I was never shy about singing. All five of us Ramelkamp kids could carry a tune, and had strong, clear voices. Mama had a sweet voice. I recall her singing "My Old Kentucky Home" - breaking down at the end with tears rolling down her cheeks. Mama was born a Kentuckian, and so she remained, even though she spent her adult years in California.
Early on I thought everyone could sing, just as I thought everyone could read.
At age 3, I started Sunday school, tagging along with my older siblings. I learned hymns by rote, copying other young choristers and following the organ music. I sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" lustily, but it was years before I realized that it was "Onward" and not "Ornery" Christian soldiers.
During elementary school, we had "singing" at the start of each day. It seems to me we were always happy and ready to settle down after singing.
By fifth grade, I had made a name for myself as an imitator of famous singers. When our classes were herded into the auditorium for a "talent show," I was often called upon to give my imitation of Maurice Chevalier singing "Louise" - French accent and all.
I also tried to do Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River." Never mind that he was a basso profundo and I was a child soprano, I thought my deep Alabama-style accent would carry me past that little discrepancy! I practiced at home in our all-tiled downstairs bathroom. After a while Mama would pound on the door and call, "Come on out now, Betsy! Other people need to use that bathroom." I came out, suspecting that she just couldn't stand to hear me moaning, "Dat ol' man ribber, he jes' keep rollin' along," one more time.
When I was 11, Mama announced she was expecting. I was overjoyed: I thought of my sibling-to-be as a large, live baby doll I could dress up in pretty clothes and sing to sleep in our rocking chair. I learned to sing "Mighty Like a Rose," in preparation. I kept my Alabama accent in shape, singing, "Sweetest li'l feller, anybody knows, Don' know what to call him, but he's mahty lahk a rose." I hoped it would be a girl.
As it turned out, my brother Jimmy fell short of the angelic scenario I had pictured. He spent the first few months howling and spitting up, and refusing to be comforted by my singing. Ah well!
I sang to my own babies constantly. (Their all-time favorite was, "Hush Little Baby," followed by "I'm a Little Teapot.") By this time, my husband had bought me an autoharp. When I worked as a substitute teacher, I played it for my young students. They loved having me as their teacher for we always had more singing, and less arithmetic, on my days.
In the '60s I graduated to the guitar. I bought one for $10 in Mexico, and took lessons at night. Fortunately, many folk songs are in the key of C and I was soon playing and singing "All the Pretty Little Horses," and "This Land Is Your Land" with the best (and worst) of them.
We did a lot of camping with our children and - of course - we sang while driving to and from our destinations, and at campfire gatherings led by rangers.
On one trip, with our friends Fred and Maggi and their three kids, the climax was a visit to Hearst Castle in the first days of its opening to the public. Crowds were enormous. People arrived at dawn and stood in line until 8 a.m. to get ticket for a tour at an appointed time later in the day. We had spent the night camping on the beach with our friends and arrived at 7 to find a well-formed line already.
The morning was cold and misty. We stamped our feet and blew on icy hands, wishing we had worn parkas and brought hot drinks. People muttered unhappily.
My daughter said, "Mom, we ought to get this crowd singing. Then they'd feel better and stop complaining."
I asked Maggi, "Shall we?"
"Let's," she said, and turning to our kids, "You all sing as loud as you can, you hear me?"
I shouted, "Everybody sing!" and burst into "Clementine." We sang for an hour, and the crowd sang with us. They wouldn't let us stop, shouting "More, more!" and suggesting other songs. By the time the gates opened we felt warm, and there was no more complaining.
Years later, my friend Dotty and I were on a group tour of China in the early years after Nixon's famous visit. The tour was winding down. We were sitting in a restaurant in Guilin, killing time while waiting for an oft-delayed flight to Canton. When we learned that our flight had been postponed again, we grew tired and disgusted: We'd miss our day in Canton.
In recompense, we were offered a special banquet, which included steamed anteater and snake soup. Just as oranges were passed out for dessert, all lights failed.
One member of our group, nicknamed "Big John," who had a voice to fit his physique, rose and started singing "America the Beautiful."
We all rose to sing with him. We continued singing other favorites, while cooks and waitresses came out of the kitchen to listen. Passersby paused and peered in the windows. The owners came in with candles. When the lights finally came on, all of our listeners bowed and applauded. It was our group's finest hour.
Singing is a pleasure that has helped me through many a trying circumstance. Even now, the melodies are still in my head, pure and perfect. I continue to sing along.