Friday, February 15, 2008

NYTimes: Shared Song, Communal Memory

EAST LANSING, Mich., Feb. 10, 2008

THEY meet on the first Monday of the month at the Universalist Unitarian Church here, not to worship but to sing. Just to sing. There are song leaders, some with a guitar or a banjo or an autoharp, but this isn’t a class or a choir; the singers, not the leaders, choose the tunes. Most hold copies of a spiral-bound songbook of folk music called “Rise Up Singing.” They perform songs like “Keep On the Sunny Side” and “This Land Is Your Land.” No one minds a voice gone off-key.
From Hawaii to Santa Cruz to the Philadelphia suburbs, in living rooms, churches and festival tents, similar gatherings — called community sings, or singalongs — draw together the average-voiced and bring old songs into common memory.

If there is a natural opposite to gold-plated pop irony and faceless file sharing — music as the American majority knows it in 2008 — this is it. These meetings are earnest, participant directed and person to person: a slow-going, folkish appreciation of American vernacular culture.
Much of this impulse descends from
Pete Seeger, who has championed the cause of group-singing for more than 60 years. “No one can prove a damn thing,” Mr. Seeger said in a recent interview, “but I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whoever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’ ”

Amateur group-singing has been around forever, of course, at bars, churches, schools, camps and stadiums. Community sings like the one in East Lansing are pitched halfway between the ritual of the campfire singalong and the self-conscious American folk-music movement of the 20th century.
In 1945 Mr. Seeger founded the People’s Song collective, which disseminated its own songbooks, thereby helping to popularize songs like “We Shall Overcome.” The folk revival of the late 1950s and the subsequent rise of folk festivals, some of which included song-circles as special events, furthered the idea that singing together could reseed a homegrown culture and empower the ordinary citizen to change society.

In 1973 Peter Blood, a Quaker, political organizer, teacher and folk musician in Philadelphia, put together a homemade songbook called “Winds of the People,” which quickly took off in the group-sing scene. “There was a demand for it in the circles we ran in, which were religious and summer-camp circles,” said his wife, Annie Patterson. In time Movement for a New Society and other nonreligious activist organizations adopted it for singalong events.

A decade later Mr. Blood and Ms. Patterson were envisioning a more ambitious book. They compiled and cleared the rights to 1,200 songs for “Rise Up Singing,” which was published in 1988. Mark Moss, editor of Sing Out! magazine, the pre-eminent journal of the folk movement, and also the publisher of the songbook, said it has sold about 800,000 copies, at $17.95 each.

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