When famous musicians die, we get all kinds of testimonials about how they were so transformative or innovative, or how much their music "shaped our lives."
In most cases, they did nothing of the kind. They were simply famous, and often achieved this by being odd and/or offensive in some way.
But last Saturday, my wife and I learned of the death of a musician who really had shaped our lives.
We knew her as Margaret Brown, and I'm pretty sure that not a soul in Guilford County knows anything about her except what my wife and I have told them.
But when my wife told me that Margaret Brown was dead, I asked, "When is the funeral?" and she said, "Tuesday" and I said, "I want to go."
I wanted to go because her music changed my life.
Don't bother looking her up on iTunes. She isn't there.
When I was sixteen, my family moved from Arizona to Utah. I had been in the marching band at Mesa High School, but at my new school, they already had too many of the instruments I played. I had been a very good boy soprano, but when my voice changed I lost my vibrato and I replaced it with a feeble tremolo so that it wasn't even a pleasure for me to hear me sing.
But I still had perfect relative pitch (something that I lost with my stroke a few years ago) and so I could sing.
A family moved into our ward (parish) in 1967. The Browns were a lanky blond country-boy father, an energetic, outspoken mother, and three young daughters.
In the Mormon Church, there are no paid positions. Members with musical talent are invited -- and expected -- to provide or lead or accompany church music for free.
Before Margaret Brown joined the Mormon Church in Winnipeg, she had been a paid soloist in the largest church in the city. That position ended when she became a Mormon, and began to attend meetings in a rented room above a warehouse, with a congregation of sixty people.
They called her to be choir director. By the time she was done, the choir consisted of the whole congregation -- which, you must admit, has a kind of efficiency to it.
Anyway, when the Browns moved to Orem, I had no idea how they were going to change my life. Elbert Brown, the dad, hired me for one of my first jobs. He ran a hardware store in downtown Provo -- and I was confident of my ability to sell hardware, because my dad was a tool guy and I had paid attention.
But I instantly discovered, as Elbert trained me, that in the autumn, all of the hardware store's profits came from selling skis.
This was Utah, and skiing was the main thing that brought tourists to our state in the winter. How could Elbert possibly guess, before he hired me, that I was an acrophobe who had never been close enough to a ski to see how they attached to people's feet.
Within two days, Elbert realized that his assumption that I had a basic understanding of skis was utterly false, and I realized that "selling hardware" was not at all the job that my boss needed me to do. Do you count it as "firing" if you agree with your boss that you're completely incompetent to do the job and you are as eager to leave as he is to get you out of the place?
That was a great lesson for me to learn, and I liked Elbert Brown even more afterward than I had before.
But it was Margaret Brown who affected my life most powerfully.
Now, in most Mormon wards, singing in the choir is a self-appointed position. You want to sing in the choir, you show up for the practices, and ... voila. You are a choir-singer.
My wife, who lived in the ward longer than me, had wanted to join the choir as an eleven-year-old. Now, most people don't realize that girls' voices "change" with puberty just as much as boys' voices do. A child's voice is not likely to blend with the rest of the choir.
So she was told, you can't join till you're twelve. She didn't forget -- as soon as she was twelve, there she was at choir practice.
But she quickly learned that some of the adult sopranos did not want to have her there. The message was made clear when they refused to answer her questions, and would not share music with her when there were limited copies.
Seeing what was going on, some kind altos took this eager twelve-year-old into their section and made her welcome. That's why my wife learned to sing harmonies instead of singing melody all the time, as sopranos usually do.
But she loved that first choir director of her life, who let her join the choir -- and those altos, who made her feel like part of the group.
Later, when the bishop of the ward learned of Margaret Brown's musical credentials, they asked her to become the new choir director. Did I mention that Margaret was strong-willed and outspoken? The story is that she said, "I'll only direct the choir on two conditions."
Let me point out that nobody gives bishops "conditions" for accepting a calling. You say yes, or you don't.
No, I take that back. When one bishop called me to be the Young Men's president, meaning that I would be responsible for providing both gospel lessons and useful-and-fun activities for boys from 12 through 17, I told him, "Yes, on one condition."
But he already knew me well enough to know what the condition was. He said, "I will take the boys on campouts and hikes. You don't even have to come." That's why all the boys I led during my two years in that position lived through their campouts and came home from their hikes with all their limbs intact.
But it's rare to accept a calling "with conditions," but here was what Margaret Brown insisted on -- or so I was told at the time by those in a position to know. "First," she said, "you have to release from the choir anyone that I ask you to."
