In a couple of weeks my wife, Kathy, and I are going to visit one of my favorite southern cities – Savannah, GA. We will be celebrating her birthday and our 42nd wedding anniversary. As I was planning our trip, my thoughts took me back one of the most memorable experiences in my professional speaking travels. The following is that which I shared with my readers 11 years ago.
I was in Savannah, Ga. a few weekends back speaking to the Credit Union National Association. The conference took place at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Savannah.
The waterfront in Savannah is most unique. A row of shops and restaurants face the Savannah River where monstrous cargo ships glide slowly by. A narrow parcel of real estate lies between the water’s edge and the street. It is devoted to public sitting areas, a walking area, limited public parking and a covered, open-air market.
My favorite eating place on the water front is the Cotton Exchange Tavern and Restaurant. Upon my arrival in Savannah on Friday night I enjoyed Shrimp and Grits at the Cotton Exchange.
After finishing my speaking engagement on Saturday morning, I headed back down to the water front to grab a late lunch. As I worked my way through the Saturday crowd which filled the sidewalk, I heard singing just across the street. In one of the sitting areas an old black man was belting out an old familiar hymn. I paused to take a better look, and listen.
On the ground in front of him sat a white plastic bucket. He was singing for tips. As I turned to pursue my immediate concern which was lunch, he jarred down on “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound….” That stopped me in my tracks.
I’m here to tell you, this old boy could sing! In a beautifully resonating baritone, he sang from deep within himself, his voice rising effortlessly to the higher notes. He needed no accompaniment. He “owned” the song, mastering every word. Halfway through each verse he began rocking back and forth on his heels as he clapped his hands to emphasis the beat. When he finished, someone stepped up and dropped a dollar in the white bucket.
As I walked away, I had already decided to pay him another visit before I left Savannah.
After lunch, I browsed through a few shops before I headed back to my hotel.
When I reached the place where the old man was singing, I stopped at a corner to take in the scene again. Leaning up again a building, I focused my full attention on him.
He was all of 70 years old, a big man with salt and pepper hair. He wore a clean, white t-shirt with a brightly colored design on the back. Plaid shorts completed his ensemble. Strangely, I did not notice his shoes. As he sang, he showcased a mouth full of irregularly missing teeth.
After a moment or two, he noticed me as I studied him. He motioned with a big hand for me to cross the street and join him. I hesitated; and as I did, a middle-aged couple stepped up and asked for a song. He turned his full attention to them as I made my way across the street.
Then he broke out into song. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved the rich like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
With wrinkled brow I thought, “He’s not singing the right words. It’s ‘a wretch like me’ not ‘the rich like me.’”
“Maybe that is just the way he learned the song,” I mused.
“Or maybe he sees this grace in a different light.”
And then, as I considered the depth of his singing and the feeling he expressed in each word, I knew that he knew; and I saw afresh how with one stroke of His amazing grace God can take us from being a wretch to being rich. And I celebrated my brotherhood with this rich, old black man.
He was occupied with other “customers” as I approached. He didn’t see me as I dropped a five-dollar bill in his bucket. It was a small token for that which he had shared with me. Nor did he see me as I walked away. But I left his presence changed…for the better.
In a way, I envied the freedom with which he sang. And I will long remember him…standing out in the blistering sun, the sweat streaming down his radiant face as he sang, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved the rich like me…”
And the next time I’m in Savannah, I hope to see him. And should I be so fortunate, I will join him in his singing. I’ve made up my mind.
You see, I like to hang out with rich people. And this old black man was rich…like me.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, Southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a certified speaking professional. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.