I met up last night with two writer friends, and one of them asked, “Do you think you really need a universal point in an essay? What if I’m writing about something not everyone can relate to, like addiction?”
“Listen, I could read an essay about a gay guy who only picks up Sri Lankan men, and he keeps getting rejected by them. I’m not gay, and I don’t have a thing for Sri Lankans, but if it’s a story about rejection, I can certainly relate to it.” I said.
On my way home, I walked along the boardwalk and saw a band practicing under the open sided shed on the boards that they call the pavilion. My town has a strong Methodist influence, and the structure is typically used for church services during the summer, so I imagined the musicians were about to play Christian hymns or a march by John Philip Sousa (there’s often an overlap between religion and patriotism, and the musical tastes in my town are no exception). Despite not liking either, I stopped to listen because it was a beautiful evening. I was also tired. I have been tired a lot lately. There was a cool breeze coming off the ocean, a welcome change after three days of 95-degree weather and a warm wind coming off the land.
I took a seat in one of the pews. The conductor tapped his baton, and the musicians sat up at attention. Suddenly, the first clarinet began: buh duh duh duh duh duh, and I knew immediately what it was: Fiddler on the Roof. I could name that tune in two notes. I’d played clarinet for many years, though I was relegated to third clarinet for the first several years, where you play a lot of whole notes and rests. There’s a home movie of me in sixth grade where I’m wearing silver circle glasses and a pants suit my mother made for me, and I’m standing in our dining room playing my clarinet part for our upcoming school concert. All you see is me tapping my foot for several measures, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, buh duh duh duh duh, buh duh duh duh dut, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Buh duh, two, three, four. By ninth grade, I had graduated to first clarinet, but I was second seat, so when we played Fiddler on the Roof, Russell Alesi, who was first clarinet, first seat, got the coveted fiddler solo – the most famous refrain from the whole play, and a wonderfully mournful little song made almost specifically for the clarinet.
The song works so well for the clarinet because the piece of music sounds so very Jewish, and the clarinet has always been the voice of the Jewish plight. That’s why it’s featured so heavily in Klezmer music. It captures the laughing and the sobbing of the Jewish experience.
It was funny to hear this Methodist band play it under a sheltered structure usually reserved for Christian services. But then if I can relate to a gay man longing for a Sri Lankan boyfriend, surely a Methodist clarinet player can sing like a fiddler on the roof.