Interviewsand Articles

 

Outshine the Sun

by Gail Needleman, Jan 23, 2016


 

 

This article was written in response to a request for a contribution to a forthcoming anthology entitled Rituals for All Seasons, edited by Angeles Arrien and Amshatar Monroe. —gn


When the old songs die, the great dreams are forgotten—American Indian saying

I. WHAT THE CHILDREN KNOW
This is a true story…

I hear the clatter of footsteps in the hall, the rising sound of small voices. Through the lunchroom door pours a river of children. Thirty-three kindergartners, a rainbow of colors and sizes, hopes and dreams; and something is clearly not right. The girls rush towards me, all talking at once. One girl is weeping. The boys stride to the opposite side of the room, surrounding one boy, who stands with arms crossed, his face grim.
     The girls are anxious to tell me what has happened. It seems that the boy, Devon, has frightened the girl, Samantha, by telling her that he saw a monster in his back yard. The children are firm that “there’s no such thing as a monster,” but Devon “won’t take it back.”
     It is picture day at school. The children are wearing their best clothes—tiny suits, tiny dresses, shiny shoes. The odd tale of the monster, the unusual fracturing of the class into girls and boys, the children dressed as miniature adults, give the sense of a ruptured world.
     “Can we have the star?”—several voices as one, and the rest take up the cry. It is their favorite song.
     The first-grade teacher had heard them singing through the wall and said to me, “I’m so happy you’re teaching them the old songs.”
     The children gather in a circle, seated on the red-painted concrete floor of the teachers’ lunchroom that doubles as a music room. Still fidgeting in their hard shoes and fancy clothes, but visibly quieter and more settled than the moment before. I take a large gold cardboard star out of my bag.
     Such a simple activity, our little play. One child walks around inside the circle, holding the star, trying to listen to the singing of the other children—“Listen for beautiful singing!” From the singing he or she chooses another child to give the star to, and the chosen child now takes the place in the center. Only one rule: a boy must give the star to a girl, a girl to a boy.

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
Wish I may, wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.
They never tire of the song.

     Stillness enters the room as the children sing. As each child enters the circle, I see, feel, his or her concentration, trying to listen, trying to hear the individual voices in the midst of the singing, trying to choose by listening. “Listen for the beautiful singing!”

Star light, star bright. . .
It is a tremendous effort for them. I feel them wishing, wishing.

First star I see tonight. . .

I feel they could go on like this forever. We are no longer in time. We are in the world of the stars, an ancient world, which is the world of our wishing, too.
     When I first sang the song for the children, I asked them what they wished for. “World peace.” “For people not to fight.” What does it mean that what five-year-olds wish for is peace on earth?

Wish I may, wish I might. . .

Devon has the star. I watch as he walks slowly around the circle, the star clutched in front of his chest. His eyes flicker again and again to Samantha. For a moment he stops in front of her. He wants to give her the star. But the moment passes. He cannot cross over. Defeated, he hands the star to another girl and the play goes on.

. . . have the wish I wish tonight.

And at last all the children have had a turn. It is the end. Silence.
Devon looks at me. “Can I have another turn?”
     I nod yes, and at once the children begin to sing. Devon walks around inside the circle, no longer uncertain. As the song ends, he stops, looks at Samantha and offers her the star.
     The rift in the universe is healed, as the children knew it would be. On one side of the circle, I see Samantha helping Devon tie his shoe.
     I can still feel the vibration of that moment, the pure feeling arising in me, the stunned and grateful witness to something great.
A friend of mine once called it the most central, most ancient place for human beings: to be seated in a circle, listening. Think how easily we gather there when given a chance, to sing or to listen to story or song or only to the sounds of a fire; to feel our companionship in the greatness of the night, our kinship to the earth and to each other, to the starry world above and the human world within. How joyfully we sing there, and how naturally fall silent.

