Monday, January 08, 2024

What is ‘community singing’? — an attempted definition by Liz Rog: part 1

A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled What is a ‘community choir’?

Now it’s the turn of Liz Rog to attempt a definition.

This is a guest post by song leader Liz Rog who is based in the US in Decorah, Iowa. She is closely involved with Village Fire Singing and helped to create the Center for Belonging Folk School. Her post is in two parts. This first part looks at possible definitions of ‘community singing’ and who community singing is actually for. Part two goes on to describe the emergence of new song leaders and the re-emergence of a community singing movement.

"Change culture and you change lives. You also change the course of history"Resmaa Menakem

what is ‘community singing’?

An earnest attempt at a fluid definition with a deep bow to the mystery of song. 

“Building Community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual”Grace Lee Boggs

‘Community singing’: what a broad and vague term this is! Setting out to explore its meaning feels crazy, impossible! For wouldn’t just about any group of people of any size singing any song be called ‘community singing’?

Is singing songs like ‘This Land is Your Land,’ ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’ or ‘Wagon Wheel’ around the campfire ‘community singing’? What about singing in houses of worship? Singing hits from musicals with friends on a bus? Holiday carolling? Singing in a community choir? Singing at marches and rallies?
It’s like trying to define ‘good food,’ ‘fun games,’ ‘great films.’ Who gets to do that? You and me, each from our place, era, and experience.

So I’ll just give a snapshot of a specific sub-culture of community singing that I am part of today, from my 62-year-old perspective from this little Midwestern US town of Decorah in the year 2023. Due to forces that have favoured my European ancestors and their descendants, most of this land is being used for industrial agriculture. These realities inspire some of our songs of grief. Even so, there is also great goodness in this land and people, and both the beauty and the misuse inspire us to create a culture that can carry us forth into new possibilities.

Just to be very clear: I believe and I celebrate that there is no definition of ‘community singing’ that could ever be accurate or complete. I know that the songs and our singing of them are a response to the needs and gifts of this time and they will change along with the changes in us and our world. I know that the earth has been singing since she began and humans have been singing together since we began. Surely then all of the examples above are community singing?

towards a definition of ‘community singing’

”Culture is mother earth expressing herself as human beings in any given place”Pat McCabe

Here are some of the elements that might distinguish ‘community singing’ from other forms of singing:

  • All voices are welcomed. There is no audition and no hierarchy of voice.
  • There is generally no paper to look down at. People are learning and remembering through oral tradition. Since written musical notation is not a universal language, this offers access to singing for more people.
  • People generally stand/sit in a circle. This amplifies the idea of equality and also, since people are not looking down at written music, helps all to see each other and feel seen. In this way we viscerally feel that we are singing for each other.
  • The singing is not aimed at performance; it’s done for the pleasure of the moment. Though sometimes there is optional, low-stakes performance as in a variety show or community fundraiser.
  • The songs are easily accessible to anyone. No special education or language of formal music is needed; the songs are short enough for most people’s memories; and the emphasis is on what the collective rather than individual memory can hold.
  • It’s most often unaccompanied by musical instruments. In this way we can remember that even with just our voices we are strong together.
  • It’s often intergenerational.

The current community singing world that I know embraces all of the practices above, each in their own locally-grown way. But in addition to these there are other values found in the very spirit of the singing-together:

  • a named and felt intention toward building community
  • a strong and generous welcome of all voices and all experiences (joy, grief, love, nature, spirit, play, mystery, diversity, respect, light and darkness)
  • a celebration of the way that each voice matters in the making of the whole of our sound
  • encouragement for those interested to learn how to step into the ever-growing circle of shared local leadership
  • the invitation for anyone to listen for the songs that are being made inside of them and to share those songs
  • and brave listening for how our choices of songs invite us to consider their origins, messages, and impacts in a world that needs both our voices and ears.

who is ‘community singing’ for?

”No matter what our attempts to inform, it is our ability to inspire that will turn the tides”Syracuse Cultural Workers

The community singing movement that I am part of has been mostly made up of white people of European descent. Some of the reasons that happened are obvious, such as colonization/segregation/systemic injustices that keep the many peoples of this country unequal, separate and sometimes afraid of each other. Also, it seems to me that white people here, due to our legacy of perfectionism and individualism, have been starved for community, play, and song in a particular way. But we’re starting to see that now and so in this movement, as with so many others in this hurting country, we’re asking the questions that can lead to new ways. Here’s a helpful document that examines it more fully, Who is Community Singing For? written by a group of people of colour from the Community Singing Movement.

My own experience of singing began in family, school, church, and camp in the ’60s and ’70s. When in the ’80s I fledged the home nest and entered adult life in the wider world I expected there to be ready-made avenues for everyday singing together, but I couldn’t find them. I felt sure that my ancestors had had ways of singing together that didn’t require formal set-ups like school or church, that they could just burst out in common song together throughout the days, seasons, and generations. I felt sure that all people throughout the ages have used singing to affirm community, inspire courage, mark transitions, learn together, grieve and celebrate.

But the communities I encountered didn’t tend to have a common repertoire of inspiring songs and so attempts to sing in community almost always required songbooks. Even then, half the people present didn’t know the songs, and they were too long to teach in an informal setting, and no one felt comfortable taking up the space to teach the songs anyway. Those who didn’t already know the songs were excluded.

Add to that the fact that activist groups, where I was spending a lot of my time, seemed to feel that singing was ‘extra;’ or that it made some people uncomfortable and therefore couldn’t be part of the ‘real’ work; or that the political causes were urgent so there was no time for 'touchy-feely’ activities. How far we’d strayed from the lessons of the American Civil Rights movement that depended on group song for holding each other in courage!

Sure, there were simple rounds that I had learned at camp, and civil rights songs that most people my age knew (‘If I Had a Hammer’), and church songs (‘Amazing Grace’) … But some of these songs seemed a little stale or trite to some people, and others just didn’t seem grounded in current life. We needed other songs, songs that would by their very sound and message compel us toward each other.

part 2

Next week Liz goes on to describe the emergence of new song leaders and the re-emergence of a community singing movement.

Chris Rowbury


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