Now, choir members are all volunteers. Nobody "called" them to the choir, so it's deeply weird to "release" them from that calling. But one of the things that makes it hard to achieve excellence in a ward choir is having singers who are, for instance, a quarter-step flat on every note, or incapable of learning a harmony part and singing it correctly. Margaret intended to create an excellent choir. She had to have the power to weed out the people who could not contribute.
If you think that was going to hurt some feelings, you are exactly right. She was expecting to run her choir the way a college coach runs a basketball team: Not everybody gets to play varsity, especially if they can't shoot, pass, run, or rebound. (You know, like me.)
The second condition was: "All three members of the bishopric [the bishop and his two counselors] must sing in the choir and attend every choir practice."
Now, in a Mormon ward, the bishop and his counselors are some of the busiest people -- and they are also not called to their position because of their musical talent. However, Margaret understood that for the choir to work, the choir members had to take it seriously and attend the practices. If they saw three of the busiest men with the most prestigious offices coming every week, they'd begin to think of it as an Important calling.
In Margaret Brown's funeral this past Tuesday, her eldest daughter spoke, and instead of talking about her mother, she spoke to her mother. And here is how she began: "Mom, you were a difficult person." The gathered congregation smiled or chuckled because we knew it was true -- and we loved Margaret Brown anyway.
But the daughter wasn't done. "Anybody who knew you for very long, you probably offended some time or another."
And there was an even bigger chuckle. Because it was true -- and we all loved her anyway.
Margaret Brown had several crusades as a choir leader. The western accent, and particularly the Utah accent, has very hard retroflex R sounds -- perhaps even stronger than the hard R of the Appalachian accent.
In Margaret Brown's choir, however, all those hard Rs at the ends of words were verboten. The word was not heart, it was hawt. There was no water, only wateh.
And the vowels. The Utah accent knows no distinction between the pronunciations of the names "Laura" and "Lara." That open O that southerners pronounce as AW, as in dawg, and New Yorkers pronounce as OAH, as in doahg, is pronounced in Utah with the flattest possible short O sound -- so flat the instead of dog, it sounds to non-Utahns almost as if the word were dag.
Well, folks, that's the same vowel that occurs in the word God, and that's a word that gets said in a lot of church choir music. So Margaret would stand before her choir of Utahns and say, "It's not gad, it's Gawd we're singing about." She made the Utah accent sound so obnoxious that we gradually began to transition toward the open-throated -- and more standard -- pronunciation.
We also learned to control our breathing, so that we pronounced our final consonants in perfect unison.
And there I was, as a sixteen-year-old "tenor" with a weird and irritating tremolo (think of Glenn Yarborough's voice, if you ever heard a recording of his), but I took her lessons to heart.
I was also a college student taking voice, diction, and interpretation, so I took her admonition to pronounce our words clearly to heart. I pronounced them so clearly that she began to hold me up as a model of correct pronunciation to the rest of the choir.
Of course I was flattered!
But other things were happening, too. I began to think of singing as an art and a craft that had to be learned. My mother was a trained singer with a magnificent voice, and I knew she had had voice teachers, but I had been such a nice little boy tenor with my perfect pitch (you should have heard me, as a five-year-old, sing "Ol' Man River" -- YouTube-level cuteness, even without a puppy) that I thought singing was effortless.
I began to put forth effort. And with Margaret Brown as my only voice teacher, I learned to relax my throat, kill that false diaphragmatic tremolo, and replace it with a real vibrato in a well-supported voice.
By the time I was in my late twenties, I had a singing voice that could fill a hall without a microphone. My tenor high notes at the end of Battle Hymn of the Republic could rattle windows.
But Margaret's real gift to me wasn't just helping me acquire my singing voice. It was the same gift she gave my wife: Both of us came away from her choir knowing how to lead a group of singers to excellence. She was teaching us not only how to sing, but also how to conduct.
Both my wife and I have conducted many church choirs since then -- in fact, my wife is conducting a choir that will perform a program of Easter music "He Is Risen" this coming Saturday and Sunday evening, March 19 and 20, at 7:00 p.m. at the LDS Church, 3719 Pinetop Road. The community is invited to attend. (I'm also singing a solo of Malotte's THE LORD'S PRAYER, but remember: I'll be using the voice I have NOW, post-stroke, not the one I developed as the young star tenor of Margaret Brown's choir.)
Thousands of hours of our lives have been spent performing and leading music in church, and most of our training for it came from being singers under Margaret Brown's demanding tutelage.
