Monday, January 15, 2024

What is ‘community singing’? — an attempted definition by Liz Rog: part 2

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. Last week was part 1, now this is part 2.

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. The first part looked at possible definitions of ‘community singing’ and who community singing is actually for. Part two now goes on to describe the emergence of new song leaders and the re-emergence of a community singing movement.

“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change”Octavia Butler

songs for these times

”If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”Mother Teresa

Sometime in the 00s I came to realize that songs for these times were being born in living people, and the songs offered messages, tunes, and rhythms that could draw us in, if only there were someone willing to step up and teach them. I saw that learning a song well enough to teach it and taking the risk of standing out and making mistakes was an act of resistance against the Western culture of perfection, isolation, and silence. I started to learn these short, simple, meaningful (and often playful!) songs, and, having turned my face toward the strong wind that was blowing more and more songs across the land, I came to feel part of a movement. This movement is the current iteration of community singing, resonating deeply in our culture as we seek to find our way back to connection to each other and the natural world.

At first there were many songs in English, mostly new songs but also old camp songs found their way into the permeable repertoire, like ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘Vive L'amour’. Then came many songs from African countries as well as indigenous nations of Turtle Island. Then many of us white Euro-Americans began learning about appropriation and paused on singing those. Then songs from other languages and regions showed up through respectful relationships and knowledge, and we took some of them on. Then we learned that if we sing African-American spirituals we must understand their history and meaning and share attribution to those stories.

At some point Kirtan singing showed up, and more drumming came in, and shape note singing, and Jewish niguns, and Balkan singing, and improvisational singing. Sometimes some people want bigger, more complicated songs whose learning is facilitated with paper notation. Our learning and adjusting is ongoing because we are listening and growing.

Many singer-songwriters are now writing songs that are easy for people to learn and sing together. People who never thought of themselves as songwriters are ‘catching’ songs (that’s the term that many are using in order to suggest that the songs come from another invisible place, landing in the body of someone who’s paying attention). The songs are often about the very things we are examining, longing for, practicing: to affirm belonging, inspire courage, mark transitions, learn together, grieve and celebrate.

Sometimes I notice a new explosion of songs on a particular theme. At the time of this writing it seems that many people are making songs about belonging. After the murder of George Floyd, a new bunch of songs for justice and abolition showed up. Recently I’ve noticed more people catching and singing laments. For so long many people disparaged the Gullah song ‘Kumbaya’, but then we heard stories about its origins and meaning, and folks are once again giving respectful breath to that song.

The songs are rearranging our thinking and our doing. They are giving us a common lexicon with which to hold and converse around the hard things we’re facing--climate chaos, political division, fear, grief--and they are giving us a way to share love, compassion, and joy with each other. The songs, and the culture of inclusion (though not always perfect!) are giving us better tools for listening and voicing in a brave and compassionate space.

the songs are rearranging us

“One doesn’t wait for a revolution. One becomes it”Carl Safina

The songs are giving us language around nature, our mother. We learn a song about a specific plant or creature; this causes us to pay more attention to that living being and then become curious about the next. The songs give us a way to honour that which we are part of and have often taken for granted. They give us a way to show our grief for her/our tragic losses.

What are some of the ways of song that you know? Classical, oldies, pop, show tunes, country, lullaby, bluegrass, work songs, church, Gregorian chants, big band, rock and roll, gospel, hip hop, world music, … Though these genres are less typically found in community singing circles, they sure could show up. In the end what really matters most are the gestures and practices that uphold our priority of connecting with each other.

Here’s another great trend: Nowadays some organizers of meetings and gatherings that aren’t ostensibly about or for singing — work meetings, activist conferences, teaching workshops — are hiring song leaders to bring the power of song as a special sauce to help relax, energize, and coalesce the group.

We gather in homes, parks, cities and towns and raise up these songs together, and then we ross-pollinate during song camps, more and more of which are popping up across the continent. All of the parts--learning together, singing locally, and cross-pollinating our communities at camps and workshops-- feel ancient, magical, and essential.

And on it goes, and who knows what’s next. Because we have found ways to bring song into everyday life, and neighbourhoods and communities ARE once again becoming places where people can burst into common song just like in the storybooks. No one needs to be the star, and we are using the songs to lift each other up and to listen well. We have a technology, using the most ancient instrument of voice, to change culture, change lives, and change the course of history.

the community singing movement

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible”Toni Cade Bambara

The community singing movement that is active and growing right now in western countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain got its start in England in the 1980s. If you’d like to read all about that, check out the book A Different Voice, A Different Song by Caroline Bithell. But of course it also ‘began’ before that with roots in the American Folk Music Revival, and before that in the Civil Rights movement, and before that in the Labour Movement, and on and on, back and back to the beginning of time.

Of all of the ways that people make community and make music, this is just one, one which is in a splendid era of re-emergence. It seems to me that it has been swirling around high in the sky waiting for when we were so in need of it that we were finally capable of grasping its power to weave community, and so finally it swooped down and seeded a thousand songs in a thousand song leaders. And that was only the beginning.

Nothing about how people come together in community singing is unique. Most humans love to make friends, to help each other out, hear and tell stories, sing songs, receive help (well, that’s a little harder for some Westerners), share meals, etc, and when given the opportunity will gladly engage in these life-giving practices. Community Singing is just one great pathway toward each other’s humanness.

So what IS it that I’m trying to describe? Is there anything unique about this era of community singing?

Could we find a different name, one that is more specific to this time, these songs, these ways? Or could it be that, given all of these fluid aspects that I’ve described, and given the ever-growing variety of songs we’re singing, any more specific name is just pretentious, unnecessary, and almost instantly outdated?

In the end, does the name and the definition even much matter?

How about let’s just keep singing and see what happens.



Liz Rog, Decorah, Iowa, 2023





Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: