I Found Sam Hagan in my Own Basement

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 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 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 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 as a postlude of sorts if I remember well, I had trouble holding back tears.  It was too perfect for earth.  It just belonged elsewhere.  And it took me straight with it to the presence of God, to the praise of God.

So for 30 years, I’ve tried to get one choir director or another to find and perform the “Brahms’ Amen.”  Mind you, I have no influence with these people, tone-deaf pew sitter that I am, but 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 let me down, even if I could convince my own personal choir to perform this for me alone (a longshot).

So yesterday, 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’m editing) had written about the role of music in her drug addiction, and I thought, in my capacity as Creative Director, that we could get an artsy effect if she were holding vinyl.

And amidst just about everything that Dave Brubeck or James Taylor have ever done, I found “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.  And have had it, lo, all these years.  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, in my memory, every note, every pause.  And as Sam Hagan’s voice soared to heaven, recorded for posterity, I wept.  I repeated this process — needle, memory, weeping.

And then I ran to the computer, doing what I never thought to do all those years… I googled “Sam Hagan Tenor” and of course, he exists beyond my memory, has gone on for 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 right here, though I haven’t figured out how to play you the “Amen.”

The wonders of the internet will expand my joy, but old boxes in the basement are full of joy too.

And heaven-soaring voices.  Amen.

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~ by Cary on September 17, 2010.

4 Responses to “I Found Sam Hagan in my Own Basement”

  1. What I love love love about this entry is the fact that you describe an experience in childhood church that could not be further from my own. It’s sompletely foreign to me, your love of the cinderblock walls, seeing people you loved there, etc. How I WISH I’d felt even a shred like that! Isn’t God just strange what He chooses for one person and then for another? But He’s in all of it, somehow—- Here I am, too, now: right in his lap next to you. Which is a total blessing, by the way, being next to you here. Anyway, your description of that gives me a sweet joy. Need to hear the Sam Hagan part.

    • I’ve always thought it was part of what makes me love to go to churches to speak. I’m comfortable there. I hate to ask, but am interested, what your early church experiences were like.

  2. I love reading this. I have no recollection of the song or Sam. So neat to know. And love your description of the experiences – both in church and in your basement 😉

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