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The Culture Corner

If We’re Locked Down, Of Course We’ll Sing. It Just Might Be Solos.

Somewhere in the hurricane of disheartening stories these past two weeks, Italy gave us a ray of light: Quarantined apartment dwellers were singing from their balconies.

A 1941 American songbook.

I’m pretty sure an aria from Turandot won’t kill the coronavirus, but what a splendid testament to the human spirit.

Music has that power, and videos from Italy, where the government has essentially ordered everyone to stay home, show a handful of professional singers alongside people who just seem to feel that a morning with music is better than a morning without.

“I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free . . . .”Civilla Martin & Charles Gabriel, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” (1905).

Most Americans haven’t been directed to stay home yet, though the government’s lead medical spokesman, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was all over television Sunday saying he thinks that’s not a bad idea.

So if it did happen, what do you suppose we’d sing?

Okay, a mix for sure. We’re that kind of country, like it or not, and our preference in music is as eclectic as our taste in food. We’d hear hip-hop, show tunes, opera, Irish, new pop, old pop, Mexican, folk, R&B, country, Cuban, zydeco, flamenco, polka, gospel, Latin. The list goes on. The more the better.

But we have also traditionally had something else: a modest core of songs we hold in common. If they are rarely our alpha songs, over many years they became embedded. We know them.

Start with the obvious, “The Star Spangled Banner,” and go from there: “America The Beautiful.” “Dixie.” “White Christmas.” “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Amazing Grace.” “The Marine’s Hymn.” “This Land Is Your Land.” “Over There.” “Old Man River.” “Goodnight Irene.” “My Old Kentucky Home.” “On Top of Old Smoky.” “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” “We Shall Overcome.” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” “God Bless America.” “Auld Lang Syne.” “Home On the Range.” “Yankee Doodle.” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There are more.

Their common threads are slender yet strong. They’re all catchy. You don’t need a good voice to join in. They all hook onto something important about America. In the most ragged and democratic way possible, they have become their own American songbook.

Yet most of them are not the thread they once were, because we’re not singing them so much any more.

Once upon a time, not so long ago or far away, singing was a part of grade school. It was part of organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Or adult social organizations, for that matter.

Singing was communal, a figurative or sometimes literal campfire pastime. It was common turf.

Today we live in the age of the personal device, where kids are born wearing earbuds and therefore have far less exposure to the music of their parents in places like cars and homes.

Many kids consider this a gift from heaven. It isn’t, because the incidental exposure they have lost plants a crucial seed that can lie dormant for years and then bloom — sometimes, though not always, providing considerable pleasure.

The biggest factor in the gradual eclipse of these traditional songs, of course, is simply that popular music is hard-wired to move forward. Each new wave of people wants their own songs and sound, which alas leaves less space for what came before and therefore leaves a hole in every next generation’s cultural education. It’s frustrating. It’s the way it works.

If Americans were shooed inside for a spell, we would absolutely find solace in music, up to the modern likes of “Old Town Road” or “New Rules” or “God’s Plan.”

Folks from earlier years could counter with “Like A Prayer” or “Boom Boom Pow” or “Shape of You” or “Born to Run” or “Memory” or “Billie Jean” or “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” or “On The Street Where You Live” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or “I Will Always Love You” or “In My Life” or “Crazy In Love” or “My Girl” or “Dock of the Bay.”

A bunch of those songs we could, in theory, sing. My guess is that we’d play them. At a time when we have more music and easier access than ever, we have lost some of our common musical voice.




All things pop culture.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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