When Singing Is Like Breathing

Twice in my reading life I have come upon descriptions of communal singing that have aroused in me a deep longing to join with the singers, descriptions of a kind of choiring so spontaneous and natural, so full of the joy or pain of the moment, that I thought, “Only this singing, nothing else, could so completely feed the bodies and souls of the singers.”

I wish I could have lived in such a community, for singing, like nothing else I know, calms the spirit, restores the soul, heals the heart, expresses sorrow or fills one with joy. I am certain that many people, especially church people, feel as I do.

All my life, I have loved the singing of my church and have been nourished by it. But most of the singing done in our worship is either performance or ritual. Even when the performance of the choir or soloist is excellent, when the ritual congregational singing is done eagerly and well, the singing does not so much grow out of a heart-need as out of some kind of liturgical prompt. This is not to say it is perfunctory – just that we see “No. 417, stanzas 1, 3 and 4” on the bulletin and, at the appropriate time, sing it. Only on rare occasions is church singing suddenly transformed from something liturgical (and therefore planned) to something that is for the whole gathered body a heart-cry – of joy or grief or pain. And that happens not by our plan but by … what? Circumstances, I suppose, and a special movement of the Holy Spirit.

I would like to live in a place where people from time to time – and almost accidentally – start to sing for the pure joy of it or a deep need for it.

Let me make clear that I would not want my church to try to manufacture emotional moments through song. But I would like to live in a place where people from time to time – and almost accidentally – start to sing for the pure joy of it or a deep need for it. They’d rather be singing than visiting or watching TV or playing Scrabble. They simply feel the need to sing from time to time and so they do it. And when others hear them, they join them.

A FEAST OF SINGING

In Wales during the 19th and early 20th century, people would gather together in church during Sunday afternoon to sing. Just to sing. And from what writer John Gardner and others have said about it, it was a feast of singing not to be missed. But apparently the church singing didn’t always suffice, as an excerpt from Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley illustrates. It is a Sunday evening, and the father of the family has been discussing with his sons the terrible economic problems that they are experiencing, but then he says,

“. . . leave it now. Let us sing. I want to hear if London have taken the bells from your voices.” So Wyn went to the harp, and Ceridwen to the piano, and my mother and father sat in their chairs on each side of the fire, and we all had places about them.

And we sang.

Then the neighbours began to come in, front and back, and then Ivor and Bron came in with cheers from everybody, and Owen trying to squeeze the life from her, and Gwilym looking in Ivor’s pockets for his baton, and shouting from all for him to conduct us.

By that time we were so hot and so close together that there was no room for Wyn to play, so outside we all went, into the street, with chairs and stools.

A fine night it was, with the moon pulling silver skirts behind her to brush the top of the mountains, and the wind humble to have our voices and only saying a little bit himself to show he had one still, and the Valley waiting quietly for us to fill it with song.

Fill it we did, for hours, sitting in the streets, with all the windows open and people leaning out to sing, and Ivor conducting from the top of a chair in the middle of the Hill. Sometimes you would see a few women go into the house, and a couple of minutes later come out with big teapots, and home brew in jugs, and others again would come out with bread and cheese and cake. But the singing never stopped, end to end, start the other, till Wyn was coming to have blisters on the fingers from pulling the strings, and Davy took her from the stool and sat with his arm about her on our window sill, with her head on his shoulder and his coat on her knees.

Beautiful is the voice rising to the quiet of the night. ([Macmillan, 1964] 305-306)

In dramatically different circumstances, African-American writer Jean Toomer shows us spontaneous communal singing in a small African-American cluster of shanties in Georgia. The Welsh folk in How Green Was My Valley sang the great hymns of the church, but in Toomer’s short story “Blood-Burning Moon,” “Negro women improvised songs against the spell” of the “blood-burning moon.” Tom Burwell, a poor but powerful black man, has declared his love for Louisa, but the word is out that the son of the white mill owner, Bob Stoner, has been “seeing” her. The community of African Americans knows that terrible trouble is about to erupt, and the blood-burning moon is the omen that foretells the coming tragedy. But before the killing starts, Toomer gives us this lovely picture of the community singing:

Tom took her hand in his. Against the tough thickness of his own, hers felt soft and small. His huge body slipped down to the step beside her. The full moon sank upward into the deep purple of the cloud-bank. An old woman brought a lighted lamp and hung it on the common well whose balky shadow squatted in the middle of the road, opposite Tom and Louisa. The old woman lifted the well-lid, took hold the chain, and began drawing up the heavy bucket. As she did so, she sang. Figures shifted, restless-like, between lamp and window in the front rooms of the shanties. Shadows of the figures fought each other on the gray dust of the road. Figures raised the windows and joined the old woman in song. Louisa and Tom, the whole street, singing. (in Black Voices [Mentor, 1968], 69)

The singing here suggests deep communal fear and foreshadows great grief, but it also provides a sweet moment of respite for Tom and Louisa. As in the picture Llewellyn gives of the Welsh village, the houses here are close together so that communal singing is possible without leaving one’s home. Most of us, conditioned to houses that are set apart from our neighbors’, would probably find living so close to our neighbors intolerable. But this scene makes me want to be part of a community where people spontaneously join voices to sing their joy and pain and fear and hope!

SONG RISING UP

Only a few times have I experienced something approaching the experience of these fictional people from Wales and Georgia, not quite as communal, perhaps, but nevertheless, a time when people who had come to our home for social reasons started to sing and soon the whole houseful of guests joined in.

Even though people from the neighborhood did not trickle in to join us, some of them must have heard us on that soft summer evening last June as we sat and sang under the stars and the music unfurled across lawns and gardens and trees. Like those fictional singers in Wales and Georgia, we all knew the songs. We brought out some old psalters, but they weren’t necessary, for we were all church people, most of us over 60, and we knew the old hymns and psalms because we shared a common hymnody. These songs were tangled like roots through our hearts and minds.

No one said anything like “let’s have a sing-along.” Instead, caught by the moment, by the fragrance of the night and the softness of the air and the pleasure of the fellowship, we wanted to sing, and what else but songs of faith could express our joy and our hope.

So we sang. The sky grew dark, and the stars appeared. The moon slipped in and out from behind thin cirrus clouds, and we sang praises and laments, some of them sentimental, some austere, all of them familiar.

And we didn’t stop until it was time for coffee.

Image: Scott Smith/Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.