The Bard of Pawnee, Indiana

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I was standing in the parking lot of our little Valrico, Florida church when a man from the congregation came up to shake my hand. His expression was earnest, his voice impassioned, when he said, “I pray that one day millions of people will hear your voice.” It was an extravagant compliment, and kindly meant, but it was a dangerous thing for a teenager to hear.

I had been on stage for as long as I could remember. When I was very young, no more than six years old, I sang a duet with my mother at a women’s event, and we were awarded the privilege of going through the buffet line first. This was heady stuff for a girl from Fort Lonesome. From there, I embarked on an illustrious musical career, including a starring role in the fifth-grade play, “Christmas from Scratch” and a gig singing backup for Sarah Brightman in three cities. I spent countless hours performing—on the piano, as a soloist, in every imaginable combination of singers, as a composer, as a conductor, even as a dancer. I met my husband because a choir tour overlapped with a family concert. And that was the beginning of the end, I suppose. Marriage, motherhood, homeschooling, and writing took center stage while dust settled on my piano and the memories of my singing days.

The question of how to measure success is one I’d rather skip over. The lie that our work is more significant if more people know and love it is entrenched in our thinking. In all fairness, it is difficult to justify the sacrifices we make when only twenty-seven people like an article we wrote, or only a handful download our latest album. It’s challenging to argue in favor of three years’ work on a novel that will sell no more than a hundred copies.

On the world stage, a bard was no more than a curiosity. Among his own, his value could scarcely be measured.

Helena Sorensen

But I came across a fascinating bit of history while researching for my last book. In Ancient Ireland, according to Brehon Law, each member of a tribe or clan was assigned an honor price. The practice is cold, rather inhuman, assigning a monetary value to each person based on his or her worth to the clan. But according to their way of thinking, it was something along the lines of a life insurance policy. If you were to murder a neighboring farmer in a hot rage, for example, you might be required to compensate the farmer’s family with a gift of ten sheep. If you killed the chief in the same way, your grandchildren might spend their lives making payments of food and livestock to pay your debt. But do you know which member of the clan was assigned the highest honor price? It was not the chief or the druid, not the healer or the blacksmith. It was not the most powerful warrior. It was the bard. The bard was the man (or woman) who knew the history of the village and the clan. In a culture with no written language, the bard was assigned the task of memorizing hundreds of stories and songs—all the history of his people, and all the tales they told.

A bard was not educated in world cultures. He knew nothing of the goings on in Central America or China. But he knew his people. He knew the stories they favored for each occasion, knew the heroes they revered and the things they had lost. In times of celebration, of birth and harvest, it was the bard who delighted the little tribe with songs of rejoicing and tales of triumph. In times of grief, of battle and hunger, it was the bard who ennobled their suffering. On the world stage, a bard was no more than a curiosity. Among his own, his value could scarcely be measured.

This wonderful piece of history came to life when I remembered Andy Dwyer, lead singer of Mouse Rat and resident of Pawnee, Indiana. Andy dreamed of becoming the biggest rock star on the planet. He wanted to crawl out of his little town and into the global spotlight. (What young artist doesn’t hope for that kind of recognition?) But Andy’s finest moment came when the people of Pawnee lost their beloved horse, Li’l Sebastian. Andy was asked to write a memorial song, and the stakes were high. Leslie wanted something “like Candle in the Wind, but five thousand times better,” and the stoic Ron Swanson was determined to “send that glorious beast into the great beyond with a display that rival(ed) the Superbowl half-time show.” The result was an original song of questionable artistry that was deeply satisfying to hundreds of mourners.

As viewers of Parks and Recreation, we can watch the citizens of Pawnee waving candles and shedding copious tears and laugh ourselves silly. But Andy’s performance of “Bye, Bye, Li’l Sebastian” was a significant moment for his tribe. It was not the stuff of breaking news. (I doubt the biggest rock star on the planet could have found the time to write that song and sing it on the Pawnee stage.) Andy’s work was powerful and meaningful precisely because it honored his community’s loss in a way that only the local bard could.

These days I sing for an audience of two, and they have no interest in the singing I did before I became their mother. I have sung them to sleep when they were weary or sick, drawing from my vast repertoire of lullabies, hymns, Disney ballads, and folk songs. My audience has joined me in rousing Slugs and Bugs sing-alongs. In times of celebration, we’ve turned up the volume on movie scores and danced around the house like lunatics. I suspect my singing will never mean more to anyone in the world. With all respect to the man in the parking lot, you can keep your millions.


6 Comments

  1. Matthew Cyr

    @matthewcyr

    This is really intriguing, Helena. Remarkable that “primitive” cultures knew to value most the person filling the role they could least afford to lose, while today the highest “honor price” goes to, what, athletes? Pop stars, “entertainers” who rarely tell the people’s stories, are usually most interested in their own story if any at all? Except maybe for little pockets like the Rabbit Room, where you bards are still delighting our little tribe with songs of rejoicing and tales of triumph, and ennobling our suffering in times of grief, battle, and hunger. The sacrifice is justified.

    May I also say, I’m confident that many more than twenty-seven people like any article you share, unless maybe by “like” we mean strictly someone clicking a button or icon meant to signify approval. To dovetail this into Andrew’s recent post, those of us who don’t use social media don’t always think to click a “like” button – I generally don’t even notice them, they just fade into the background. We don’t always comment, either. But we read, and we quietly receive, and the insight shared finds its way into new places and makes a home there.

  2. Mark W. Schelhorn

    @markw-schelhorn

    Thank you for this. I, like many, used to have those same aspirations that Andy had. I just wanted the world to hear the cries of an honest mans life so they could sing along to all of my grand tunes. But, making up songs about picking up pens and paper or brushing teeth, grabbing an instrument to play and then hearing my children laugh along is so rich. Thanks, Helena, for this reminder!

  3. Heather S

    This is beautiful. Makes me think of a quote from GK Chesterton about mothers: “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.” You are everything to two someones!

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