How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life

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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.

One new communal occurrence in contemporary life cries out for song: the post-shooting vigil. The event is inherently public and emotional, made for group singing. Think of Chardon High School in Ohio this February, where a gunman killed three students and wounded two. Or the shooting of 19 people in Arizona in January 2011, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Or the massacre at Virginia Tech, in April of 2007, when a student gunned down 32 people. In news reports, we see photos of hugs and tears and shocked faces, and then candlelight vigils. These events, which apparently will continue, seem even sadder without the relief of song.

When, if not here, are blues and spirituals called for? Where, if not here, would they provide a measure of healing? Healing for all, not just the performer with a guitar at the front of the crowd. Perhaps the vigils will inspire a powerful new folk song—one that's easy to sing, memorable, "viral"—to be written.

Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting who went on to become an activist against gun violence, said he couldn't remember communal singing at any of the commemorative events he's attended. At the yearly anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, though, several trumpeters stationed around the campus play Taps in a round, each starting a few moments after the other. It made him emotional just recalling it. In terms of songs, though, "I've probably received five or six songs that people wrote about Virginia Tech," Goddard said. "People have sent them to me." And they are posted on YouTube—but they remain more like individual artistic responses than folk songs.

Occupy Wall Street is another new phenomenon built for communal song. Music has been a major element of the demonstrations, now blossoming again along with springtime, but "not widespread songs we've been singing together," said Nelini Stamp, a Brooklyn resident and singer who's been involved since the beginning in September. Although they're more fragmentary, the protest moments involving song still have Stamp excited: from ongoing sing-ins at courthouses to resist home foreclosures, to the night when Occupy was evicted from Zuccotti Park in November, when dozens of arrested activists sang "Stand By Me" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" in the halls of central booking. But she feels the need for original songs that everybody learns. "The next step will be, how do we create our own songs? As this year goes on, and things grow, we'll start to see that play a bigger part. There's a need for it."

To be sure, musicmaking is alive and well in America. The YouTube platform for performance sharing is just one sign. Online lessons have empowered wannabes to learn. Folks sing in religious settings as much as ever. People who enjoy singing get together in homes to make music with friends, and choral groups abound. It's the community-oriented, community-building, sometimes spontaneous kind of singing that's suffering. But yes, even those averse to singing in public may do it more than once a year. Likely in a bar. Drinks help, of course, and so do pop songs with a catchy chorus. If people want to sing "American Pie" or "Come On Eileen" or "Jesse's Girl" and drink a beer instead of "This Land is Your Land" and wave a flag, can you really blame them?

"I don't know if they're the new folk music, but they're the new collective repertoire," says Dr. Will Schmid, the former leader of the music educators' association, who created the folk song list along with Pete Seeger. There is a difference in public-spiritedness between singing Billy Joel in a lounge versus Stephen Foster at a picnic, he said, but "I'm not too worried about that."

"Any singing is good singing. Anywhere we can find it. Those places become the new community centers."

Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. "No one there is worried about whether they're good enough. That's a wonderful feeling—that's what I think we need to restore. That sense that: I'm good enough. I'm a happy amateur singer. I'm just going to let it out."

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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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