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Senior Correspondent

If you do an Internet search on the phrase "call and response" most of the information returned is either musical or theological.  In jazz or gospel music one musician will offer — or call out — a dominant phrase and another will embellish the composition with a response. Call and response. In a religious setting the leader will call out a key phrase and the congregation will answer back as the liturgy demands. Call and response. The definition is accurate, but limiting.

I am more comfortable with the idea of "assertion and affirmation." One voice asserts something to be so, and other voices affirm — and usually expand upon — the assertion. But both call and response and assertion and affirmation go beyond a logical construction. The history of the form — whatever we chose to call it — has a lot to do with community and identity.

The same Internet search will return a lot of hits that deal with the African, or African-American, roots of call and response, both in music and theology. Slave chants to both pace and break the monotony of hard labor; religious chorusing to maintain faith and define a community of hope. Again, accurate but limiting. I would guess that scholars of any specific group could provide us with examples of "assertion and affirmation" in their community of interest. From the days when human beings first cast their lot upon the waves, sea shanties or “chanties” — in addition to making hard, dangerous, and frightening work a little lighter — bound the often culturally disparate community of maritime laborers together.

From Roman legions to boot camps around the modern world, soldiers drill, march to, and are unified by, the rhythmic, semi-sung "assertion and affirmation" chants of their compatriots. I am unaware, other than in communities of silence, of religious services in which responsive readings play no part. Rather, "reading responsively" seems central to assertions of faith and community throughout the world. Fans of athletic teams will "call and respond" with team colors to urge their favorites on to victory. Here at NC State that means "Red!" pause, pause, "White!" So however we name it, from communities both sacred and profane "Call and Response" or "Assertion and Affirmation" seems, if not universal, then at least far-flung.

And what, you may well ask, does that have to do with the family reunion/farm auction I attended a few weeks ago in South Dakota? Excellent question.

If Distilled Harmony can make any claim to being a Theory of Everything, a claim I do make when lights are low and things are warm and comfortable, the tenets need to bring meaning to the events of each passing day. The "assertion" of the validity of a tenet needs to be followed by the "affirmation" of a "for instance." In this particular "for instance" the tenets of Foster Harmony and Distill Complexity brought me face-to-face with an unusually version of "call and response" or "assertion and affirmation." Let me set the stage.

My Schrag grandparents were married on November 23, 1905. Over the next several decades they, farmed, preached, taught school and raised nine children out on the demanding, but fertile, plains surrounding the little hamlet of Freeman, South Dakota. Those children, in turn, produced some 20 + children of their own. That is my generation. We refer to our parent's generation as the First Generation. We are "the cousins." My father's death this past year, at age 100, reduced the surviving number of the First Generation to three, scattered, west coast, and Dakota with the youngest sharing time between New York City and West Lafayette, Indiana.

Well, it happened that one of "the cousins" had chosen the last week in July to auction off the family farm. Her husband had passed away and her children were living down the road in the wicked city of Sioux Falls. She figured, “Why should they have all the fun?” and made arrangements sell the farm and follow. Simultaneously the wife of one of the First Generation — who had also been born and raised in the Freeman area — was being honored, along with her deceased sisters. A bench dedicated the Singing Waltner Sisters was to be installed in a local park. So she — my Aunt Stella, her husband, my Uncle Delbert — one of the surviving three of the First Generation — and a couple of their children (more of "the cousins") were heading for Dakota. My New York/sometimes Indiana Uncle Calvin — another of the First Generation – decided if his two surviving brothers were going to be in Dakota, it would be silly for him not to be there too. So he and his daughter Heather — the youngest of "the cousins", and her daughter Jennifer, (a "cousin" once removed?) also headed west to Freeman. With all this going on a couple of "the cousins" declared this an ideal time for a family reunion — and so it came to pass. I decided this was not an event I could miss and bought a plane ticket to Sioux Falls and nabbed a Priceline car rental.  If you are now hopelessly lost, that is good, because that is exactly the point.

Back to the events. The formal "reunion" was a dinner held in a large room in the restaurant out by the golf course. There must have been 40 or so of us there. The room had hard, flat walls; the same for the floor and ceiling. Mine is a family that talks a lot — and loudly. It was then that I noticed that the entire  "First Generation" — and I believe that includes spouses – was sporting dual hearing aids. They could probably hear what was going on. I suspect some in my generation – myself included — were faking it. But I caught enough to grasp the dominant theme: who are you and how do you fit into this patchwork of Schrags?

The days leading up to the auction centered on getting Rita's [the cousin auctioning the farm] place ready for that event. If you have never been to one, it is my understanding that even an ordinary farm auction defies description for urbanites.  Everything gets sold — from a huge combine to a paper of pins. The auctioneer holds up the item — "I've got a Winchester 9422 rifle here. Wonderfully maintained. Who'll give me 75 dollars? Good. 100?" And so it goes until everything is sold, the Lookie-Lous have left and the dust has settled. That's an ordinary auction, and this was to be no ordinary one. Somehow Rudy, the recently deceased husband of cousin Rita, had managed to acquire 14 tractors ranging from an ancient "What is that? A Farmall?" to late model John Deeres and International Harvesters with glass enclosed cabs, air-conditioning and stereos. It was an oft repeated theme that Rudy apparently applied to vehicles, tools, headgear, and five-gallon plastic jugs — if one is good, a few dozen must be better. There were to be "two rings," meaning that two sets of auctioneers would circle the site selling simultaneously. Tough for the buyer if two items you had your eye on went up at the same time!

Getting ready for the sale entailed an incredible amount of work, much of which had been going on for days, if not weeks.  When west coast cousin John and I arrived on the scene we were given tasks requiring a specialized skill set — cleaning tractor windows. Having missed a couple of small, barely visible windows, the next day I was promoted to Gator driver.   Various sale items would be loaded onto the back of a John Deere Gator [think large golf cart with a small flatbed on the back] and local "cousin-in-law" Jim and I would drive it to where we were instructed. There others, with knowledge of the "big plan," would move the objects to where the auctioneers could get to them. I searched in vain through cousin Rudy's vast collection of baseball caps for one declaring "Gators R Us"

The day of the auction I awoke to drizzle and puddles in the parking lot of the Freeman Country Inn. "They promised sun!" I muttered to myself as I jumped into my rental, grabbed a "morning sandwich" at the neighboring Subway, and headed for Rita's place. Visions of soaked lampshades and dry goods danced in my brain. Fortunately, the mist blew over, cooling the day and letting the auction begin as scheduled. I truly cannot describe it. I wandered around like a kid at his first county fair.  I may attempt a further description at another time, but that isn't the point here. The point was the unfolding theater.  My father was a sociologist. He taught me that eavesdropping is a perfectly legitimate research tool. I used it extensively during the auction. The dialogue was intriguing:

Cousin Dean, brother to cousin Rita reported that "it was a good sale."

A grizzled local informed his companion: "I think that was Art's tractor. Ran good up until the 70s." Art was a name often repeated. I think he was either Rudy's father or Grandfather.

One of the First Generation called to a seeming age mate whom I did not recognize: "Well, hi there young fellow! I haven't seen you since [somebody's] 65th anniversary. How are you holding up?"

And then one of the guys who had been around the last couple of days and seemed privy to the big plan came up to me as I stood chatting with my 50+ west coast cousin John. "So," he asked me, "How do you fit in here? Is this your son?" Naturally, I addressed cousin John as "son" for the rest of the weekend.

Gradually I came to recognize a "assertion and affirmation" or "call and response" pattern that manifested at least two tenets of Distilled Harmony — Foster Harmony and Distill Complexity.  It is a phenomenon I have now come to think of as "calling the genealogy." In truth, the phenomenon has always been a part of my visits to South Dakota. Years ago I would simply identify myself as "Chummy's son." Chummy was my father's boyhood nickname, and that would usually suffice to define my place in the community. I would "assert" my place as Chummy's son, and most often the "affirmation," "Oh, Reverend Schrag's boy, Chummy!" would complete the "call and response" the complexity of genealogy was quickly distilled, my place in it made clear, and my harmonious place in the community would be acknowledged.

But time, as it does with all things, has changed the dynamic of the ritual. The "First Generation" now numbers three.  Only one of whom stills resides in this special place. All but four of the 20+ "cousins" have departed. A few are within driving distance, but, for most, a pilgrimage "to Dakota" means full days in the air, rental cars, and the lobby of The Freeman Country Inn.

So the calling of the genealogy for a distributed clan takes on a complexity and a subtle urgency absent in the years when dozens of "the called" thronged, at previous gatherings, among all manner of kin. I suppose calling the genealogy always gets accentuated when the "out-of-towners" appear, but I was struck by how much energy went into articulating the various relationships during this gathering: so-and-so married so-and-so's son, and he was Uncle so-and-so's nephew on his mother's side. The "begats" poured out like an Old Testament homily, but rarely did we learn what these people did or had done for a living. Unlike the urban environment in which I have lived most of my life where "So what do you do?" often follows an introduction; here relationship trumped occupation. The questions here are "Who are your people? How do you belong?"

While driving back to The Freeman Country Inn, I noticed a farmer out baling hay. The tractor pulled the bailer across the field, scooping the hay that lay about in seemingly disorganized rows into the maw of the machine. Then he turned and, before starting a new row, dropped a huge cylinder of neatly wrapped hay down at the edge of the field. As the farmer and his growling machinery clanked away down the field, I pulled over to the side of the road, curious for a closer look. 

I had seen these large round bales before, but wanted to renew the acquaintance. The bale was wrapped in a fine mesh – some hi-tech fabric I suppose. And I was struck by the thought that that was what the genealogy was — a fabric that bound us together into a form that we could recognize. We had spread out across the country, no longer united by geography, community, religion or occupation. But when we gathered together and performed the ritual of call and response, when we answered the questions "Who are your people? How do you belong?" we found ourselves gathered into a form that we recognized — we recognized a family.

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