
We sat in silence until the little choir concluded the rousing old tune of “King Wenceslas.” Then they dispersed, in four directions, to call at the doors for the artist’s reward.
“Let’s wait and hear them again,” said Jimmie. “I love to hear men singing. Not that new fangled jazz stuff. But a kind of barber shop quartet singing old songs.”
“I’m in no hurry,” I admitted. So we eased back and waited, while the dark figures passed from door to door.
“You know,” said Jimmie, “there is no music in the world as fine as a quartet of men singing old-fashioned songs, like ‘Sweet Adeline’ and ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River.'”
“Yet I don’t care for these concert quartets,” I submitted.
“I know what you mean,” said Jimmie. “Singing deep sea songs, with silly choruses about the sea, the sea, the sea, the sea, THE SEA, in an enormous bass voice, with all the tenors and the baritones repeating the sea, the sea, the sea, the SEEEAAAA!”
“Precisely,” said I.
“Well, all I can say,” said Jimmie, “in these days of sob-sissy tenors, and wuh-duh-duh husky baritones that would have got the hook at any burlesque show when we were boys, nobody knows the beauty of a quartet singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ on all the street corners, under the arc lights, all the way home.”
“The trouble nowadays,” I pointed out, “is that we are all listening to singing, but none of us sing.”
“And the important part of singing,” added Jim, “is not the hearing of it, but the doing of it.”
A Cold Reception
The shadowy figures of the carol singers were still humbly and hesitantly passing from door to door up the block.
“So much that is old is dying,” said Jimmie sadly. “We are removing all our roots out of the solid earth. We no longer play lusty games. We sit in grandstands. We no longer sing. We listen to the radio.”
“These lads here,” I said, “are probably Englishmen. They are likely unemployed. Maybe they can’t afford cornets and musical instruments. But likely they have sung carols over home, down the streets of old towns, like Stow-on-the-Wold, or Glastonbury, or St. Erth.”
“Or,” said Jimmie, remembering the glimpse he had, when he was a lad and a soldier, of a sweet far old land, “Winterbourne Bishop, or Newton Valence, or Pocklington.”
“In these towns,” I went on, “these men have sung carols, down crooked old streets, with lights in leaded windows glowing, and for their singing, the door would open, and they would be handed out sixpence and shortbread and porty wine.”
“And what do they get here?” asked Jim, peering out of the car up the chilly street, where the singers were coming now, slowly, rejoining into a group. “They might get a crack of the door open and a dime handed out in a cold hand. Or they might get nothing. I hear they are making great strides in the study of heart disease. I guess one of the things that is being corrected nowadays is the soft heart.”
“Here they come,” I said.
The four carol singers, all in a group. with hands in pockets and heads down against the winter wind, came walking by.
I stuck my head out the car window.
“Aren’t you going to sing some more?” I called to them.
They halted and looked at us.
“No,” said the tallest one. “Not any more.”
“Don’t they want you to sing?” called Jim.
“They said they didn’t hear us,” said the tall one, who had a bass voice. “When we called at the doors, they didn’t know what we wanted. I says, ‘Something for the carols?’ And they says, ‘What carols?'”
“Didn’t you get anything?”
“Not so far,” said the tall one. The others just pulled their necks down into their collars, and looked impatient to be off.
“Maybe you didn’t sing loud enough,” I suggested.
“The radio drowns us,” said the tall one, adding apologetically, for his companions, “a thing I didn’t think of.”
Appreciation is Curious
“Well, let’s be going, George,” said one of the others dryly.
“Wait a minute, boys,” said Jimmie. “Us two liked your singing. We’ll gladly pay you for it. How would you like to sing that ‘King Wenceslas’ for us once more?”
“If there’s something in it,” said the tall one. The others reluctantly grouped themselves around him. Lifting his hand, George sang a key. They sang:
“Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.”
Quietly they sang, with Jim and me sitting in the car and they standing on the kerb in the night. Strange how quickly tears will spring to the eyes at the call of certain old words, though all about us the facts of life touch never a pool of them!
They sang softly, but without spirit, because it was strange to be standing on the kerb of a great city, singing into the window of a car to two men, while other cars hissed by and people, passing, paused to stare. And their hearts were not in it anyway.
But appreciation is a curious thing. Maybe they saw the tears in my eyes in the street light. Maybe they saw the way Jimmie stared through the windshield. But in the second verse, they seemed to get a grip of the ancient song. They didn’t have good voices, as voices go. Their words were sung with quaint accents. But there was a simple breathlessness in their feeling.
When they ended on the last queer chord, Jim and I dug down and gave them some money.
“Thank YOU,” said the carolers. “Thank you very much!”
“I think we could give the gentlemen “The First Nowell’,” said George, the tall one, heartily. And eagerly they closed together again, setting themselves the way all good singers do.
“The First Nowell the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell.
Born is the King of Israel!”
How they sang! How they fled the voices all sweetly in together. How they held the last Nowell, harmonizing it, moulding it, coloring it!
Taking the Gents On
By this time, a number of people who walked past had halted and listened and crept back. A little gathering was forming. A car ran by, slowed and backed and the doors opened for the people inside to hear the better.
They finished “The First Nowell’ and stood embarrassed, wondering whether they should go now. But a lady who had come back to listen asked:
“Didn’t I hear ‘Good King Wenceslas’ a little while ago?”
“I wonder …?” she said. So the lads grouped together again and gave ‘Good King Wenceslas.’
There were fifteen of us by the time they ended. George took off his hat and everybody put something into it.
“You see,” said Jimmie, as George leaned over to say good-night to us, “if they can hear you, they love it. The trouble is, to be heard. There should be more of you. A regular choir. With lots of strong voices.”
