Whenever I used to read interviews with rock stars, they would invariably say something like, My parents bought me my first guitar when I was three, and I started playing as soon as I could walk. And then I would think, Yeah, right. How could a child do something like that?
So imagine my amazement when, a few months ago, I bought a little toy guitar for my nephew Matthew, and he began happily strumming away.
It shouldnt have been a surprise. From his mother (my sister Carolyn) I knew that Matthew was a big fan ofwait for itBruce Springsteen. Since Carolyn is herself a longtime devotee of the Boss, she plays Springsteen CDs in the car while driving Matthew to day care, along with her to shop, or to the pediatrician. Soon Matthew started singing along. He is particularly fond of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, in which Bruce covers Pete Seeger folk songs.
The first night that Matthew got his little plastic guitar he took it to bed with him. This was the beginning, as Rick says in Casablanca, of a beautiful friendship.
For the next few months Matthew was rarely seen without it. With it, he sang such toddler hits as Old Dan Tucker and his favorite, Pay Me My Money Down. Though one wonders what a two-year-old would know about a 19th-century worker protest song first commercially recorded by the Weavers in 1955, this deterred him not at all from pursuing his art.
For Christmas his parents bought Matthew a second guitar, an inexpensive childs model. Essentially its a half-size instrument, with a real wooden neck and body, and its less likely to break than the plastic version. The first time his plastic guitar broke, Matthew uttered the all-purpose words that apparently all American toddlers know from birth: Uh-oh. Tears were avoided with Krazy Glue and a stout rubber band.
Though I wasnt there for the Christmas unwrapping, I was with my nephew the following week at my mothers house. One morning, the first thing he said was a sprightly Hi, Uncle Jim! The second was Strap! That meant he wanted me to position the guitar strap around his shoulders to ready himself for a day of nonstop music-making.
But even more surprising than the two-year-old guitarist is the two-year-old liturgical musician. For a few songs down from Pay Me My Money Down on his repertoire is the memorial acclamation from the Mass. The next day, at eight in the morning, I was awakened by the faint sounds on the other side of my bedroom door of a high-pitched voice that cannot quite pronounce the letter r: Quiste has dieeeed! Quiste is wizzennnnnn! Quiste wiw come agaaaainnnnn!
Also popular is his rendition of the Great Amen, and Jesus, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of either the world or the wuwd. Im guessing the former.
Matthews enthusiasm for liturgical music probably comes from his love of church. He has always been happy to go to Mass with his family, sing the hymns and shake hands with the congregation. One of his earliest words was Amen! and one of his earliest actions was making the Sign of the Cross.
Speaking of whichlast month I was asked to be a technical adviser for a movie now in production called Doubt, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, which was being filmed at the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y.
One day they were shooting reaction shots of parishioners listening to a homily during Mass. The production designers had reconfigured the space to recreate the architecture of a pre-Vatican II church, complete with a high altar and an altar rail. At the conclusion of his homily, the priest said, In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. In response, the extraslocal men, women and children dolled up in 1960s attiresat motionless.
After I mentioned to the first assistant director that Catholics of that era would bless themselves at the invocation of the Trinitarian formula, he said, Well, come up front and show everyone how to do it.
It took them two or three tries. The first thing that popped into my mind was a desire to say, quite truthfully, My two-year-old nephew can do this!
And he plays a mean Doxology, too.