Last Sunday, the priest of our Brooklyn Catholic church stood at the lectern and announced that he was going to do something he’d never done before. He closed the Bible in front of him. “For the first time in all my years as a priest, I’m not going to read you the scripture. I’m not going to reflect on today’s lessons. I’m going to read you something else.” And instead of a homily, he read the words of the speech that Martin Luther King delivered fifty years ago today from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Like most Americans, I’ve heard the speech many times. I was surprised to realize I know the words by heart, or nearly so. But I don’t think I’ve ever before heard the words in anyone’s voice but King’s. Father Murphy is a very good speaker, but he’s not King. The words sounded different in his Brooklyn accent, from his Irish face, washing over a congregation of many ages and races and nationalities. The words sounded like they now belonged to all of us. I found myself mouthing the words along with Father Murphy. The congregation has never been so quiet.
There’s something powerful about the moment when something very familiar suddenly seems to mean something different, something at once more personal and more universal. I think all of us listening to something we’d heard many times before all started to wonder if we’d really heard it at all. Without the mesmerizing power of King’s distinctive voice, we are left with the words themselves, and find they can not only stand on their own, but that we might not have been noticing them all along.
I had a similar experience this morning standing in the bathroom listening to Susan Cowsill’s “Crescent City Sneaux,” a song – operatic in scope – both a love letter and a eulogy about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina (it’s actually a recasting of a song she wrote before the hurricane). I’ve heard it many times. It’s an album I like very much, partly because Cowsill’s voice sounds so honest – it’s both pretty and not.
Cowsill gained fame as a child member of the Cowsills, best known for their song “Hair” and for being the model for the TV show “The Partridge Family.” But it’s Cowsill’s solo work, particularly her album Lighthouse, released in 2010, that I really like. The subject matter is deeply personal for Cowsill, a New Orleans resident whose brother drowned during Hurricane Katrina.
“Crescent City Sneaux” is the final track on an emotional roller coaster of an album. I’ve heard it many times. Around this time last year, in anticipation of a trip to New Orleans in November (one which, ironically, was derailed by a hurricane here in New York), I went on a binge of reading about and listening to New Orleans music. I discovered this album around the same time through one of the things I was reading – I no longer remember what, but it may have been John Swenson’s New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans, which I definitely recommend to those interested in this stuff or to fans of Treme. Whatever I read, it was talking about all of the quotes in the song and their specific connotations to New Orleansians: When the Saints com marching in, Aiko-aiko, Who dat, the spelling of sneaux. Because of this, I think, I didn’t really hear this song as something that spoke to me. It was something designed to speak to insiders. And yet, this morning, as I stood at the sink brushing my teeth, it suddenly did. And I had to stop and listen.
This morning I listened, the song was no longer about something experienced by a few, but by all. That was also Martin Luther King’s gift, to take something specific to a few and make it relevant to all. King, too, sounds almost like he’s singing. The sound of his voice makes the words special. But hearing them in someone else’s voice makes the words stand out from the voice, makes them take on new meaning.
It’s a little different with Cowsill. Her words are not as powerful on their own. But still, they become more – or differently – meaningful in someone else’s voice. The version of Crescent City Sneaux that closes the album is not the same as the one above (and doesn’t seem to be available on the internet). It’s a live recording. Part of what makes it powerful is hearing others singing along.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech. Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Listen