The expression ‘they’re singing our song’ refers, generally, to recognizing a tune or lyric that carries particular personal weight for a pair or occasionally, slightly larger group of people. It’s our school’s version of Alma Mater, the theme song of our organization, the song that accompanied a memorable first date, first dance, first kiss. Because of its power as a connective tool in communication and in recollection, music is bound to evoke potent responses and pull us into the examination of them, regardless of their current context. I’m one of that lucky class of people for whom music is a pervasive and positive element of my daily life, but I still have some specific favorites not only for what I find appealing about them musically or in their mood, style, and character—and yes, those range pretty widely—but also for the few that stand out in mnemonic and sentimental ways.
There are songs that reconnect me instantly with my childhood, something I suspect is quite a different experience for the younger generations than for mine and earlier ones. Until my youth, childhood songs came not exclusively from radio, films, television, and other distant, anonymous, fixed, or recorded sources but first from the relatives, friends, and teachers who shared them with us and often expected us to sing along. When my family sang in the car on a road trip, it might have sometimes been along with whoever was singing or playing the radio’s pre-packaged tunes, but as often as not it was singing folk songs we’d learned by rote, silly playground songs and game-narrative ones, bits of summer camp songs, rounds, and easily harmonized songs that were popular long before I ever stretched my little pipes to sing. I don’t imagine there’s so much of a lingua franca of family and playground singing not derived from Disney scores and downloads nowadays. There’s lots of delightful and even sophisticated stuff in those, to be sure, but I would guess that there’s a whole lot less that would be in any way distinguishable as historic, traditional, or regional, let along cultural, landmark music that’s just sung for fun anymore unless it’s loaded with undercurrents of market- or message-driven content. Is Mrs. Grady‘s daughter even known, let alone adored, by anyone under a half-century of age anymore?
It’s not strictly old-lady cantankerousness or being prudish, prune-ish, and nostalgic for what may be rose-colored memories that makes me sad for this sort of loss, though there are assuredly elements of those. It’s also a bit of longing for the subtle societal glue that resides in knowing a song: if I spontaneously start to sing an “old familiar lay” under my breath, will there be anybody within earshot who will hear, remember, and join in the song? Are all such endeavors relegated to prearranged flash mobs now? I had a couple of reminders of this urge, recently, and they renewed my quest for an expanded casual-singing culture of the kind that doesn’t require sets, costumes, death-defying choreography, and Auto-Tune.
The first such occasion was, unsurprisingly, in a church setting. Western churches of many sorts are still places where communal singing is common and many songs known to many of the participants by heart. I was at a Protestant church service where, as is typical during communion, the church choir sang anthems and the congregation then sang a hymn or two as well; when the high attendance at the service made communion stretch far longer than expected, the experienced organist got right on the task of keeping the flow going by playing an old hymn. After a few seconds, choristers started softly humming or singing the lyrics along with him, then grew bolder and harmonized, and gradually a number of congregants in the pews were joining in as well. It was really quite sweet, and I certainly thought it perfectly appropriate to the whole concept of a Communal event. But even there, I quickly realized, the truly familiar old hymn couldn’t quite be carried in the old way, because even the choir members clearly only knew one verse by heart, and while it was a lovely bonding experience for everyone, it was fleeting; at the end of Verse 1, a collective dive for hymnals to search for the words (what’s that eponymous first line, again?!), then the resignation to repeat the first verse or fall silent.
Another reminder came in one of the places where such random burst-into-song things do still exist beyond the borders of the performance hall but are perhaps not exercised as often as they used to be: a choral convention. The regional and national gatherings of musicians devoted to choral music—the composing, conducting, rehearsing, singing, performing, and yes, enjoyment of music made for groups of singers—are a great source of education, entertainment, and vivifying energy for me as the partner and follower of a choral musician. And even at these, it’s not as though I hear people breaking into song together, unless they’re rehearsing to perform for each other. Attending an enormous regional musicians’ convention recently, followed ten days later by an equally huge national one, was both exhausting and energizing. And at such events, I don’t often find people gathering to sing together outside of the so-called All Sing sessions, which are of course organized, arranged, led, and regulated nearly as much as any choir’s regular rehearsals.
The point of such conventions isn’t necessarily to build ‘casual relationships’ with singing. But mightn’t it be a fine thing, really? I would guess that the expectation that singing just because, at unplanned moments, with other people, could in fact lead not only to greater interest in and better understanding of more formal choral experiences but also to a more connected social world than social media alone can provide. As the 1971 Coca-Cola advertisement—yes, a commercial jingle—encouraged such idealism and eventually did indeed manage to build into a hugely popular, ex-post-brand-name sing-along song, I [would] Like to Teach the World to Sing. But obviously I can’t do it alone.
I Dream the World
I dream the world will learn to sing ‘Til joy suffuses everything—
When peace and happiness abound, I dream a song will be the sound
Most widely heard by every ear Around the globe that longs to hear
A note of kindness, care; of grace, When melody wraps its embrace
Around us like an angel’s wing—I dream the world will learn to sing!
I dream the world will learn to sing And make earth’s darkest corners ring,
Will throw aside all warring ways, Mend brokenness, take up the phrase
That calls to harmony all souls The way a carillon bell tolls,
First, lone and softly, then a pair Joins in, and more, and then the air
Is filled with song, like bells a-swing—I dream the world will learn to sing!
I dream the world will learn to sing And this, the message it will bring:
We must not wait in silent nights, Unsung ’til happiness alights,
‘Til care and kindness, sweetness, peace, Miraculously buy release
And save us from our voiceless state: If we don’t sing, it is too late,
So let our song rise up and ring—I dream the world will learn to sing!