Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Is community singing dead?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Singing from the same hymn sheet in April 2007.

Many people look back to the good old days when we all used to gather round a piano and sing for hours, or join in a good sing-song down the local pub.

singing round the piano

Singing round Grandpa's piano by betsythedivine

But – apart from football matches – where does this kind of thing happen these days?

the good old days

Most people seem to think there was a golden age where chimney sweeps sang in the streets, the pub would burst out singing at any opportunity and blokes warbled away whilst working with heavy machinery in the factory.

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. So it’s not a new problem.

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.

the joy of singing together

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 (see also How to have an English sing-along), 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 common set 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!

singing and religion

I’m not a religious man, but it seems to me that nowadays people mostly sing together on religious occasions (or football matches – which amounts to the same thing!).

Many people only visit church at Christmas (or Easter) when pretty much everybody joins in with the odd carol. Most of us remember the hymns we learnt and sang at school assembly. And there are many songs associated with family occasions such as Jewish Passover and American Thanksgiving.

What unites these 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 cultural occasions where people come together to sing songs that they have in common.

what songs do we have in common?

I was brought up as a Christian and only experienced my first Passover Seder a few years ago. What was interesting 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.

family is community too

I came across an article in The Guardian today by Michael Hann. He says:

“There’s no greater joy than singing with your family, when it doesn’t matter whether you’re in tune, or if you don’t know the words.”

He’s absolutely right! The problem is to be able to find songs that cross the generations. That is why we often revert to childhood songs. But are these being passed on any more? Do we still sing to our children when they’re young?

One of the issues is that there is so much music readily available that the chances of two people knowing the same song are pretty thin. I will be writing a post about music being too freely available next week.

what do you do?

What do you do to promote community singing? Is it thriving in your area? How do we get over the problem of not knowing songs in common? Is community singing important enough to want to save? Do drop by and leave a comment.

further reading

You might find these other posts interesting:

Singing together: despite the recent interest in programmes on TV about singing, we still don’t sing together much.

The devil doesn’t always have the best songs: about secular choirs including religious songs in their repertoire.

Is all choral music religious?: a question from Bangladesh prompted an examination of the religious roots of choral singing.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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