November 17, 2008
How Can I Keep from Singing?
What'd you do this weekend? I ran the gamut of contemporary singalong culture. Thursday night I sang along with people at church, mostly songs that are in rotation on Christian radio. Friday night I sang along with my friends and coworkers in the audience at a concert that featured Christian music legend Mike Roe and unbelievably brilliant cult favorite Over the Rhine. (By "cult," incidentally, I mean loyal fan base, not heterodox brainwashers.) Saturday night I served as MC for "patriotic karaoke night" at my local library, something I still can't quite believe I did. And Sunday morning and evening I sang contemporary praise music with folks from my church. I did all these things while suffering from bronchitis; my apologies to the people who stood in front of me.
This weekend reminded me of an essay by Don Saliers in the book Practicing Our Faith. He observes that, by and large, people don't sing together anymore. Oh, we'll sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" if we're actually at a ballgame, and we'll sing in the shower, if we're by ourselves. We'll sometimes even sing when directed to do so by our pastor or our president or our boss. But spontaneous, voluntary group singing is pretty much reduced to road trips, and only then with the right song, after being cooped up in a car has made the group sufficiently loopy.
Each of my singalong experiences this weekend--from the coerced to the impulsive--was surprisingly enjoyable. The most surprising for me was "patriotic karaoke night." I was nominated for this gig by folks from my church who didn't even show up. But I'm not bitter. It was technically not karaoke; it was a singalong, using a karaoke machine for the lyrics. About twelve people showed up, including one woman from the Ukraine. Not bad for 7:00 on a Saturday night. Most in attendance were well into their retirement years, though there were a few in their thirties. No kids, interestingly enough. We sang about twelve songs together over coffee and cookies, and people shared stories about their history with the songs.
These songs, I came to learn, function as a sort of archive of American culture. There's an explicit connection between the lyrics and the historical moment in which they were written. There's a clear mashup of nationalism and spirituality, from the ubiquitous references to God, on the one hand, to the fact that some of them were composed by seminarians, on the other. There's a nearly universal celebration of liberty as a central ideal, a demonstrated fondness for the American landscape and an outspoken pluckiness that insinuates, among other things, that to be American is to be indominatable--materially, emotionally, spiritually.
In the 1930s and 1940s two songs were championed as replacement songs for the national anthem--"God Bless America" and "This Land Is Your Land." Woody Guthrie, in fact, wrote the latter because he was sick of hearing Kate Smith belt out the former on the radio. The group stood in honor of "God Bless America," at the suggestion of one woman, but "This Land Is Your Land" was the only song we sang twice, at the suggestion of the man who sat right behind her. "God Bless America" might actually make for a good anthem for the red states, and "This Land Is Your Land" befits the blue, but keeping them both in the rotation perhaps best reflects the spirit of the purple.
I'm not a very good nationalist, I freely confess, but patriotic karaoke night was good for me. I was surrounded by people of various ages and life experience, singing songs we all recognized and had somehow assimilated into our subconscious. I came away with a better understanding of the context out of which I sing songs of worship each week with a couple hundred other people, the context that shaped how the songwriters I'm most drawn to put music to their own particular worldviews. I left each event feeling somehow connected to the people I had sung with, and in most cases I continued singing or whistling or humming as I made my way home. You can get a lot out of singing together, it turns out. It's a wonder we don't do it more often.