“. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .”

"pop" goes the drag show!

“pop” goes the drag show!

Imagine this (bet you can’t). Approaching midnight, December 31, 1958 (or -7 or -9). A half dozen middle-aged Baptist Republican men in Western Nebraska wearing “work casual” clothes (dress slacks, long sleeve shirts—it’s cold in Nebraska on New Year’s Eve), dress shoes (the only kind they had), a couple of them with neckties. Sitting in a circle, some crossing their legs in that “womanly” way (as if wearing a tight skirt), a couple of them wearing fashionable ladies’ hats, all of them wearing “pop beads” and earrings, one of them in high heels.

The YMCA community all-purpose room (down on the last street before the river—where it still is). Probably sixty people in the audience, and the men reading from a script pretending to be their wives.

How do I remember this so clearly? My first drag show, of course.

Except these men were not bending genders. They were definitely having a good joke at the expense of their wives.

The Baptist celebration of Christmas in Western Nebraska in the ‘50s was a fairly low-key proposition—at least for the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff. We apparently had no Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services (unless those days fell on Sunday) because our family was free to run off to Kansas City to spend Christmas with grandparents (both maternal and paternal) and aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I have a store of memories (both happy and unhappy) we otherwise would have missed. We knew our extended family largely because of Christmas. My Texas cousins and I have a history going back to our grandparents’ home in Kansas City more than sixty years ago. Their parents and mine, besides the fact that their mother and our father were siblings, had more in common than my parents had with perhaps anyone else. Both our fathers were Baptist pastors, for starters. I have written many times of the influence my Aunt Doris hadon my musical life.

Drag, anyone?

Drag, anyone?

It seems to me the celebration of New Year’s Eve was in some ways more important to the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff than Christmas was. I remember a couple of “Christmas Cantatas” the choir sang—but on the Sunday before Christmas. I also remember the year my father was roundly criticized for his Sunday-before-Christmas sermon on the Magnificat because it was too close to Catholic Mariolatry (never mind that it was a straight-forward exegesis of Luke 1:46-55).

By New Year’s Eve everyone in the Baptist church was home from the holidays with their families, and shopping was over, and we kids were about to go back to school. I remember the New Year’s celebrations, probably because it was the only night of the year we were allowed to stay up until midnight (which became less of a struggle as the years went on).

Besides the seminal event (as in “having possibilities of future development” –not a bad pun) of the drag show, I have a more significant memory of those New Year’s celebrations. They were called “Watch Night” parties and usually ended with a communion service at midnight. We always sang the Lowell Mason hymn tune “Watchman,” with John Bowring’s words, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” Always on New Year’s Eve.

Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872) was the “father of American public school music,” appointed music superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in 1838, the first such appointment in the country. He was a composer of great repute until the sophistication of American music in the 20th century pushed aside music in his style. The premier setting of this Mason tune is the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony. (Mason was, not coincidentally, a great friend and professional partner with Henry Kemble Oliver, who also taught public school music, and is the subject of my PhD dissertation.)

How a real man sits

How a real man sits

As might be expected, I came to associate Bowring’s words with Advent as I grew into the tradition of the “liturgical” churches. But, as with much of the music I [we] know, I [we] have important associations with the time and place we first heard it.

Indeed. Watchman. Tell us. Tell us the signs of promise. Strange to think how much of my life was prefigured in that one New Year’s Eve celebration. Or was it Advent and I didn’t know? Even though the specific beliefs expressed in the hymn have become foreign to me, I understand the hope that morning seems to dawn and that doubt and terror will be withdrawn.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

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