The media typically portray Amish characters as either disapproving, humorless, or colorless adults rigidly humming a solemn hymn to keep worldly thoughts at bay or conflicted, cocky, out-of-control rumspringa adolescents listening to ear-splitting rock and testing all the limits of decency. Of course, TV and the movies are by definition fantasy. But for many curious non-Amish these images lurk in their minds as at least partial truth.
While interviewing Amish families for my book Why the Amish Sing, I discovered a fuller picture. First and most importantly, to quote an Amish friend, “We’re human just like you are. We have the same temptations. We have to choose.” Music is one area where the Amish work at holding back the wild horses of modernity and secularism by carefully selecting the texts and tunes that nurture godliness, kindness and mutuality. I argue that music serves as one of the scaffoldings by which the Amish build and maintain boundaries and healthy community structures.
The soundtrack of an Amish life includes many sounds of the modern world. Cars zip by even on remote back roads. A windmill or pump rubs and grinds screeching metal-on-metal. The roaring whirr of a lawn mower shatters the silence. Nature’s sounds of birds trilling or cooing welcome the dawn. Horses nicker, and cows pleadingly moo, “Milk me.”
Human voices also adorn an Amish person’s day. A grandmother calmly provides directions for safely using scissors. A father petitions God for breath, strength, and the ability to forgive. A daughter’s lilt leads a favorite family song. High-pitched children’s voices gleefully encourage each other on the baseball field or buzz in loud whispers around the potbelly stove before school starts. An auctioneer coaxes up the price of a dozen eggs. In casual settings several verses of “How Great Thou Art” or a German text about being a faithful child sung to tune of “Just As I am” ring in the air—in unison or well-rehearsed harmony.
Last winter, a lovely Amish couple, Atlee and Mary Miller, invited some friends over and allowed my friend Steve Hebrock, a sound engineer, and me to record their singing. When we arrived, Atlee, his son, Daniel, and two friends, Steve and Jerry were joking and amusing each other with personal stories. Mary joined with us. We became caught up in the air of delight. This group of men was comfortable with each other with no social lubricant other than stove-brewed black coffee. Atlee told of his bus ride from his military induction appointment when the announcement came that world leaders had signed the armistice ending World War II. Steve mentioned a favorite moment in the chicken house with his son. The men enthusiastically sang Steve’s song, ““Ich war ein kleines Kindlein,” a meditation on the human condition. “What have I accomplished while I have been on this earth?” the singers asked.
I was a small child born into this world;
As to my time of death
I have nothing to say what happens on the earth;
I have created nothing in my time on earth.
The words require participants to accept their humanity and to devote themselves to their Creator. Mary, Atlee’s wife, adds that the words of that text are very touching.
Sung a third again as fast, the tune would sound like a cousin of the haunting British folk tune, “Barbara Allen.” But, at the pace the men sang, it is a bittersweet introspection that ends on a heartbreaking modal (mixolydian) flat ti (lengthened for emphasis), then do, re, do. Singing together provides the setting for Amish friends to share serious memories and keep their community’s stories vibrant.
D. Rose Elder is an associate professor of ethnomusicology and rural sociology and coordinator of humanities and social sciences at the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute. She is the author of Why the Amish Sing: Songs of Solidarity and Identity, recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Purchase Prof. Elder’s book here.
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