Sunday, April 08, 2007

Singing from the same hymn sheet

I’m not a religious man myself, but I happened to spend Passover with a Jewish family last week. I also ran a workshop entitled Sacred Songs to Soothe the Soul (and they say the devil has all the best tunes!). And this weekend it’s Easter, a time (along with Christmas) when many non-churchgoers go to church. What unites these seemingly disparate events is song. An important part of the Passover Seder (the ritual feast which takes place on the eve of Passover) are the traditional songs. Every Jewish family will have learnt these as part of growing up. Similarly, most people brought up as Christians, even though they don’t attend church regularly, will know many of the familiar hymns. So, as well as being religious events, Easter and Passover are two examples of several cultural occasions where people come together to sing songs that they have in common.

What was interesting at my first Passover Seder was that when the rituals had ended there was a desire to continue singing. However, once the few Hebrew and Yiddish songs that everyone knew had been exhausted, it became increasingly difficult to find songs that everybody knew. Gradually the songs moved back into childhood: simple rounds, clapping games, playground songs, and finally theme tunes from children’s TV programmes, until eventually the whole enterprise fizzled out.

I’m sure it would have been the same after church on Easter Sunday. Even if people wanted to continue to sing, they would find it difficult (after they’d all sung Robbie Williams’ Angels and then perhaps Roll out the barrel) to find songs in common. The desire is there, the willingness to join in and let the voice loose. The feeling of community and shared endeavour carries over from the hymn singing, but doesn’t last because we simply have so few songs in common other than those in a religious context. I suppose the nearest equivalent in our increasingly secular society are the sing-alongs during rock and pop concerts and festivals where everyone there knows the lyrics and tune.

Many people look back to the good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and just sing for hours, or all join in a good sing-song down the local pub. I do think this might be a bit of romantic wishful thinking though. I have a book called “Daily Express” community song book which came out of the Daily Express’s Community Singing Movement launched at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1926. This movement seems to have been an attempt to get people singing together again. The News Chronicle Song Book was a similar venture published around the same time. At the very least it shows that even then there was a desire for people to learn the same songs in order to sing them together in community settings. The implication being that the singing of songs together had started to die out.

It was this joy of singing together that prompted me to start my first choir back in 1997. I would often try to start a sing-along whenever a group of like-minded people gathered, but inevitably we would have no songs in common or would only know the words for the first few lines. So I thought I would start a group and teach some songs so at least we’d have a bunch to call on whenever we were down the pub or fancied a good sing. It did take some while however before the first time we just burst into song in a pub without the need for lyric sheets or starting notes! Things are getting a lot better now, and there is even a short list of songs known by an increasing number of community choirs across the country. So wherever we go in the UK and come across another choir, there’s a very good chance we’ll have at least one song in common that doesn’t need an associated religious ceremony!

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Chris Rowbury


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