My friend Sandy Clipsham had a few of his guy friends over last night, to sing, of course, which is what guys most often do when they get together, or so I hear. I had never met any of the others, but they were an eclectic and interesting group, and we spent as much time talking about new media and alternative publishing and movies as we did singing. There were also homemade brownies, which is never a bad thing. The singing was good too, by which I mean that it was good to sing rather than that the singing was of any great quality, and it made me reflect on the diminishing opportunities to sing with one another in our culture and on the loss that I think this.
I have no data to support this supposition, but I would say that people in our culture listen to music more than those of any previous culture, but that they actually sing and play music with each other less and less. They have an insatiable appetite for professional music, for popular music, for music that accompanies and defines certain mediatized and commercialized lifestyles, but they are increasingly uncomfortable with making music together informally, as amateurs, as communities. They no longer sing along with one another. This phenomenon, I think, is partially to do with the diminishment of a certain kind of church culture, and also with the diminishment of things like summer camps and school choirs, all places where people once sung together regularly, but I it also has something to do with a culture that understands music as something to be produced and consumed like any other product rather than as something to be shared within a community. Although people who call themselves musicians, either by profession or by vocation, are often willing to do music with one another informally, the greater part of our culture is content to consume music, and so it never learns what it is to make music as a community, as amateurs, simply as an expression of community.
Yet, the cost of this inability to sing with each other is considerable. Anyone who has sung around a campfire, or in a church service, or even in a car with some friends and the radio, knows that there is something immensely cathartic about this kind of singing. It does not require us to be musicians. It does not require us to be vocalists. It does not require is to be songwriters. It requires us only to sing along with each other, and this singing produces an intimacy between us. There is a social risk in this kind of singing, certainly, because it is a breach of normal social decorum and because it creates a space in which different rules apply, but it is this very risk, shared between us, that opens us to each other.
So, last night, the five of us took this risk. We sang along with one another, informally, unprofessionally, without the benefit of practice, without really knowing each other, and we risked looking foolish, or at least sounding foolish, and we got through a few tunes that were none of our favourites but that were recognizable and easy to sing, and it was good. We sang “Cotton Fields“,” I’ll Fly Away“, “Five Hundred Miles“, “He Aint Heavy, He’s My Brother“, “If I Had a Hammer“, and “Down by the Riverside“, and I went home thinking that I need to sing along with people in this way more often.