In the unsophisticated opinion of the young Ansel Head, he had been boorishly treated when he was suddenly and without recourse yanked from religious schooling with his best friend Ross at the South Highland’s Presbyterian Church, forced into the suffocating, perfume and cigarette infused Oldsmobile 88, and deposited at St. Mary’s On The Highlands where confusion reigned. He had been led to believe that his church going exercise was supposed to help him find God. The fact that he was unable to even grasp what a God is in St. Mary’s new and challenging environment, much less find Him, was further proof that an Ivy League education was out of the question for this, the least intellectual boy in the family.
It was at one Christmas during this period of Head’s life that Santa Claus brought him a record player. The player wasn’t much bigger than the boxes in which fruit cakes came; such gifts were from grateful vendors of his family’s grocery business and were a permanent part of the season. Head easily made the connection because these boxes would remain unopened in the pantry until the following Christmas when new fruit cakes would arrive. The old boxes were then opened; the cakes were removed from the metal tins and thrown away. His mother was doing her best to put to rest the old wives’ tale that the number of fruit cakes in the world remains constant because they were never eaten but passed along as next year’s gift.
She saved the decorative tins for cookies, cheese straws, and future religious ceremonies.
There was also a record under the tree. Head turned on the player, put the needle down on the outside grove, and moved onto his other toys. Several songs passed without much notice. Then suddenly, there was this booming voice singing,
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King…”
Head had never heard such a thing. He was taken completely aback. His chest heaved. There was a welling up inside his throat. Moisture came to his eyes. “What is this?” he stammered, his voice cracking.
His grandmother replied, “It’s The Holy City!”
No one else was paying any attention to the boy. But his grandmother was strangely present for his introduction to the song. Knowing the boy as no one else did, she had most likely chosen the record. She recognized her grandson’s reaction. She saw the light come on in him. She had introduced her unscholarly offspring to a religious course that even he could pass. It was as the song said:
“The light of God was on its streets,
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter,
And no one was denied.”
The intellectuals would pursue German philosophy and huministic discourses; but for Head, such music would forever thereafter be his preferred curriculum in the pursuit of a spiritual education.
Head played the song again and again, increasing the volume each time. His reaction was always the same. He would have gone on forever except the others forced him to cool it.
Regrettably, the St. Mary’s classes continued unabated. Head had no say in such matters. And the staid, white, and conservative Episcopal congregation’s intoning to the pipe organ produced no sound that raised even an eyebrow in the boy. Head would have to wait until he reached McCallie to once again embark upon the courses his grandmother had introduced.
Head auditioned dozens of renditions of The Holy City on ITunes and settled on only one for the reader to consider. Mahalia Jackson may or may not have been the voice he heard that Christmas morning many years ago. No matter though, for she is how he remembered it; her booming, unfeigned, and heartfelt voice fills any soul that listens. It even cracks a bit, much like Head’s voice broke when he asked his grandmother the source of his new found inspiration.
The reader is invited to hear Ms. Jackson “sing for the night is o’er” by clicking the play arrow below and following along with the lyrics here.