Here’s to mixed company

Dec 2, 2009 at 6:00 am

Last Saturday my already pleasant holiday was made complete by a few simple songs.

My lady and I were to make a meal and a smoky little fire to celebrate a buddy’s birthday. Unbeknownst to us, her neighbor, with whom she shares a yard, had invited a group of 12 Peruvians over for a similar gathering.

I struggle with Early Onset Curmudgeon Disorder and was, admittedly, a little disappointed that our small group would be joining a gang of strangers around the fire pit. Even without my girlfriend’s gentle reminding, I’m self-aware enough to know that my grumpy episodes are mostly counterproductive, that these visitors were, in all likelihood, lovely people, and that a good time could be cultivated with little or no effort. And so I pulled on my polite face.

As we all know, especially at this time of year, it can be tricky to cope with situations where one is expected to hunker down with total strangers for a few hours. More so if you don’t speak the same language as your guests, and they outnumber you two-to-one. I know enough Spanish to alternately get into, and stay out of, trouble. Mostly I sound like any other well-intentioned knucklehead who should probably just nod his head, smile and say, “Si.”

I’m pretty sure I said most, if not all of the following sentences to a very gracious older gentleman named Roque that night:

“Hi! I like to meet you! I am lived in Spain seven years in the past from today, but my speaking is very ugly right now. I am so pregnant because of this. I am very glad to encounter you mister! What type of mineral exports from your geographic region? I also enjoy fish.”

So how to navigate around some country-ass Spanish skills and move away from the ancient curse of Babel toward something like humane interaction?

As it turns out, sampling liquors from the regions represented and singing songs helps — a lot.

After some tiny ham sandwiches and mangled Spanglish pleasantries, we toasted our health with a Peruvian cocktail that tasted like a Lime-Julius margarita, and our little international delegation repaired to the fire pit. We Kentuckians sipped a little of our own and were encouraged by our hostess to sing a few songs.

I like singing, and I like a campfire, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything less than the most dreadfully lonesome songs at such moments. We sang a few nice tunes that were met with gracious appreciation, but each one was more lonesome than the next. It finally became clear to me that I need to learn a few family-friendly campfire tunes when I found myself singing the following lines from the old ballad “St. James Hospital,” while a blissfully oblivious Peruvian child listened attentively: 

Send 16 pretty maidens for to carry my coffin

Sixteen pretty maidens for to sing me a song

And tell’m to bring some of those sweet smelling roses

so they won’t smell me as they bare me along.


A friend, a devoted folklorist, magically developed a functional understanding of the Spanish language and inquired about the Peruvian folksinger Pastorita. (It was explained to me later that there is no one figure in our culture equivalent to Pastorita. She is something like an amalgam of Bob Marley, Eleanor Roosevelt and Elvis.)

It was all the Peruvians needed.

They were beside themselves to discover that one of their national folk icons was known and appreciated in the rolling hills of Nelson County, Ky., and after they picked their chins up off the ground, the rest of the evening was none but a medley of Peruvian hill ballads.

The matriarch of the family had a beautiful if stern countenance and a glacial stature that was truly magnetic. She had been mostly quiet and solitary until her family got to singing. All at once the firelight seemed to shine only on her face, which had become relaxed and joyous. After a time she closed her eyes, tilted her chin up and shouted out a song of the type that Latin folk alone have truly perfected, in which joy, longing, love and pain are perfectly distilled into a sound that refuses to be misunderstood.

Here’s to mixed company, here’s to singing for the sake of the song, and most of all: Here’s to listening to strangers.

Reading: “In Search of Duende” by Federico Garcia Lorca

Singing from: Rise up Singing edited by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson