The above YouTube video popped up on my Facebook timeline, and I absent-mindedly clicked on it. This innocent act led me on a fascinating adventure. Take a few minutes to listen to the French Family Singers’ version of the 1968 Johnny Cash hit “Daddy Sang Bass.”
The first thing I noticed was the obvious joy of the young girl who was singing with her family members. The others were cool and professional, but she just seemed to move the way she was feeling, twitching and swaying. She never missed an entrance, and she showed a natural sense of harmony, but she was performing for an audience of one — herself.
So, I got curious about this family musical group. My assumption was that they were part of a back-woods Appalachian family that came out of a heritage of generations of country music. But I was very wrong. Daddy (Stuie French) grew up in Tasmania, the island off the coast of Australia. Momma (Camille, nee Te Nahu)* is, by birth, from the Maori people, the native cultural group of New Zealand. The two had independently discovered American country music from listening to records, and they met each other by working as backup musicians for Australian county music groups. They became an established team on Australian TV and radio as Camille and Stuie long before they had children and added them to the act.** Their middle child, Sonny, is the most gifted of their three offspring, singing solos to his own guitar-playing before audiences.*** The eldest, Chet, manages on the bass guitar, but he’s definitely a backup performer.****
And then there’s the youngest, my girl Manaia. Yes, that’s her name. I looked it up and found the word is pretty well-known in the Australian world, coming from the name of a Maori spirit figure who is believed to connect humans to the unseen world. It has become the name given to a style of wood carving and a perfume line.
I searched on-line and found that Manaia was introduced as part of the team when she was about six years old. There are a couple of cute songs featuring her,***** as well as a guitar solo her father wrote dedicated to her.****** Then she disappears from their videos. I guess she grew up in her own unique way and decided she’d make a life outside of the music industry. If anyone can learn more about her, I’d be interested.
Now, back to the song. I noticed four important things from listening to this song about family, being sung by a family:
- Family is a powerful shaping force. In the song, it’s Daddy, Mommy, little brother and me. The me in the song has meaning in the context of the family structure. For most of us, our growing-up family may not be as simple as these idealized figures; it may include an adopted mom, three different stepfathers, a half sister and an aunt. And it may change over time. Whatever the case, each of us has some sense of basic “nuclear” family that makes us feel most grounded.
- Family members have distinct roles. Daddy always sings bass; traditional patriarchy is stubborn, and Momma and the kids have to find a harmony part. Furthermore, the family role a person plays during the early years may became locked in as the way they see themselves later in life. Maybe we’ll come up with a more equitably model in the years ahead; time will tell.
- Family circles have eternal potential. You might have missed the sad line in the song’s second verse that remembers a baby brother’s death:
Now little brother has done gone on, but I’ll rejoin him in a song.|
We’ll be together again up yonder in a little while,
Cause singin’ seems to help a troubled soul
I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne
Oh no, the circle won’t be broken, by and by, Lord, by and by.
What a wonderful reassurance!
- Family circles can be reshaped. Here’s where my imagination takes off. Manaia disappears from the family’s later YouTube productions and from their promotional photos. It’s my feeling that the little itchy, twitchy kid dreamed a different future for her life and followed it. I’m also imagining that this was OK with her family and they gave her their blessing. This gives me hope that no one has to feel trapped by their assigned family role and become stuck in a rut that leads nowhere. What a tragedy if Manaia believed she had no choice but to sing her assigned part in life, when she could be painting a gigantic mural on the wall of the Grand Canyon. Bad example; God already did that! Whatever.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
**** The French family have recently moved to Nashville to bloom as transplanted down-under okies.