Notes From My Knapsack 4-12-12
We should have a sing along
Karen Loew wrote a fascinating article for "The Atlantic" magazine online recently about "communal singing."
She's working on a book, provisionally titled "Alone in the Valley," about small town life a few valleys over in Virginia.
As she's had a chance to reflect on community ritual in general, and singing in particular, she realized that while it's not dead, large group singing is surely not well.
Beyond the obvious examples of the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," there's not much; Loew did introduce me to the fact that at Fenway Park there's a tradition around "Sweet Caroline" that I'll have to participate in someday. At Wrigley Field, it's more traditional to listen to a celebrity singer, often half in the bag, sing during the seventh inning stretch a mangled rendition of "Take Me Out."
"Amazing Grace," "God Bless America," maybe "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and right there you've run out of what's a safe bet as a standard repertoire for a crowd of average Americans.
With regular church attendance rates down around 20%, if you started singing "Old Rugged Cross" or "How Great Thou Art" in a crowd you might hear some distant voices join in, but not the full-throated roar of a plurality jumping in from memory. Patriotic songs used to run the gamut, but equally few would be the voices accompanying you if you ventured into the second verse of "America the Beautiful" or tried out "Battle Cry of Freedom." "This Land is Your Land" should be on everyone's lips, but it would be a shaky rendition even in the first stanza.
Loew also taught me something else I didn't know; the National Association of Music Education noticed the anti-trend in community singing, and tried to promote back in the 1990s a list of songs that they said ought to be a shared repertoire for Americans. Their 88 included everything from "Down By the Riverside" to "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Shenandoah" and "You've Got a Friend." (I'd add "Your Smilin' Face" to their list, but we all have favorites.)
You can see their whole selection at http://www.nafme.org/resources/view/get-america-singing-again. [Chuck, keep or delete, depending on what the current policy is on links!]
I've been a songleader for over 35 years now, and I can report that Loew's concern is well-founded. Getting a crowd to sing together is more work than it used to be, if it can be done at all. When she notes with sorrow that, as you watch on TV or attend candlelight vigils or various communal gatherings, the absence of singing together is felt, I believe she's right. There's a time for speeches, and places where only silence will do, but there are also times, happy & sad, when singing together can bind us as one like nothing else.
So I wonder, if we can't quite figure out how to afford the infrastructure costs of a community-wide picnic: maybe we just need a big old singalong on the green at summer's end. A sort of informal Eisteddfod on the grass, echoing our Welsh history and current need for a little more unity than is in the air.
We need a song in the air. "And a star in the sky; a mother's deep prayer, and a baby's low cry…" You see, for some of us, everything makes us think of a song. And there's a song for everything.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; one of the high points of his year is getting to lead the Midland Theater in singing together. Tell him your favorite group song at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Knapsack @Twitter.