I have a lot to say about Mammoth Cave, and hopefully will in the future, but I do want to write about an event I went to yesterday while it’s still fresh in my mind. Since 1980, the National Park Service has held a holiday concert in the cave on the first Sunday at December. This year, a brass quintet from a neighboring town performed in the Rotunda, followed by a choir from a local college in the Methodist Church. I went primarily to experience the acouistics of the cave, and, yes, they were spectacular. But it also raised some history issues for me.
When we got to the entrance of the cave, the lead ranger began by talking about the long tradition of music in the cave. Archeologists had found a cane flute left by Indians, physical evidence that music had been present in the cave as long as humans had been there. While he didn’t offer that same kind of evidence, he suspected that the miners working to extract saltpetre would have sung while working, which I think is a safe assumption. There were written accounts of guides singing as they led groups through the cave, as well as performances of Jenny Lind and Ole Bull as they toured the United States. Finally, in 1883, the first Christmas celebrations were held, when guests brought a cedar tree into the rotunda and sang carols around it.
I’m not sure when that tradition stopped, and when the passages of Mammoth Cave became places where people only spoke, instead of singing, or why the concerts were restarted in 1980. I do know that I have never had a guide sing on a previous tour of the cave. But on this one afternoon a year, humans made music in the earth, as they have been doing as long as we’ve been going underneath the surface.
Because of their nature, it’s hard to get a sense of how people actually used the buildings and places we preserve as historic sites today. Battlefields are quiet and serene now, plantations are not active farms, and sites of industrial heritage stand as quiet reminders of their once noisy and smoky past.
But for a few hours yesterday, the few hundred of us gathered in Mammoth Cave got to experience the cave in a new way. We could see how much more light there was in the Rotunda because of the lights on the tree. We could hear the voices of the choir in the Methodist Church, with most of the light coming from lanterns instead of the electric lights used there on most tours. And as the afternoon ended, the rangers passed out candles and we were invited to sing along, offering our own light and our own voices into the cave.