How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life

And why we should bring it back


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With the crack of baseball bats across the land, the singing season for Americans is about to begin. At ballparks from Saint Louis to San Diego, people will stand during the seventh-inning stretch and belt "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." They will feel the pleasure of singing a bouncy, easy song with thousands of other fans. They will be cheered by the sunny lyrics, even if their team is down. They will lose themselves in a bond stretching around the stadium, a few minutes of carefree unity.

And when the season's over, that'll be it until next spring.

Adults in America don't sing communally. Children routinely sing together in their schools and activities, and even infants have sing-alongs galore to attend. But past the age of majority, at grown-up commemorations, celebrations, and gatherings, this most essential human yawp of feeling—of marking, with a grace note, that we are together in this place at this time—usually goes missing.

The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don't know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we're out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.

This is a loss. It's as if we've willingly cut off one of our senses: the pleasure center for full lungs and body resonance and shared emotion and connection to our fellow man. When the crowd at Fenway Park sings Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" (in an inexplicable Red Sox tradition), there's really nothing comparable to that feeling of 30,000 people stepping down three notes in giddy unison, "Oh–Ohh–Ohhhh."

Clearly we need the outlet of singing—witness the karaoke-bar boom—but as civic engagement declined, our store of true folk songs evaporated. You can blame all the usual causes for withering "social capital," from dependence on electronic entertainment, to lengthening work days that reduce free time, to an ever more diverse society, in which your songs are not mine. The elevation of the American Idol model and the demotion of the casual crooner is a real discouragement to amateurs as well. Because we're out of the habit, even the Giants fans that hooted and hollered around Manhattan on Super Bowl night didn't muster any team songs. The fact that Americans sometimes devolve into the simple chant, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" also seems like a sign of extreme melody atrophy.

But even if it should happen, say, that a dozen people gather in a park on a summer's eve, and they all know the words to classics like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "This Land is Your Land," and "Down By the Riverside"—respectively, a patriotic song about God, a Woody Guthrie ode to America, and an African-American spiritual about peace—would they want to sing? Or would a combination of self-consciousness on the one hand, and diverging ethnic, political and religious backgrounds on the other, prevent them from sharing in all three tunes? Stadium singing succeeds because of numbers, and because the songs are fun and uncontroversial.

Today, the problem is not just that we don't know the songs—we don't know which ones we want to know. The National Association for Music Education addressed this reality with its Get America Singing...Again! campaign in the 1990s, which put forward 88 songs as a shared repertoire for Americans. Although the formal campaign has ended—followed not long after by another project urging people to learn the Star Spangled Banner and realize they actually can sing the national anthem—the songbooks are still for sale, and the list is still good.

In these divided times as much as ever, we need to do some singing and feeling together, united as both citizens and amateurs.

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Karen Loew is a writer and editor in New York, currently at work on Alone in the Valley, a nonfiction book about civic life in small-town Virginia and its implications for national politics.

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