“Ah, it’s hard to say,” said George, shaking his head.
“Well, now, my friend and I,” said Jimmie, “are both very fond of singing. Old-fashioned singing. If you will get in the car with us, and we could go to a neighborhood where we aren’t known, we’d be glad …”
“Jimmie!” I hissed.
“We’d be glad to join our voices, just to show you,” said Jim.
“Do you sing?” asked George.
“Well, we know the tune, and we can sort of hum with our mouths open,” said Jim. “You know, Doo-doo-doo-de-doo-de-dum, da-de-dad-de-tum-tum.”
George looked doubtful. One of the smaller ones, the tenor, I think it was, cried:
“Take the gents on, George, a ride in the car will do us good anyways!”
So we loaded the four of them in the back seat and drove five or six blocks north, and parked up a pleasant side street with those nice $7,000 homes on it, where young married people live, with small children’s sleighs and hockey sticks on the verandas waiting for the morning.
“I am sorry,” I explained to George and the boys, “I don’t sing at all. I have a loud voice. But there is not much tune in it, if you understand.”
“It will attract attention, anyway,” interrupted Jimmie. “That’s all we need. You fellows can do the singing, after we have added our volume to the music and attracted people from their radios. Understand?”
Artistry Runs Wild
“Yes, sir,” said George. “Personally, I think it’s a splendid idea. First rate.”
We walked up a few doors and grouped under a street light.
“Now, we’ll do ‘King Wenceslas’ first,” said George, “as these two gentlemen seem to know that tune the best.”
He held up his hand. Sang the key.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen …”
It was fine. I could sing the first few words, and then I resorted to daw-de-daw-daw-daw. You know. Like in church.
“Louder,” said Jimmie in my ear.
I let it out. My voice was trained in the army. At Napier Barracks, near Cheriton, when I was a raw recruit, I had to stand by the hour roaring commands at a drill sergeant standing scornfully a quarter of a mile off. He saw possibilities in my voice, and made the most of them. It is, if I may say so, loud.
“Let her out all the way,” shouted Jim in my ear.
I let it out all the way.
Jim was doing pretty good himself, although the only way he recognizes the tune of “God Save the King” is when everybody stands up and takes his hat off.
George and the boys were resolutely singing, with George standing apart, beating time for us and patting one hand in the air as if to signal me not so loud.
But certainly we were attracting attention. Doors opened. Lights went on in upstairs windows. Men and women even came out on the verandas.
“That’s the stuff,” cried Jimmie in my ear. “They’re coming!”
Though I am not a singer. I can appreciate the inspiration it must be to artists to behold response.
The third verse, I really shook loose the barnacles of the years that had been gathering in my lungs, the wrinkles and crows feet, the dust and ashes, and I gave them the old stuff, the real old roar that once upon a time could be heard all the way from Mount St. Eloi to Villers au Bois. Of course, I did not know the words of the third verse, so I had to resort to daw-daw-daw, interspersed with dee-dee-dee.
When you sing, or otherwise engage in a wholehearted artistic endeavor, you are temporarily blinded to what is going on around you. You see this in a bird. It pours out its whole soul, deafened to any other sound around it. Caruso must have felt like that as he leaped into the passionate arias of “Pagliacci” or that’ excited bit in the “Barber of Seville.” I must say I did notice some confusion amongst my fellow-singers. All but Jimmie. He stood right by me, apparently singing for all he was worth, but of course I could not hear him, because I had, what you might say, turned it on.
Maybe the Crooners are Right
By this time, all the houses were lighted, veranda lights were snapped on. Groups of people were not only assembling on the verandas but were coming out on the sidewalks. It was a triumph indeed.
It seemed to me, as I let go the last line of the third verse that there was a sort of scuffle amongst George and his pals, and the next thing I knew, I saw a man with a golf stick in his hands, and iron, a niblick, I think they call it, with a thick, twisted iron head, crouched down and advancing on me with cat-like tread.
I cut that last, choice chord of the last line, I cut it right off. Jim had me by the elbow and we were bounding, in long easy strides, down the street toward the car.
Jim slammed me in and leaped to the wheel. I saw, far up the street, the vanishing forms of what I take to have been George and his pals. They were running.
So Jimmie drove rapidly away, in the other direction, and after twisting and turning around several blocks, we slowed down and Jimmie gasped.
“Well,” he said. “It didn’t work!”
“You shouldn’t have encouraged me,” I said, miserably.
“I had no idea you had such a foghorn,” said Jim.
“Was it pretty awful?” I asked.
“Honestly,” said Jim, “I never heard such a noise in my life!”
“It’s funny,” I mused, “what a little encouragement will do to a man.”
“I guess every man,” said Jimmie, “thinks he can sing, deep down in his heart.”
“I can sing,” I protested. “But you said what we needed was loud singing.”
“Maybe the crooners are right,” said Jim. “Perhaps the popular taste these days is for that wuh-duh-duh stuff, that snuggle singing.”
So we went back to my house and up to my den where I have one of those old music boxes with the big steel discs with holes punched in them, that I got from an old relative of mine, and we spent the evening playing “The Mocking Bird” and “Darling Nellie Grey.”
Editor’s Notes: Sweet Adeline and “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River“) were songs from 1903 and 1851. When they were complaining about the song with “the sea, the sea, the sea,” it was likely “By the Beautiful Sea” from 1914.
A $7,000 house from 1933 would be $139,000 in 2021, though you could not find a house in Toronto for that price.
Metal disc playing music boxes pre-dated phonographs, where you could swap out the discs with different songs.