II. WHAT THE SONGS CARRY

     I open my email and find an invitation to a winter solstice celebration. I respond instinctively: “Shall I bring a song?”
     “Yes,” comes the answer—“something we all can sing, something about the light.”
     Something about the light. I begin looking through songbooks, sheet music, recordings. Nothing seems right. These are good friends, serious people. Holding them in mind, everything seems either too shallow—the campfire rounds, the contemporary “ritual” songs with their vague New Age sentimentality; or too religious—out of a religious context, and for people of several religions or none; or too difficult to learn quickly.
     Ah, but there is a song. My colleague Anne and I had found it in the archives of the Library of Congress, among thousands of field recordings of American folk songs. These songs, mostly collected in the 1930s in rural areas of America, are an astonishing and nearly unknown treasure, carriers of the lives and dreams, the suffering and the wisdom of countless ancestors.1 Among the treasures we found there was a song sung by Huddie Ledbetter—Leadbelly—and his wife, Martha:

Outshine the sun, O Lord, outshine the sun.
Outshine the sun, O Lord, outshine the sun.
O Martha, your name is called,
I tell you, your name is called,
At heaven’s gate your name is called,
Outshine the sun.
Perfect.

     I arrived at the house where the celebration was to take place. Someone had made beautiful headdresses for us all to wear. A fire was burning on the hearth. We shared the food we had brought. On slips of paper, each person wrote what she wished to contend with in the coming year, and we cast them into the fire.
     Someone said, “It’s a good time for a song.” I spoke a little about how I had found the song, and sang the chorus a few times, the others gradually joining in. And then, more quickly than I had intended, I looked at one person in the circle and began to sing:

Oh Hannah, your name is called,
I tell you, your name is called,
At heaven’s gate your name is called,
Outshine the sun.

And all the rest sang with me on the chorus:
Outshine the sun, O Lord, outshine the sun.
Outshine the sun, O Lord, outshine the sun.

I looked at the next person in the circle and sang:
Oh Jamie, your name is called. . .

Somehow I had thought that the others would pick up on the verse and join me, but somehow that is not what happened. What happened was that I found myself in a place, and what was needed from me in that place was to look at each person in turn, and acknowledge that person, and call her name, call her to participate in something powerful that was now happening in the room.
     Something passes between us when we sing a true song together. Something real, that cannot pass between us in any other way. And yet this was even more than that.
     What is it in me, what is it in you that can outshine the sun?
     When I came to my own place in the circle, I meant to skip over myself and sing to the person next to me, but no—what happened was that the whole group started singing to me. And I felt a lightning bolt of joy pass through me, flinging my arms up in an ecstatic gesture—a gesture I had never made before—a movement I felt could have become a dance, or a song.
     Then on around the circle I continued, singing to each person in turn, feeling the wonder and the dignity of each person in turn, and at the end the kind of silence that can only come after song; and it was over.
     What had we stumbled on? What kind of song was this?
     A few weeks later, Anne and I are preparing for a workshop we are giving on songs we had discovered in our research. We don’t yet have the recording of “Outshine the Sun” from the Library of Congress, and I am looking to see if I can find another recording of the song. And I find one—sung by Leadbelly—which includes the great American folklorist Alan Lomax interviewing him about the song:

Alan Lomax:  You said that they sang certain songs for baptizing, Huddie, do you remember any of those baptizing songs?

Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly):  Well now, let me see, do I?

AL:  Think about when you were baptized.

HL:  Well, when I was baptized they sang. . .

AL:  How did you feel? Talk about it. . .

HL:  Well, I felt, you know, pretty happy. . .

AL:  Was the water cold? Or—how did you think about things like that?

HL:  Well, the water, it wasn’t cold, because it was in the hot summertime, you know, and when you’re baptized you’ve got on some old clothes, and your work clothes, and you’ve got a handkerchief tied around your head—which I never did like to have no handkerchief or nothin’ around my head. I like to wear a hat but I don’t want no handkerchief or nothin’ tied around there.
     But anyhow it took me, I think, two men—the preacher and another man took me out and dunked me under the water. Well, I didn’t shout but some people, you know, go out and—especially women, when you dunk them under the water they’re gonna come out shoutin’ “Thank God!”—and, “So glad! Pray for me, sisters!”—and all like that; but I just take it easy and come on out.

AL:  Do you remember what they sang, Huddie?

