The singing, that’s a big part of what I remember from my community development work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs. I had forgotten for a time, but now I remember.
My memories were revived by watching the Singing Revolution, about a festival in Estonia built around what is essentially a national anthem that has been pivotal in preserving a sense of cohesiveness over generations of occupation.
In every location I worked, there were songs or memories of songs associated with times of revolution or profound transformation. Singing has been a primary transmitter of cultural identity across generations. Not the songs of professionals; the songs of the streets, the marches, the gatherings, formal or informal, where people feel compelled to remember and rehearse their origins, their collective presence, their aspirations; songs that express hope, resolve and celebration in the midst of adversity; songs worth singing and worth forgetting for the moment whether or not you “really can” sing.
I learned “Adelita” from my Chicano town meeting circuit colleague in Texas, “Arirang” from staff in Korea, Gandhi’s “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” from colleagues who had worked in India. Over the course of intense grassroot-based community work across the globe, the ICA had collected a songbook, including traditional melodies with new lyrics written by local staff and volunteers. At the conclusion of a special campaign involving 100 town meetings on a single day across the state of Oklahoma, the facilitation team gathered and spontaneously sang virtually every song in the book, by memory, someone different selecting the next song within a heartbeat of the completion of the last.
Singing has also been central to key moments in American history, from “Chester” of the American Revolution to the dueling “Battle Hymn” and “Dixie” of the Civil War and “We Shall Overcome” of the civil rights movement. In the arts, the power of song played a major role in the film, The Enemy Below, as well as in the book, The Burmese Harp.
In recent years, aside from some communities of faith, an embarrassed silence has reigned, relegating singing to “those who can.” This is not a time to force the issue; it’s not an issue amenable to coercion. This reflects the tentative stage of transformation, a formative ambiguity and uncertainty, still largely under the sway of old and competing patterns of behavior and expectation.
Yet it helps to remember, to listen for the stirring of fresh expressions of the spirit of the times, and yes, once in a while to exercise your own voice, for we are living at the threshold of a new revolution, a new profound transformation in search of stories, symbols–and songs–that promise to extend and heal the fabric of a new community.