On the allure of people singing together

Four year olds are great. They love Christmas and other holidays of the season. The relentless joy they experience seeing houses lit up and decorated trees twinkling through windows as they wait for Santa can light up others with joy, even in such difficult times.

On Monday night, a planned walk to Malibu beach was diverted by a beautifully decorated house on Savin Hill Avenue, so our family bubble decided to take in the lights. My four-year-old granddaughter spied a blow up Santa on his sleigh being pulled by reindeer with Rudolph at the lead, and insisted that we all sing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” As we continued our walk around Savin Hill, other inflated decorations resulted in our singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and” Jingle Bells.” It was a wonderful experience.

Singing together is rare in America. Those of us who love singing with others have church choirs, and a few other options, but Americans typically do not get together to sing, nor do they make it part of their fun times and parties, except at Christmas time. I believe that secular Christmas music is the only remaining folk music left in America.  Most Americans can’t even sing the national anthem, but they know “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph.”

Singing together is a way to build both community and country.  South Africa offers a wonderful example of this.  In my time at the Codman Square Health Center, I was involved in an HIV/AIDS project in South Africa and I visited AIDS hospices there as part of our work.  At the end of visits, the nurses at the hospice would sing something in the Xhosa or Zulu language in wonderful harmony.  Once, following a song in Xhosa, the nurses turned to the American visitors and asked the Americans to sing something back.  The Americans looked at their feet.  There was no song that all of us knew, and none except some churchgoers had ever sung a song with a group.  

Americans used to sing together more. There was a time when folks would sing songs that seem created for groups, such as “Heart of My Heart.” Many houses had pianos and someone who knew how to play songs that people could sing together. St. Patrick’s Day parties would have everyone singing old Irish rebel songs as a group, but most of those folks are in nursing homes or deceased now.  “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the 7th-inning stretch seems the best we can do, and our country is the less for it.

Over the years, I’ve had Christmas carol singing parties at my house, where people would get song sheets, and where even those with poorly tuned voices participated.  The gatherings were always well attended, because people really want to sing together, but have over time lost opportunities to do that.  The band I play in, the Savin Hillbillies, hands out song sheets of the old country music we play, and we encourage everyone to sing the choruses. It’s always well received.

Our country is seriously divided and angry. Perhaps we can help bridge the divide by reclaiming folk songs, teaching song in school, and make it part of our future parties and gatherings. We can start with” Jingle Bells,” a song composed in Medford and sung around the world. Even four year olds know it.