For 30 years I’ve heard him in my head, and tenor Sam Hagan has been in my basement all along.
I grew up in church, and I loved just about everything about it. The cinderblock hallways, the cheesy Sunday School artwork, the rush of seeing favorite people in the hallways… oh, yes, and the worship itself. But I lived for the moment when my church choir would sing a particular piece of music, Brahms’ “Amen” from “Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee”.
As soon as I’d slip into the dark wood pews of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia back in the seventies, I’d scan the bulletin to see if this might be a week when I’d get to hear what felt to me like a direct transport to heaven, the vehicle for such rapture being the few seconds in the often-sung piece when I’d hear the tenor, Sam Hagan, soaring above the whole beautiful piece (perhaps 45 seconds in all, his part being dominant for maybe 8 seconds).
And when it came, generally at the end of the service as a postlude of sorts, I always had trouble holding back tears. It was too perfect for this earth. It was transcendent.
So for 30 years, I’ve tried to get one church choir director or another to find and perform Brahms’ “Amen.” Mind you, I have no influence with these people, tone-deaf pew sitter that I am. Yet I hoped I could convince them of the merit of the piece with my enthusiasm.
Except there was always a problem: I knew that if I were ever lucky enough to get to hear this piece again, I’d feel let down, because really, as beautiful as the whole choir was, even back in Atlanta, Sam Hagan’s voice was the point. I felt pretty sure that every other tenor would disappoint, even if I had my own personal choir performing this for me alone.
Not long ago I was rummaging through an old pile of LP’s (33 rpm records, young ‘uns) looking for something perfect for a photo shoot. The subject (whose work I was editing) had written about the role of music in her drug addiction, and I thought that we could get an artsy effect if she were holding vinyl when the photographer captured her for a book.
And amidst just about everything that Dave Brubeck or James Taylor have ever done, much of which I own, I found an old LP, “O Sing Unto the Lord” by the Chancel Choir of First Presbyterian Church under the direction of Herb Archer. And on it was Sam Hagan and that beautiful choir. And on it was Brahms’ “Amen.” I gasped.
I didn’t need a choir. I didn’t need to convince anyone to perform this for me. I had it in my own home all along. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she realized she’d had what she needed with her all along. There’s no place like home.
And so I gently laid the needle down on the last track of side two, and I prepared to be transported away, and that I was. I knew every note, every pause. And as Sam Hagan’s voice soared to heaven, recorded for posterity, I wept. I repeated this process several times — needle, memory, weeping.
And then I ran to the computer, doing what I had never thought to do all those years… I googled “Sam Hagan tenor,” and of course, he exists beyond my memory, has gone on for more than 30 years to an ever-deepening career, and has music that can (and thus will) be downloaded (by me). You can even read about him and hear him yourself if you want to.
We can search the world over for what we remember or try to replicate an experience of it, but then again we just may have what we’re looking for closer to home, or in our own basement.