HL:  I’m tryin’ to remember right now—I know they sang one song, “Outshine the Sun.” They sang that for me ‘cause they wanted me to be shinin.’ So the preacher said, “Now Brother Leadbelly, say you want to shine!” So everybody began to sing:

Outshine the sun, O Lord, he’s outshine the sun.
Outshine the sun, O Lord, outshine the sun.
Sister Sally, your name is called,
Sister Sally, your name is called,
At heaven’s gate your name is called,
Outshine the sun.”

That’s my mama’s name, Sally, and he called my mama ‘cause I’se her son, to—
Outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.
To outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.
Brother Wesley, your name is called,
Well, I tell you, your name is called,
At heaven’s gate your name is called,
Outshine the sun.

That’s my father’s name, ‘cause I was his son, and the only one.
“To outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.
To outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.”

Then they called me:
Brother Leadbelly, your name is called
Well, I tell you, your name is called
At heaven’s gate your name is called,
Outshine the sun.
To outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.
To outshine the sun, O Lord, to outshine the sun.”2

"They sang that for me ‘cause they wanted me to be shinin'." A baptizing song. A ritual song. A song with deep, deep roots, calling the ancestors to witness, calling us to our inner divinity. That was what we had felt that winter solstice evening. That was the lightning bolt I had felt passing through me. I would have been one of those women who came out of the water shouting. All that was in the song. It was carried by the song.

III. WHAT THE EARTH NEEDS FROM US
Omnis terra adoret te. . .
Let the whole earth adore thee and sing thy praises.”

     There was no place to rehearse indoors at the camp, so we were outside. It was midday, so we needed to be in the shade. And there were quite a number of us, so we needed a large space. And that is how I and about twenty other people had come to be standing in a circle among rosebushes, barefoot on the earth, singing a 14th-century monastic song.
     It was a lovely summer day, filled with sweet scents and gentle breezes, butterflies and birdsong, and as we sang these words, a new vision opened. Singing with others, feet on the earth, open to wind and sun and sky, feeling the presence of both time and eternity, we knew: The earth sings through us. We are the voice of the earth, no less than the wind and sea and singing bird.
     This is the source of music’s power to bring us together, to connect us to past and future, to express our deepest yearnings and sustain us in our greatest need; and behind all of this, to call us to a deeper question, a question that can connect us not only to each other, but to something greater than ourselves, the stones and the stars, the earth and the sun, the mystery of life itself.
     But it is not only for us—it is not only for us. The earth itself needs us to come together. Dare I say it? The earth needs us to sing together.
     The earth needs something that only comes into being when we enter into relationship. That is what ritual is for. That is what the children know when, to restore their wished-for peace on earth, they call for a song.
     This is our obligation. And yes, it matters what we sing.
In Germany, on November 11, St. Martin’s Day, the children parade at night carrying lanterns and singing:

Laterne, Laterne,
Sonne, Mond und Sterne
Brenne auf, mein Licht
Brenne auf, mein Licht
Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.

Lantern, Lantern,
Sun, moon and stars
Burn on, my light,
Burn on, my light
But don’t let my precious lantern burn.3

Starlight, sunlight, and the light within. Even a simple child’s song can touch the great mystery: can help us to feel our place in the vastness of the universe, to experience our true calling as human beings. To be connected to bird and tree, open to earth and sky; to feel ourselves in the universe, part of everything existing. And from this sacred sense of ourselves, to find our voices together, which may also, if we listen—if we are very attentive—resonate with a greatness we cannot name. u

1. Many songs are available on our American Folk Song Collection at http://kodaly.hnu.edu. See also Library of Congress at www.loc.gov/folklife.

2. Leadbelly: The Remaining Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 5: 1938-1942. Track 12: “Outshine the Sun.” Document Records DOCD-5595. (Author’s transcription) A musical score of “Outshine the Sun” can be found at http://kodaly.hnu.edu

3. A recording of “Laterne” can be heard at
www.martin-von-tours.de/lieder/Soundclips/laterne3.mov     
 

About the Author

Gail Needleman teaches music at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. Her work as a writer and teacher addresses the essential role of music in the moral and spiritual development of children. She is the recipient of the Parsons Fellowship from the Library of Congress for research in American folk music, and is the co-creator of the American Folk Song Collection website, a pioneering online resource of American folk songs for teaching music to children.

 

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