Now, when I say "demanding," that doesn't mean she wasn't ever fun. In fact, she made fun of herself even as she made her strange (but effective) demands on us. Singing under her direction was fun because she was such a loving and funny person, and welcomed humor from others. Singing under her was fulfilling because if we did what she said, we became very, very good.
There were choir pieces from Handel's Messiah that we performed better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir -- at a better tempo, with clearer pronunciation. You'll never hear our version, so ... take my word for it. It's simply true.
That's why, when I learned that Margaret Brown had died, and that she herself had asked for a funeral consisting of a choir singing her beloved music, I knew I had to be there.
I don't have the voice I used to have. I knew there would be notes out of my reach. I wasn't going to show off how well I sang, because my voice has become a rather plain church baritone in the past few years.
I was going to go there because people had to see, by my making that trip, just how important Margaret Brown had been in my life, and how much I loved her.
My wife felt exactly the same way, but she couldn't go -- for the reason Margaret herself would understand best. There was no way my wife could attend and get back in time to conduct the vital choir practice that is the last one before we perform.
Missing the funeral of a great conductor because you have to conduct a choir yourself is the most valid of all possible excuses.
We met at nine a.m. on Tuesday morning to practice Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Crimond (with words paraphrasing Psalm 23), and Peter Wilhousky's arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Her granddaughters also sang How Can I Keep from Singing, and her grandsons sang Ye Elders of Israel. And her youngest daughter sang a solo: O Divine Redeemer.
The whole funeral made it clear that no matter how important music was to Margaret Brown, no matter how rigorous and demanding she was, what mattered most in her life was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and her beloved family.
It was a privilege to take part in that funeral service -- by singing, with what's left of my voice, songs that I first learned under Margaret Brown's baton.
You've never heard of Margaret Grace Softley Brown before, and you'll never hear a choir that she conducted. But the influence of her life is still moving outward in waves. Dozens of conductors got their entire training from her, and now many of the people we've conducted are carrying on by conducting choirs and congregations in churches around the world.
You don't have to be in People Magazine to change the world for the better. You just have to do the best you can with the talents and opportunities you've been given, and spend your life trying to help other people also do their best and be joyful in their service.
She had such a tribe of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren there at the funeral. That is the legacy she was proudest of and loved the most.
But there were also many of her musical children there, voices she had nurtured and trained.
When David Bowie died, I thought, "I really liked the song Changes."
When Margaret Brown died, I thought, "Who would I be if she had not touched my life?" That's influence. That's transformation.
Because I was in Utah at a funeral, I did not get to vote in the primary election on Tuesday past.
The old saying used to be, "God protects fools, drunks, and the United States." Drunks don't get the same protection they used to -- if they ever did -- but when the voters choose the fools to govern them, it's hard to know why the Almighty would bother to try to sort out which to protect.
Let's just remember, as we witness the self-destruction of the Republican Party, that any fool can see that while the rules award Trump a disproportionate number of delegates (as they also do for Hillary), in fact there are few places where Trump has received a clear majority of Republican votes.
Instead, time after time, a majority of Republicans reject Trump in favor of -- considering that Cruz is so far in second place -- just about anybody.
Meanwhile, contemplating the general election, it is hard to imagine what independent or Democrat voters are supposed to cross over and give Trump a victory over any breathing Democrat.
We have long known that if Hillary, the politician with more negatives than anybody else, were the Democratic nominee, the Republicans could nominate any plausible candidate and beat her.
So the Republican Party has found a shockingly implausible candidate.
Thus, this coming November we are likely to find ourselves choosing between the two most despicable human beings ever to be in contention for the presidency.
After comments I've seen from Trumpites, they seem to believe that all politicians are liars. They never deliver on their promises, therefore they're not honest and must be thrown out.
Let's remember, though, that we live in a constitutional republic in which there are checks and balances. There is no such thing as an office in which one can keep whatever promise one might have made to the voters, without first persuading others to go along with you.
Admittedly, Obama's dictatorship by executive order, which both Hillary and Bernie are disposed to continue, does make it more likely that, by defying the Constitution, they might be able to keep a promise or two.
But in the world of ordinary American politics, a politician's promises are a statement of intention -- yes, even George Bush, Sr.'s, "Read my lips. No new taxes." But with Democrats in control of Congress at the time, Bush found that they would not approve any rational budget unless Bush humiliated himself by breaking that pledge.
Did that make Bush a liar? No. It did not even make him a promise breaker. It made him an American politician with a determined opposition.
We bandy about the term "lie" and "liar" far too freely in American politics. The rebellious folks who make deeply stupid statements like, "There's no difference between Democrats and Republicans once they're in office," are the same folks who call "all politicians" liars.
