How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life

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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