Seeing a song spread

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A few weeks ago I blogged about how many people say they “can’t sing”, and don’t sing even in a crowd, so they miss out on the fun and stay aloof from the shared expression of a crowd of lifted voices.

So the other day I was interested to run across some examples of the power of shared song, related by Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc fame. It starts with an account of the classic American civil-rights song We Shall Overcome. Wikipedia’s excellent and detailed article about the song has this 1867 account, from a minister and longtime abolitionist, of witnessing in action the spread of a new folk song:

I always wondered, about these, whether they had always a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind, or whether they grew by gradual accretion, in an almost unconscious way. On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last, one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort to Ladies’ Island, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song. One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession. “Some good spirituals,” he said, “are start jess out o’ curiosity. I been a-raise a sing, myself, once.”

My dream was fulfilled, and I had traced out, not the poem alone, but the poet. I implored him to proceed.

“Once we boys,” he said, “went for to tote some rice, and de nigger-driver, he keep a-callin’ on us; and I say, ‘O, de ole nigger-driver!’ Den another said, ‘First thing my mammy told me was, notin’ so bad as a nigger-driver.’ Den I made a sing, just puttin’ a word, and den another word.”

Then he began singing, and the men, after listening a moment, joined in the chorus as if it were an old acquaintance, though they evidently had never heard it before. I saw how easily a new “sing” took root among them.

Does that happen so easily today? I’m not sure it does.

Bricklin finishes with a packed stadium singing We Shall Overcome at the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, the folk singer and activist, who helped bring it to a wide audience. I’m sure not everyone in that stadium was singing in tune or knew all the words, but for the song to have its impact that didn’t matter.

Time to stop writing—it’s July 4th and I’m off to the Esplanade to await the fireworks. The crowd will sing the national anthem and other songs for fun and patriotism.

Written by Greg Price

July 4th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

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