by Jim Killam | 9-minute read
Before COVID-19 halted Sunday worship gatherings in March, we spoke with members of the Countryman family about their long musical heritage at First Free Rockford.
Dale’s maternal ancestors, Nels and Karolina Lofdahl, were one of the original families that in 1884 started the Swedish Free Church, which would later be called First Evangelical Free Church. Later, Dale’s grandmother, Martha Lofdahl, served as First Free’s organist from 1930 to 1970. Her husband, Leslie Lofdahl, was choir director and male chorus director for much of that time. Then, Dale’s mother, Carolyn Countryman, sang in the choir for years. There was never much of a question that this heritage would continue to be passed down.
Here’s our conversation with Dale and Ruth, their son Jacob and daughter-in-law Kristi.
Dale and Ruth, when did you get involved with music at First Free?
Dale: My first experience was with Bruce Erickson and singing with the Young Folk, back when I was a sophomore in high school. Bruce picked me out of the crowd once to try a solo on one of the songs. As they say, the rest is history.
Ruth: When we first got married (in 1977) we were in the choir. That was with Bruce in the old church (at Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street).
Dale: I sang in the Free Men quartet here for a few years, did a lot of solos and sang with the drama group, the Spring Creek Players. All of us still sing in the Patriotic celebration, and for Christmas we went caroling together.
Ruth: And I have sung in the ladies choir, Saved By Grace, which Sue Bleed directs.
What has it meant for your spiritual lives to have music be so prominent?
Dale: It has been an integral part. Music was always kind of the center in my family. Going to church usually meant going to something that involved music. So there was a lot of spiritual development because of what we were doing. … Singing gives you a way to learn, a way to draw closer to the Lord, a way to praise the Lord obviously, and lift up his name. And that’s what we do.
What do you make of the change in church music over the past 30 or 40 years?
Dale: Congregational singing has changed tremendously over the years. I really miss hymn books. I think people who had a musical background … used to sing parts from the hymn books. They don’t do that anymore. So everyone is pretty much trying to just learn songs from the words. I appreciate the fact that hymn books were pulled in order to get people’s heads up and maybe focus their attention in a more proper direction. But when you compare congregational singing decades ago to what it is now, it doesn’t even come close.
What is the difference for you between congregational singing and singing in a choir?
Dale: It’s a whole other level. It’s the commitment and having to learn parts and words, and over time absorbing the meanings of songs. Most always they are songs that do help you draw closer to the Lord. Singing in the choir, for me, has been very therapeutic.
Renee (Cooper) does such a fantastic job of picking songs. There are a lot of times when we start learning a song, and I think, oh, this is kind of weird. But then once we finally get around to actually doing it, that’s probably about the time I’m figuring out what we are actually singing about. Then almost invariably I really like the song. So I might start out less enthusiastic, and wind up thinking, I hope we get to do that one again.
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Kristi comes from a musical family, too, but instrumental music. Her first musical experience at First Free was playing trombone in the orchestra. When she and Jacob moved back to Rockford from Ohio three years ago, they both joined the choir.
Kristi, what has this experience meant to you as you have joined this family?
Kristi: When you start singing choir music, especially here at this church, a lot of what we are singing is Scripture. A lot of times I won’t realize it at first, and then I have to think, That’s straight from the Bible. So it not only helps with memorization and storing that in your heart, but also I feel like it is so much more impactful in your life when you’re actually singing praises to the Lord and singing Scripture.
I did not come from a Christian background, so singing in choir really helps not only grow my faith, but just to become more familiar with Scripture that I had not grown up with. So it has helped to jumpstart my spiritual growth.
Jacob, was your dad a big influence on you, musically?
Jacob: I know I got my talent from him. But I don’t feel like I’m very skilled yet. I have a voice, but I don’t have an ear. I sing as a bass. I really should be a tenor, but I sing as a bass because my dad is a bass. It’s a lot easier just to sing with him that it is to learn a whole new part. (laughs)
Dale: And he has a tremendous range.
Kristi: They will sometimes sing together at Fairhaven and other places. They will sit at the piano together. Dad can just look at the notes and sing them, where that’s something that Jake is still learning. So they will sit together on the piano and kind of plunk it out. Dad gives a lot of encouragement to Jake.
Ruth: (Dale) just has an ear. He can harmonize with anything.
A lot of families don’t experience this anymore, where music is a connector between generations.
Kristi: It’s fun to go and be a part of choir, because there are so many generations. There are even people younger than us. We were kind of seen as the babies for a long time, even though we are really not anymore. There are people younger than us.
Then you have people like Dad who have been in the choir for generations. Well, decades at least. (everyone laughs.) Just having him there with us is fun because we not only get to serve and Lead, but we also get to do it with our family.
Dale: It’s a great blessing to have your kids in choir. You look across the choir, and the average age is pretty up there. Renee makes no bones about it. When somebody younger joins, she always says, “Well our average age just went down.”
Ruth, you don’t sing every week, but this has to be special for you as a wife and mom.
Ruth: It makes me very proud. I do a lot of smiling. Knowing that we have an activity together, that we can plan things together, that we have a goal and it’s a ministry. That makes it a lifetime goal.
Kristi and Jacob, did you have any hesitation as a young couple to sing in the choir?
Kristi: I notice more young people in the first service than there were when we first started going. I don’t think that the first service is for the older people in the second service is for the younger people. They definitely cater to different musical tastes, so you do notice that more of the older crowd goes to the first. But especially since more young people have been joining the choir, they have never really made us feel like we’re young and we don’t know what we’re doing. And the music that we sing is timeless. It’s not it is only old-fashioned songs. They just feel like they are worship songs.
Jacob: I grew up with hymnals, so I am used to old-fashioned. (laughs)
Do you think choirs are something our culture has largely lost?
Kristi: As a society, we have really gone away from musical education. Renee has talked about how as a culture we have really lost the art of singing. And so even if we did open up the hymnals again, most people can’t read music, or are not going to take the time to learn. A lot of times when we are singing in choir and singing the parts, one of the things that we are doing is we are teaching the congregation to sing parts, because they can hear it. They can hear that there’s a bass, a tenor, an alto and a soprano part. So that is something that Renee reminds us, that that is part of our job as worship leaders in the choir, is to help teach songs and even choral parts to the congregation.
What is a choir’s role in leading worship?
Kristi: We always pray beforehand. We do a lot of emphasis on making sure that our hearts are right before the Lord, because we are up there leading the congregation in worship. So whether I have a microphone in my hand or not, and I never do, you’re still a leader up there when you are standing in front of the congregation singing.
It’s also a way to serve. When you’re up there singing in the choir, you feel like you were serving the church.
Ruth: It’s a commitment, it’s a responsibility, and you are doing it for God.
Your family spent a few years away from First Free. Did music help bring you back?
Dale: For me it was the top of the list. I realized how much I had missed that. I had led the singing at Elim Baptist every other month or so, but when I was leading, I never got to sing parts. I always had to sing melody. You can’t sing a bass line when you’re up there waving your arms in front of the congregation.
So I eventually discovered that that was really a void that needed to be filled. Coming back here and getting back into the choir was definitely a way to fill that void.
And it really needs to be said, there are so many talented people in that choir. Oh, my goodness. My first few practices there I was ten feet off the floor, just singing and listening to people around me. I thought, Wow, this bunch really knows what they are doing.