Tuesday, March 31, 2009

To my songbird, in memory of Judy Bethea

Allie's email came last night, but I only checked my inbox this afternoon. It was only then that I realized that a large part of my life had suddenly dissolved and disappeared. Judy passed away peacefully at 5pm on the 30th of March, 2009 from repeated stages of cancer. And this was the one Spring Break that I had to be away from New Orleans, away from Wesleyan, tucked in the confines of the Bod or the faculty library chasing images and words rather than singing with the boys for Judy. The second Spring Break, before we drove up to New Orleans, Judy had emailed me with a request to perform a song for Bill. Her secret idea was to rehearse surreptitiously by herself before the Spirits materialized, then when we did, we'd sneak to the hall downstairs - me on the piano and Judy on vocals - to hammer out a love surprise for Bill. That song never came to be; when I arrived in New Orleans, Judy was feeling far too weak to sing. Even so, she still mustered the strength to resonate the earth-shattering solo on "change in my life", which she always sang with the Spirits, year after year. Her other request was that we sing "Lullabye" at her funeral. We were always ready to perform that number (as we had done year after year); in my freshman year, Judy cried while we sang. In my Sophomore year, she held back the tears, overcoming something that we could not bear witness to. It was with this email that I realized what she had finally overcome. And I think she was ready to go, unbeholden, with a rigourous, beautiful song.

Judy is a songbird unlike any other. Her generosity unfailing, always excessive, always wordless with a hug you'd never forget. It is only befitting that we return the hug in song, indeed in lullabye, for all that she has selflessly given. Judy Bethea, an architectural historian of New Orleans - one of the best in the intellectual community - made it a point to force us into a van on a sunny Spring Break afternoon, and drive us right into the heart of post-Katrina devastation, impelling us to encounter the other side of human life. A reminder in our somewhat hyperactive celebration of academic freedom, other people were busy rebuilding their lives. These were the Spring songs she sang every year, songs that were enriching, soul-lifting, but at the same time realistic and mindful of our interventions. Her enthusiasm for life was contagious, her love for Bill examplary. I'm sorry, Judy, that I forgot what song you wanted to sing for Bill. If I had the means to reach back into the trough of emailing history before the Wesleyan server moved to the new gmail network, I would. But this sudden shift exhausted it all. I no longer have material momentoes of you, of us. But I have your hugs, your love, and most importantly, your song. Your song that transgressed whatever state of wear your body was subject to, your song that dis-articulated the most unrelenting of emotional states. Your song that ultimately became our song because you sang it and owned it.

In Medieval Bestiaries, there is a palpable gendered tension between two cultural manifestation of sung birds. One, as Elizabeth Leach points out, is the nightingale, the male counterpart to philomela which hankered out illogical melodies without rational vox. Yet the Medieval's fascination with the sung bird cannot resist moralizing and valorizing the nobility of life unto song. In Cassiodorus' account of the singing nightingale, he repeates fascination with the "tenacious spirit" through which song is made manifest in the "tiny" body of the nightingale, causing it to sing, even unto death. The nightingale kills itself through song. Another popular image which is paired with the nightingale is the Swan, and accounts of the beauty of the Swan's final song are rife in the Middle Ages. Yet a single Bestiary trumps these associations, one that is still found in the Bodelian library. It's author praises the laudible musical abilities of the nightingale, but strangely, likens it to the archetypal singing maiden who, through song, overcomes her physical tedium and accomplishes her task. The maiden transgresses her gedered body, considered weak and incompetent in numerous 12th and 13th century accounts of sexual divisions, seeking strength in her own song, and yet being elevated to the status of the nightingale's sweet crooning. Song was understood to be properly metaphysical, affective and penetrating. Judy's song always bespoke of a life that refused to be caged by physical limitations, a song that challenged while inspired. It is to your impossible song I look, Judy, because you've transfigured us in a way that will always leave our music wanting, empty, lacking. But we sing nonetheless, because you've taught us how we can precisely overcome ourselves, effecting a material "change in our lives", encouraging us to go out and do the same.

I love you Judy, and I know you're still singing.

Goodnight, my angel
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you've been asking me
I think you know what I've been trying to say
I promised I would never leave you
And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away

Goodnight, my angel
Now it's time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I'm rocking you to sleep
The water's dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You'll always be a part of me

Goodnight, my angel
Now it's time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on...
They never die
That's how you
And I
Will be


Anonymous said...

hello(: we are a group of students doing a project on ge tai. According to your blogpost on 25th april 2008,you did a paper on ge tai. We hope that you will be able to give us some insights on it and tips on how to research for it. Please contact us at moon_sunris3@yahoo.com.sg Thanks in advance.


Layisblessed said...

I have been looking for my high school English teacher for a while now. We lost touch after I moved from New Orleans in 2002. Her name is Judy Bethea and I'm praying that she is not the one of whom you speak. I know that after leaving Kennedy she began doing history on old homes...
If you could confirm or deny, I would greatly appreciate it!!

Aledria Brown
JFK c/o '89