“It was like you weren’t going to be afraid if you could sing about it,” recounts Mary Previte in episode #559 of This American Life, “Captain’s Log,” which first aired June 26, 2015. Mary tells the story of how her Girl Scout-esque group, the Girl Guides, was kept in a Japanese concentration camp in China during World War II. The teachers, as best they were able, would try to keep the girls’ spirits up by playing games and singing camp songs. Previte continues:
“We would sing: ‘Day is done. Gone the sun from the sea, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.’
“How could you be afraid when you’re singing about all is well, safely rest, God is nigh? How could you be afraid of that?”
Throughout her interview, Mary was bright and cheerful, often breaking out in song. Her story led to eventual joy. Singing with the other Girl Guides helped keep the darkness of their situation at bay. This is the beauty of making music as community: It helps us push away fear, binding and forming individuals into communities. Singing together reminds us of who we are and who we can be. It seems as though melody, harmony, rhythm, and their infinite variations are foundational to our shared human experience.
Music has this power to draw together disparate people groups but is, and maybe always has been, shifting from a shared experience to a highly produced, professionalized individual experience. When I was in high school, another student told our choir director, “One of the things I really hate seeing is old guys playing songs at open mics. If you haven’t made it by the time you’re 30, you should quit and work in real estate.” Music making is for the rock stars. The unprofessional’s job is to stream it through headphones.
When music is made for this highly produced and individualized mindset, it becomes only a widget meant to be blasted through headphones to autonomous individuals. Today, at the coffee shop where I’m writing, every patron has headphones in, myself included. The production of music as a mere consumable and the ubiquity of headphones have changed the reason why we listen to music. Amanda Petrusich, in the July 12, 2016, New Yorker article “Headphones Everywhere,” writes:
“It seems possible, though, that we are slowly reconfiguring music as a private pleasure—that, in fact, all pleasures, soon, may be private. We are all the lone stars of secret films, narrated by and in our own minds and we seek out music that validates that position: separate but forever plugged in.”
The “private pleasure” of consumable music is becoming well removed from the experience of music as a communally binding practice. The Rockwellian image of a family gathering around the old spinet piano to sing along as mom opens the hymnal to her favorite hymns—maybe #117 “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”—is antithetical to the sea of individuals playing privatized playlists curated by personal algorithms for their headphones.
But not all is so dire. There are still places where people gather together to make music. For instance: Wednesdays at 7 p.m. for the All Ages Karaoke Night at Danny’s on Douglas.
My first night at Danny’s on Douglas, I wasn’t sure what to expect. From across the room Mustang called to me, “Hey! Come over here—I want to introduce you to some regulars.” Danny’s is a pizza parlor that wishes it were a dive bar (of the family friendly variety). The crowd is equally disjointed. That first night, in the back was a large party celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday; elsewhere in the restaurant was a rowdy group of college kids home for summer; at the bar were the resident down-on-their-luck barflies. Mustang introduced me to a table near the stage: “Tommy, meet Queen Bee and her husband, Sven. And this is our friend, Uni-Kitty.” Also at the table was a teenager with bright teal hair whose name I was never given (likely a nickname similar to her friends, equally cartoon-inspired).
After introducing me to a few other regulars, Mustang started teaching me the rules of karaoke. First, have fun—karaoke is fun! Second, don’t mess up The List. People know the order they’re singing in and The List makes sure everyone gets to sing as much as they want (so don’t mess up The List). Third, no downtime. Always make sure the energy is up. Finally, figure out a cool DJ name. I suggested “T-Money;” Mustang thought “Tommy” was fine.
When the show started, I already had a few regulars on The List, like Queen Bee who opened the show. I began her track and a tinny keyboard with a hollow digital kick drum karaoke reproduction of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” started playing. Queen Bee sang beautifully and the crowd loved it. A few minutes later, Uni-Kitty got up to sing a rocking version of “Barracuda” by Heart. Again, the crowd loved it. The next up was Sven, singing The Proclaimer’s “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”
Calling Sven’s version bad wouldn’t be fair to the song. He sang with an exaggerated Scottish accent and several keys lower than the recording. When it came to the first chorus a few regulars joined in (on key) and when the “Lada dada” part started, the whole room burst out singing along . . . because karaoke is fun. By the time the performance was over, a few of the college kids in the back were dancing.
