Joyful Noises

one of my sheep warming up to sing at last year’s Christmas pageant

I ran into my friend and neighbor yesterday, and she asked if I’d be interested in co-hosting a Christmas caroling party. You mean, I asked, like a real song-singing, cookie-eating, wassail-drinking holiday party? Red faces, children underfoot, and lots and lots of music? Yes, yes, and again, yes! There are far too few occasions when we adults consent to get together and sing our hearts out, which is a shame. Apparently Pete Seeger proposes regular singalongs as the best way of achieving world peace, and I don’t doubt it.

I quit piano lessons when I was eleven. I know absolutely nothing about music theory and history. Regardless of my ignorance, some of my happiest memories involve music, especially shared music. Singing campsongs with abandon, singing at church alongside my family, guitars and shakers at various picnics and gatherings, singing at the top of my lungs with friends in a car, all the windows down. And though regular adult life has often failed to meet my need for musical expression, life with my children has not.

No matter the quality of your voice, small children are wonderfully forgiving and, I have found, will delight in your Madonna covers just as much as they do the Itsy Bitsy Spider. Sharing music with my kids has been one of the central joys of parenthood for me, and pop music is no exception.

Not too long ago, apropos of nothing, my daughter Frances said to me: Mama, why were there a hundred million songs on the radio when you and Papa were teenagers? And why did you like them all and how do you know every single word to all of them?

Ah. Well. Maybe if you had been twelve in 1989 you’d understand.

I fear she’s already begun to feel burdened by “our” music, the music that we have more or less successfully – up until now – embraced as our family’s music. She realizes she wasn’t on the scene when I first latched onto this or that song, which must be a little weird and annoying. The truth is we’ve adjusted our listening habits since becoming parents, eschewing music that explicitly celebrated less-than-wholesome living (goodbye to so much rock and hip hop) and enthusiastically welcoming people like Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell into our living room. When Jonathan Richman broke up with the original Modern Lovers, he said didn’t want to make music anymore that would hurt a little baby’s ears. As new parents, we heartily endorsed that position.

Happily, lots of pop music is made out of soap bubbles and doesn’t hurt a bit. (Plus at home you can always turn down the volume.) And I guess we like it too much to give it up. Despite the potential for irritation, both my kids are often admirably cooperative when I interrupt them mid-sentence in the car to announce that a REALLY good song is on the radio. I turn up the volume and do all kinds of soon-to-be-embarrassing mom dances in the driver’s seat. I feel myself reaching back through time, connecting to generations of mothers who have done some version of this to their children. I especially feel like I’m channeling my mother (who I can vividly imagine singing Motown in our minivan) when I drive our new/old 1995 Toyota Camry station wagon.

But really, what is it about the music of our youth? How does it imprint so indelibly on our brains? Some combination of receptivity and passion, I suppose. Why didn’t I spend middle school committing Latin or long Shakespearean passages to memory? Instead of belting out every single word of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” to Frances and Gabriel, I’d be lulling them to sleep with sonnets and psalms. Did any of you read The Chosen, or other Chaim Potok books? I could have been one of those scrawny Orthodox boys hunched over the Torah, memorizing it forwards and backwards. Instead, I memorized the Smells Like Teen Spirit album and far too many Cure songs to keep straight.

The thing is, it’s not just nostalgia. I love to hear an old Pixies song on the radio, sure, but I also love new pop music these days. A good song really does pop; it sparkles, shines, and adds a burst of happy energy to my day. Dishwashing, bath-giving, dinner-making…these little moments are transformed by a good song.

And singing with my children really is the best. Waking up to Gabriel’s clear high voice singing “Freight Train” makes me smile. When we sing grace as a family, when we sing Hi Ho The Rattlin’ Bog, when all four of us start into Yellow Submarine, and hopefully when we burst into Jingle Bells with friends in a couple of weeks…my heart starts flapping its little wings, trying to burst out of my chest for pure joy.

What are your favorite pop songs to share with your kids? Do tell! And then come visit my blog Homemade Time, where there’s now a giveaway for a most delightful children’s CD by the zany and wonderful Good Ms. Padgett–perfect songs for dancing and singing along to.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.