Sunday, December 18, 2011

How can I keep from singing?

This song is part of what kept me going while imprisoned in Israel for six days, following the capture at sea of the Tahrir (the Canadian Boat to Gaza) on November 4, 2011.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation
I hear that real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul: how can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest round me roar, I hear the truth it liveth.

What though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

When men and women conquer fear, with prison doors wide swinging.*

When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell or dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?

There are a number of versions of this song, originally a Christian hymn, but the one I was familiar with since childhood was as recorded by (among others) Pete Seeger, which downplays religious aspects of the lyrics (How can I keep from singing? is also the title of Seeger's biography by David King Dunaway). However, the line at the beginning of the third verse in that version:

*When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, and hear their death-knell ringing,

has long troubled me, since I oppose the death penalty for anyone, even tyrants. As a teen, I rewrote the line in a sort of half-assed way ( ... and hear those peace bells ringing -- only two words changed, and still leaves the question, why should even tyrants be "sick with fear"?) but only for my own use, and perhaps singing to my kids, in later years.

(As an aside on this point, I entirely concur with Ariel Dorfman, who wrote in an open letter to the bloody-handed ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet following the latter's arrest: I want you to know, General, that I do not believe in capital punishment. What I do believe in is human redemption. ...I highly recommend the full interview, especially Dorfman's poetic "sentence" for Pinochet's crimes... but I digress...).

So when a few years ago I began singing (again) with my dad, who has been suffering from Alzheimer's now for some five years, this song was a natural part of our shared repertoire, and that particular verse of course came up as problematic, for both of us. He told me someone at their church had a better replacement verse for that line, so I asked my friend Becca Whitla, music director at Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto (my parents' congregation and the one I grew up in). She told me about the powerful new line I now use at the beginning of the third verse:

When men and women conquer fear, with prison doors wide swinging,

and she also told me that the person who had penned the substitution was in fact dad (he no longer recalls having composed the change -- only that there is a better verse). At the time, of course, I had no idea how that new line would end up speaking to me.

So all of this added up to a pretty heavy emotional charge for me when I sang this song in prison, mostly as a sort of personal meditation (since I never did get around to learning how to meditate "properly"). I knew that evoking memories of dad (and of my family more generally) would make me cry, and my personal concentration "game" was that I had to sing it through completely, without stumbling, or start over, repeating until I got it right and complete. The somewhat controlled crying response was also, I think, a healthy outlet.

Those last four lines were also the message I sent my family when I had a chance to get a message out of the prison -- a bit cryptic, perhaps, but my hope was that the message would read clearly as one of hope. It prompted another memory from my sister Margaret, who recalled that when Qu├ębec trade-unionist and socialist Michel Chartrand was jailed for four months in 1970 (under the War Measures Act), dad wrote to him and sent him this song (with Margaret's translation into French, now sadly lost).

There were other songs I sang while in prison in Israel (perhaps I will write about them too) but this was the one I came back to in order to pull myself together and face whatever we had to face. We prepared for many things during the long lead-up to the voyage of the Tahrir, but I never realised that I would find my way back to these songs. I have very few regrets about the whole experience -- as I have said more than once publicly, I would go again in a heart-beat -- but if I had to do it over, I wish I had begun singing earlier, on the deck of the Tahrir.


  1. Re-reading this post... I also oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, but I interpret the prroblematic lyric differently. I have always heard that as the death of the tyrant's power, the death knell of his regime. At that point, they would tremble and perhaps be sick with fear.

    The connection to your dad - amazing and so moving.