Community singing—gathering with a group of acquaintances and strangers to belt out songs from across the eras—was a big deal in the Twin Cities in the first half of the 20th century, drawing crowds of up to 25,000 people to local parks. Today community singing does not, necessarily, sound relevant or revolutionary. In fact, it might seem completely schmaltzy. But singing together has more political and personal impact than first impressions reveal.
Minnesota Community Sings director and activist Betty Tisel is heading up a community singing revival, reports Jim Walsh in MinnPost, and her motivations go far beyond warming hearts. “Doing this work has meant my doing less political activism, but I feel OK about this because the payoff for community singing is that people get refueled for the struggles we have to keep working on together,” she tells Walsh. Tisel continues:
If we’re going to draw others into the work of building a just, sustainable world, that world’s gotta look like a place we would also like to live in. We need joyful, local, participatory culture….This is eat local, buy local, sing local. It helps me “keep on keepin’ on,” and people who have attended the sings tell us that it helps them a lot, too.
The gathering I attended at MLK Park in Minneapolis last night was nothing if not joyful, inclusive, and connecting, and it didn’t have a drop of unintended schmaltz. The 150 people in attendance (a smaller crowd due to stormy weather, Tisel says) ranged from toddlers to the elderly, and whoever sat next to you became your newest, dearest friend. Consummately lead by Minnesota Community Sings executive director Bret Hesla and artistic director Mary Preus, we sang American standards like “This Little Light of Mine;” international songs in Arabic, Italian, Spanish, and Swahili; and antiwar songs including “Tenting Tonight,” which was sung by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. The lyrics hold up after 150 years:
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Before the event, which was my first community-sing experience, I invited another uninitiated friend to join me. Her jaded, if good-natured, two-word reply was: Hells no. After participating with the smart, ardent crowd in South Minneapolis, I enthusiastically say: Community singing: Hells yes!
If you’re still not convinced of the power of the community sing, watch the ever-cool Odetta talk about her love of singing with others:
Image from Library of Congress.