Talent Night in Jenkintown

Posted on June 9, 2010


We have in our town an old-fashioned social club, like what my associates called the “animal” clubs (elks, lions, etc.) when I was active in politics 25 years ago. And we have an old-fashioned borough—where students walk to school, neighbors say “hello,” and in which patrons at the corner eatery sang happy birthday to me last night.

At this club, an Irish bar and listening club called MacSwiney’s www.macswineyclub.com/news.php, there was an open mike last night. Due to rain, the event was moved inside from the town center. I had never had an excuse to go into MacSwiney’s, so satisfying my curiosity about the inside of the place was the main portion of my attraction to the event.

MacSwiney’s, once called Clan Na Gael, is a semi-public gathering place oriented toward but not limited to (Irish) ethnic identity, like the Hungarian and Slovenian clubs that I knew well on the South Side of Bethlehem (where the Democratic Party often held functions). The club’s very shabbiness and unassuming quality filled me with a sense of remembrance and familiarity, like the battered old sofa you never want to throw away. Though smoking may now be banned, the place is drenched in the aroma of stale cigarette smoke. A plastic holiday garland and twinkle lights rings the ceiling and the space is cramped, a little mismatched, and well-loved.

To my surprise the place was brimming with people—with families, including everyone from toddlers to young teens, and their parents. Last night was gray and wet—like the place described in the lyrics of “Breakaway” covered a capella by a blushing, stammering row of three pre-teen girls. The talent night was apparently something for which the local young people had been practicing and there was no shortage of acts raring to go. Folding chairs were set up and there was a microphone and keyboard at the front corner. Parents stood at the back and children who had overflowed the chairs sat at the front on the scratched floor of pine boards.

The prevailing mood was one of unconditional approval and celebration. There was no nasty Simon Cowell to tell the young man in Elton John-like over-sized plastic glasses who sang “Paparazzi” www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2smz_1L2_0 that his voice was a bit rough or off-key. His assembled classmates fairly roared with praise when his (and every performer’s) act finished, no matter its imperfections or truncation due to stage fright.

The youngest performer looked to be about six years old and was encouragingly prodded by the audience and (presumably) his father while he edged around to turn his back on the listeners before croaking out less than a bar of “Luck Be a Lady” www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYWFKRYVYn8.

We were all stars for embracing the satisfaction of being together in one room, but one of the best renditions, objectively, came from a young man who hammered out “I’m Yours” www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHTsc9PU2A with pretty decent vocals, though the room was loud and the amplification distorted.

Kurt Vonnegut lectured at Lehigh University more than two ago and I have remembered threads of his analysis of the arts these many years—that electronic media magnify and disseminate those who are “freaks” (Vonnegut’s word) of attractiveness and talent—making  the rest of us feel like something scraped off of someone’s shoes. The author’s recommendation was that we re-find our voices, or pick up musical instruments, or read aloud, or dance, or in some other way connect with what we all can do—live, in person, with our bodies, imperfectly, with pleasure, not vicariously, or through screens.

It’s not that the ubiquitous tools of electronic communication were absent last night. These middle school and high school students are the most wired and wireless generation that has ever lived. There was blending of pulse and electronic impulse, presence and telecopresence. The students were shooting digital video on their cell phones in the last of the twilight, so that the glowing little rectangles clustered around whoever was holding the “stage” put me in mind of the candles and butane lighters at Grateful Dead concerts I have attended.. Others were conveying the live performance to distant friends by holding their phones open on a call so the voices of the singers were transmitted.

But mostly the performances were here and now and more palpable with agape and caritas than I have felt in a long time. The fresh-faced performers were rewarded with love simply for having the guts to stand up and sing two lines of a commercial jingle about chocolate and peanut butter. The room vibrated as they clapped and stormed out their praise of everyone who lifted his or her voice.

As Kelly Clarkson www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-3vPxKdj6o says, “Spread your wings and learn how to fly,” girls (and boys), but “[don’t] forget the place [you] come from” and the feel of immediate experiences like this one.

For future Jenkintown events, see http://jenkintownboro.com/?page_id=490

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