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Call it whatever you want: sing-along, community sing, hootenanny. Singing together as humans has evolved as a tool of survival. Tribal histories were passed down in song. Urgent messages of pending invasions were delivered in the code language of rhythm and song. Revolutions were spearheaded by song. When human connection was needed, songs arose.
Ethnomusicologists call it polyphonic tradition, noting that it has been around always and everywhere, in every culture on every continent, and generally agreeing that many of these traditions are gradually disappearing around the world.
In America, as in many other cultures, group singing takes place primarily in churches. But the folk movement of the 1960s and ‘70s brought it to pubs and college campuses and living rooms. The great granddaddy of American folk and community singing, Pete Seeger, said a few years back: “No one can prove a damn thing. But I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whatever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’”
That idea of doing something that makes us feel part of something bigger, of being together, resonates in the 21st century when, more often than not, we are alone with our electronic devices, even when there are other humans in the room. Our devices play songs and we listen and sometimes even sing along. But singing requires a physical instrument — lungs and vocal cords and mouths and feet and hands to beat rhythms. And voices singing together share common breath. Try that with your iPod.
I grew up singing — nursery rhymes with my sisters and elementary school classmates; hymns at church; Hollywood and Broadway musical numbers in the car on family vacations; in choirs, in duos with my best friend or my little sister, on stage as a teenager; pretty much anywhere there was music. And my best memories of raising kids are of singing with them. There were gentle good mornings and afternoons singing along to the Canadian songsmith Raffi, and there were raucous early morning drives to school with my sons, all of us blasting Springsteen’s “Born to Run” at top volume. One year, when they were teenagers, we were singing together as we crossed the flat prairie of north Texas, heading west into the sunset, driving home to Colorado. The CD was Van Morrison’s Moondance and we were singing “Into the Mystic” just as the sky got all psychedelic and orange and purple and swirly. I remember that sunset because we were singing it.
Around that time, I began exploring a singing community that spanned centuries and had survived and even thrived over time throughout America and I wrote a book about it. Sacred Harp singers, practicing the tradition of reading shape notes from a funny-shaped songbook and singing in a square, facing one another, inspired me. The simple fact was that they lived to sing and even more than I wanted to write a book about them, I wanted to sing with them. I did, in small groups and large groups, all across the country, and looking back, it’s not any particular song that remains in memory but the experience of being in those song-filled rooms, singing with strangers who became friends the second we raised our voices together.
When my kids got older and I got older and things got tougher and we were all wrapped in sorrow and loss and trying to find our way through it, I turned again to singing, this time with a group of women who sing in rounds and three-part harmonies at the bedsides of people who are dying. We call ourselves Threshold Singers. I can’t explain how singing a simple song, sharing a common breath, opening your mouth and letting out a sound that blends with others, is the most healing experience at a time when life feels truly broken. I don’t fully understand it; I only know that it is true.
This weekend, a great choral director is coming to our town to conduct a community sing. Melanie DeMore lives in California and has sung and drawn songs out of others in cathedrals and performance spaces all over America. On the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, Ms. DeMore led several choirs and a packed cathedral of onlookers in a community singing of “Amazing Grace” at New York’s historic Trinity Church, near Ground Zero.
When human connection is needed, songs arise. And if our hearts are tuned in, whether we think we can sing or not, we’ll sing along.
Lifted by Song: A Community Sing conducted by Melanie DeMore
Friday, June 7
First Congregational Church, 22 E. St. Vrain St.
Doors open at 5:30, singing 6-8 p.m.
By donation, suggested minimum $5
Lifted by Song Reception and Concert
Friday, June 8
Church of Our Saviour, 8 Fourth Street (near the Broadmoor Hotel)
Food and wine reception at 5:30; Concert at 7 p.m. featuring Melanie DeMore, Pikes Peak Threshold Singers and the Children’s Chorale
Reception and concert $50; Concert only $25
Both events jointly sponsored by Pikes Peak Threshold Singers and Voices of Grief, a local nonprofit. Funds raised will support Voices of Grief: A Love Story, a documentary film in progress. For more, visit www.voicesofgrief.org
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.