Inside the Jasper Men’s Chorale

Images by John Fisher

I’ve heard the phrase all my life.

Follow your dreams.

One of my dreams for many years has been to sing with a chorale group. During my college days at Walker/Bevill State, I sang with the college choir, directed by Randell Pickering. We did a few shows that year, and I remember singing at Winfield High School. We didn’t have many groupies but I enjoyed it.

In the summer of 2017, I was assigned to write an article for 78 Magazine on the Jasper Men’s Chorale. I’d heard of them but knew they hadn’t performed in a couple of decades. The group had reunited in 2016 for what was planned as a one-time performance. The response from the audience—and the members themselves—was so positive, they decided to continue singing.

When I sat down to interview three of the chorale’s alumni: Pat Nelson, Joe Matthews, and Hank Wiley, I mentioned I had briefly considered joining them the previous year, but decided I lacked the free time for such a commitment. They told me this was a good time to join, as their practice would resume later that month.

A few weeks later, on a warm August Sunday night, I ambled through the doors of Jasper’s First United Methodist Church where practice was held. After being welcomed with open arms by several members, I took a seat with the first tenors. That and each Sunday evening afterward, practice began when Joe Matthews led us in singing Just A Little Talk With Jesus, accompanied by Pat Bowden on the keyboard. As I talked with some of the members afterwards, I was impressed with the camaraderie among them. I kept hearing words like fellowship and brotherhood. I was told I would forge new friendships that would endure for years to come. The more time I spent singing and talking with these men, the more I believed it.

A staple of the chorale’s performances has been humor. Maybe it was because I was a “newbie,” but I was quickly recruited as one of the ten or so thespians for the comedy part of the show. Initially, I was only told I might be wearing a dress. When we first met to practice the skits in November, Eddie Brown explained I would be playing the part of a German nurse who would escort an older and somewhat rattled Dr. Kildare (Bill Young) out on stage. For weeks I honed my German accent by watching Youtube clips of Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein. From then on, Bill referred to me onstage as “Nurse Blucher.”

One evening we met to try on costumes. Mine was a white nurse’s dress with matching lab coat, knee high stockings, a bright red curly wig, large Coke-bottle glasses, and high heels. I guess German nurses in the 1950s (when this skit was set) didn’t wear sneakers. Everything seemed kosher—until I tried on the shoes. Once I was able to slip my feet inside them, I understood why women don’t wear heels anymore. I’ve since learned that the CIA once used these shoes as part of their interrogation methods. Within ten seconds I was babbling nonstop and confessed to several crimes I didn’t commit, including the Lindbergh kidnapping, Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, and the Great Piggly Wiggly T-Bone Steak Robbery of 1953. To say the shoes were uncomfortable would be like saying Henry VIII wasn’t fond of monogamy. As awkward as I felt wearing the dress, I detested those shoes so much that I wouldn’t put them on until a minute before we walked out on stage.

Eddie also came up with a humorous sight-gag I was involved in. To begin the second half of the show, he would be dressed in a robe and nightcap as Scrooge, and would read Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas to a small boy. When Scrooge and the boy discussed the difference in Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the lad would comment that “boys don’t wear high heels because that would be silly.” At that moment I would slink across the stage, now dressed in my tux and red bow tie, carrying a towel, the Styrofoam wig head with my red wig, and the accursed high heels, as if I wasn’t aware anyone else was there. When I spotted them, I would freeze, look embarrassed, turn, and slink off stage. I even threw in a couple of “embarrassed” looks at the audience just before I tiptoed off. I was relieved when it got a few laughs.

Of all the songs we had practiced, the one that we struggled with the most was a medley of Christmas songs titled Christmas In Three Minutes. Although I can’t speak for the other fellows, it was difficult for me because there were songs included that I was either not familiar with, or had never heard before. But as it is frequently with events like this, everything began to fall into place the week of the performances. We practiced it enough that we could sing it well, and the first night when we sang the last note, I was personally relieved to hear applause.

I could relate more stories about my experience, but time and space will not permit it. I will tell you that when I slipped into the nurse’s uniform the night of the first show, David Wesley glanced over with raised eyebrows at my pale white legs and joked, “When’s the last time you were out in the sun?” When I saw the photos of me onstage under those bright spotlights, I knew what he meant. My legs are so pale, you can see right through them.

The year 2017 is rapidly winding down. I will miss those Sunday night practices and the hilarious one-liners from Pat Nelson. I will miss the feeling of satisfaction when the notes you are singing blend so well with the voices of the men sitting around you. I will miss the fellowship and camaraderie shared among the brotherhood of gentlemen who love to lift their voices in song and to share a laugh. But come next year, the Jasper Men’s Chorale will reassemble on a Sunday evening and once again the walls of Jasper’s First United Methodist Church will reverberate with the voices of both long-time members and new ones.

And perhaps, if I am a good boy next year, I won’t have to wear a dress or those horrible shoes. But maybe I should work on my tan, just in case. 78

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