On the way back from a gig last Friday, I was lulled from my late-night subway stupor by a dude serenading straphangers with his 12-string. I had run into Darrell a handful of times before, occasionally sung him songs at his prodding, and always listened to his renditions with pleasure though he understandably never remembers me among the ocean of weary-faced New Yorkers he attempts to rouse with song. This time, he handed me his guitar and entreated me to sing some Beatles tunes together. A girl sitting across the subway, an invisible face only minutes before, joined in. Other subway riders looked up– pleased, irritated, or distracted.
It’s a pretty fantastic feeling to be making music off stage with someone you don’t know. In a city of invisible walls, it’s even more special to reach across and make an instantaneous, if momentary, connection with other human beings.
Karen Loew published this beautiful column today in The Atlantic on “How How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life (And why we should bring it back)”.
The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.
This is a loss. It’s as if we’ve willingly cut off one of our senses: the pleasure center for full lungs and body resonance and shared emotion and connection to our fellow man.
The more I work in the music industry, the deeper I get into the craft of making music– which I love dearly– the more that I believe that the richest music lies not on stages and concert halls, not in headphones or subwoofers, but in the spontaneous joining of voices. For thousands of years before BMI and ASCAP, before sheet music, wax cylinders, the phonograph or the mp3, music existed as something possessed jointly by everyone in a community and open for anyone to participate in its creation.
One of the (relatively few) places where this paradigm continues strongly is within Gospel music and churches of various denominations throughout the country. While pop artists are “dumbing down” their melodies and rhythms, simplifying their music in order to reach the widest potential audience, in churches, it is shocking and inspiring the number of non-musicians– “laypeople”, if you will– who feel so strongly attached to and participate in what is incredibly sophisticated, demanding music.
It’s not surprising, then, that gospel music has played an in-extractable role in the development of American music for at least the last century, and that churches have produced many of the best musicians and performers from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Billy Preston to Chris Dave.
During a trip to South Africa last year, I had the great treat to meet Fatima Asmal-Motala, who graciously took me to visit a small Muslim after-school program in a Zulu “township” about half an hour outside Durban. The poverty was absolutely shocking: as far as the eye could see, slums thrust about on the sides of hills, people living in overturned shipping containers, walls thrown together from various discarded sources makeshift dwellings.
The real treat, however, was to get to hear the children, ranging from what might have been ages 7-15, sing devotional songs together in Zulu, English and Arabic. The sound of their voices together and the smiles on their faces were as inspiring as the desolate setting left me, a sheltered product of the first world, speechless.
In her article, Loew points out the few instances of its survival in American society, including during the seventh-inning stretch at baseball games:
Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. “No one there is worried about whether they’re good enough. That’s a wonderful feeling—that’s what I think we need to restore. That sense that: I’m good enough. I’m a happy amateur singer. I’m just going to let it out.”
As I mentioned in my most recent post, along with the Clinton Curtis Band I’ve been selected by the U.S. State Department to embark on an American Music Abroad tour later in 2012 or 2013, during which we’re excited not only to propagate and provide a vessel for American folk music traditions, but also to engage with and learn from the communal music of wherever they choose to send us.
One other related aside– I recently got around to seeing Béla Fleck‘s 2008 film Throw Down Your Heart, in which he journeys through Africa in search of the roots and progeny of the banjo, performing with talented artists and folk musicians from a number of countries. Great music and inspiring fare from start to finish.