The truth is that sometimes politicians are powerless to bring about the whole package they promised.
So grownup voters should realize that political promises are statements of intent, of philosophy: This is what I would like to do, and will try to do if elected.
Then it's the job of the voters not only to elect this politicians, but also to elect enough other like-minded politicians to get their changes enacted.
Democrats kept their promise to get health care reform (as they envisioned it) made into law. Incredibly bad law, but it's a threshold from which everyone knows there is no turning back.
And Republicans kept their promise to do everything in their power to block socialized medicine under the guise of Obamacare. Both parties were honest in their promises to voters.
So when I hear honorable men and women being tarred with the "liar" brush, it makes me angry, because that term should be reserved for the real liars.
Like Trump, who calls himself a winner because he simply lies about all his defeats and failures by denying they happened, and who tries to escape the consequences of his stupid, ignorant, mean-spirited statements by saying he "never meant" things he freely and openly said.
Like Hillary, who is surrounded by so many lies throughout her career -- right down to her refusal to disclose papers she wrote in college or how she managed to perform perfectly in the difficult cattle futures market. Like her husband, she always has a new lie to explain why her previous lie wasn't really a lie.
A Trump-Hillary contest in November will be a race between the two most obvious liars in American politics today. And Hillary will probably win, because the Leftist media never, never, never hold her feet to the fire, and when Fox News or congressional Republicans do, the Leftist media mocks them for it.
But they will hold Trump to every lie and keep riding them till election day. The only reason they haven't done it already is that they love the idea of a Trump nomination, since that's the only way Hillary can be elected.
So once Trump has a lock on the nomination, you can look forward to the Palinization of Trump. And when you consider that Sarah Palin was a true grass-roots citizen politician, a genuine outsider who rode a few issues to become governor of Alaska, and yet they could savage her the way they did (while ignoring Obama's many secrets and stupidities completely), just think what they'll do to Trump.
Will it matter? Not really. Because Trump has already moved most Americans into the "will never vote for Trump ever for anything" category by the things he's said and done himself. Palinizing him will really serve no purpose but to destroy Republicans running for other offices, so that Hillary can come into the White House as Obama did, with control of both houses of Congress.
That's what the media and academic elites are hungry for, even though they know Hillary is a lying monster of ambition. In our era of identity politics, all that matters is that she's a woman of the Left and therefore sacred. (Women of the Right are traitors, and therefore it's OK to destroy them using all the sexist attacks that are always trotted out against women.)
Trump is no conservative. Trump doesn't understand history, foreign relations, or honor -- does anybody seriously think he will keep any promise he's made? I pray not, since his promises are all amazingly stupid and anti-American.
Hillary, like Obama, also doesn't understand history, foreign relations, or honor -- which is why American foreign relations are in a shambles.
Leftists, like the perfect mindless conformists that they are, will reply, "Look at the condition Bush left us in, with quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan!" They can say this because they believe their own propaganda -- they called Iraq and Afghanistan "quagmires" before we even invaded them. But the fact is that by the time he left the White House, President George W. Bush had followed the counsel of the wisest military leaders and we were well on the road to long-term victory, including nation-building, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No, the mess came about because Obama announced a deadline for withdrawal from both countries, which instantly made America irrelevant in both countries, no matter how many troops remained. Obama created ISIS by the premature withdrawal of a very effective occupation force long before the faction-riven Iraqi military could create itself as an effective, unified army.
Ignorant, self-willed presidents who think they're emperors create messes like the one Obama is leaving us in, and both Hillary and Trump are even less competent than Obama. Hillary will no doubt continue Obama's "America is always wrong" philosophy, while Trump will be a bully who has nothing to back up his bluster.
Even if God wanted to continue to protect fools, drunks, and the United States, is he really likely to override the votes of the American people? "Oh, you don't want any of the decent people who were running for office, because they're 'all liars,' so you're now going to elect the worst liars in the race? Apparently, you don't want to be protected, so ... have at it, children."
America is going to have exactly the government that we deserve.
But that really annoys me, because I don't deserve that government. But I'm stuck with whatever the rest of you vote for. We will all pay the price for this election, in which we are throwing out anyone with honor and understanding, in favor of the poster children for Naked Ambition, Lazy Ignorance, Shameless Brag, and Deep-Rooted Contempt for Truth.
It wasn't true when George Wallace used it as a campaign laugh line, but it's true now: We're about to have an election choice between Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dumber.
The very thing that Trumpites accuse "establishment" politicians of, they are going to bring about in truth: They're going to give us an election in which the only difference between the candidates is their hair-do.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com