The whole night went like this: After every song the crowd cheered regardless of the quality of the performance. The singers varied in musical ability, some were great and others less so, but there was always applause. Even the 7-year-old mumbling through “Let It Go” from Frozen was cheered on. The college kids sang a group version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the crowd joined in at the end. An Art Garfunkel look-alike provided a talk-singing version of “The Season of the Witch” by Donovan, which was warmly received. The unsurprisingly patriotic loner in a cowboy hat singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” was saluted by one of the barflies. By the end of the night, a sort of community had formed around these performances.
“All our sickness, all our sorrows, Jesus carried up the hill
He has walked this path before us, He is walking with us still.
Turning tragedy to triumph, turning agony to praise
There is blessing in the battle, so take heart and stand amazed.”
One Sunday as we were singing “Rejoice,” the three women who were in various stages of the treatment had gathered together during this verse, wrapped their arms around each other, and sang loudly. Their singing with one another gave them a hope in the midst of their fear that God wouldn’t leave them alone in their sickness. They were together with each other and with God. It was a raw and beautiful display of music binding our community.
Of course, church music is not immune to the professionalization and privatization of music. For every moment like the one with “Rejoice,” there were times when the band would get up and I’d be singing at the congregation as they stared backed at me. Worship leaders, choir directors, and cantors often have difficulty encouraging congregants to sing along in a culture where music is treated as a private experience tailored to personal tastes.
“People aren’t really expected to participate anymore. As I led worship over the years, I would look out and see the apathy on people’s faces,” comments Isaac Wardell, founder of Bifrost Arts, in a December 7, 2009, interview with By Faith: The Online Magazine of the Presbyterian Church of America. Wardell continues:
“[But] there’s an instant community that forms when people join their voices together—and I think there are implications for how we view church as a result. Often, when you see a congregation truly listening to one another and responding to one another as they sing, you see interconnectedness in other ways too: the church body as a community, accountability among members, the church serving as a true anchor for members.”
The material result of a forgiven people is a gathered people. Those who are gathered in Christ, the Church, “[are] not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11, ESV). It wouldn’t be entirely unfounded to add to Paul’s list barflies, patriots in cowboy hats, and teal-haired teenagers. In Christ, disparate individuals who were divided by race and gender, culture and geography, economics and philosophy, dwell together in community.
Interestingly enough, the practical realities of how these very different people could be in Christian relationships—how families will function, laborers will labor, communities will flourish—includes communal music: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:14–16, ESV).
Christianity is a singing faith. The foundation of how Christian community is supposed to look is not a homogeneous crowd listening to a good sermon and concert put on by professionals. It is a diverse group of people singing with thankfulness all sorts of songs about Jesus.
We need one another because the only thing God made in Genesis that wasn’t good was a man on his own. Even Jesus, the Son of God, was in need of friendship the night he was handed over to be crucified. Community has the ability to comfort and encourage even in the darkest of places. Like Mary Previte in the concentration camp singing simple children’s songs, we are able to endure so much more together, when our hearts are singing the same tune. Singing those silly songs at the All Ages Karaoke Night at Danny’s on Douglas, where all are welcomed and every song cheered, I was given a glimpse of this kingdom where we are bound to each other and to God.
Making music together truly has binding power. Humans are not meant for only private pleasure; we are, at our cores, meant for one another. Singing together has the ability to push away our fears and show us that we’re not alone. So on Sundays, when we gather in the name of Christ and call out to each other in song, we are reminded of who we are in Him and who He is forming us to be. As we sing the message of Christ, it burrows deep into our hearts, and we are ruled with the joy and peace of Christ in our midst.