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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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Who can’t sing?

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Sometimes after singing songs with a crowd, I hear friends or strangers compliment me on my singing. That’s always nice to hear. But then sometimes they add something else—“I can’t sing”. And I don’t think that feeling is limited to a few people I talk to; standing on the crowded banks of the Charles River for the July 4 celebration, I’ve marveled every year at how my little knot of friends and I are the only ones in the vicinity who sing along, even to the national anthem.

That’s a sad situation. Singing is fun, singing is a social activity that brings people together, and singing is a tool of expression that social movements from the Reformation to the Civil Rights Movement and into the present day have used for its power to stir emotions and affirm common purpose. I think it’s a recent one, too. A century ago, all kinds of people sang—working or playing, on a ship or at home with friends and a banjo. In those days the most skillful singer you’d hear all week was someone who lived in your community. Today, I think many of those people who say they “can’t sing” really mean they can’t sing like Michael Jackson, or Lady Gaga, or maybe Pl├ícido Domingo. And how many of us can? But why should we have to? Singing is for the singers, and not only for a hushed audience.

So I was intrigued today by the following anecdote from a musician I respect:

Back when I was a touring musician I met a lot of people who insisted they were monotones. Sometimes I had time to sit down with them and with considerable encouragement they matched every pitch I gave them. With still more encouragement they carried a tune. They were victims not of genetic impoverishment but of cultural theft: the theft of their birthright of singing.

May every self-described monotone or nonsinger receive such personal encouragement. In the meanwhile, all of us who do sing should take time to step off of our pedestals, if we have any, and make singing a part of the social life available to everyone.

In this spirit, I love how the MIT Concert Choir sings Messiah each year right in Lobby 10 for passersby to join in. What steps like that can you take?

Written by Greg Price

May 24th, 2010 at 1:16 am

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