Tuesday, July 10, 2007


My children love to sing, and I couldn’t be prouder of them for it.

We played a game of Encore on Sunday night with a friend of ours and her son, and my girls performed in style. They knew theme songs from TV shows that were canceled decades before they were born (Schlemiel! Schlimazel!), they knew songs about folk heroes like John Henry and Casey Jones, they knew songs about their country, and they knew songs from Broadway.

I’ve lost track of how many songs my girls know. Even though she won’t be five until this fall, Rachel has amazed me by knowing the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and by singing show tunes from “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and even “Man of La Mancha.” Evangeline’s pretty much the same.

Music, I have come to realize, is as fundamentally a part of being human as speech itself is. We tap our heels, we whistle, we clap our hands, we snap our fingers and we stomp our feet. And we sing.

Or at least we used to. Anymore these days, music is a spectator thing. We listen to iPods and radio stations, but if someone starts to sing along, we usually tell them to shut up, because they’re ruining the song.

It used to be at a ballgame that everyone would rise to her feet and sing the national anthem before the game would start. It was a communal effort, a joint profession of allegiance to something bigger than ourselves, something that united us all under one flag, no matter our race, heritage or class. Nowadays we all shuffle our feet and listen as one person sings it over the intercom, or (what’s worse) we stand patiently as a recording plays.

When I was younger, my parents’ church sung hymns that had been around since before the English language. I wouldn’t have complained if the organ had caught fire, and I wouldn’t have minded something more interesting than “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” but even if the songs were dull and the organ was uninspiring, worship was something everyone took part in. If you had been around long enough, you didn’t even need to look at the hymnal to know the words.

Good luck finding a similar experience today. It’s true the music is a little fresher than “Nearer my God to Thee,” and the electric guitars and drum sets are guaranteed to wake you up rather than lull you into a coma, but something’s been lost. Watch the congregation, and you’ll find that more and more people are listening to the worship team, and if anyone’s singing, it’s often a half-hearted thing done through half-shut mouths. The music is louder than when I was a boy, but fewer people are joining in.

It’s not quite the same thing, is it?

As a culture, we are losing something important. When songs attain that coveted nirvana where children learn them from their parents, without benefit of music or lyrics sheet, they create a solid anchor in the past for each generation that comes. They become a medium for passing knowledge, sharing history, and creating identity.

My girls have laughed to some of the same songs that entertained a young Laura Ingalls Wilder on the frontier a hundred fifty years ago, and they’ve sung some of the same tunes that John Lennon and Pete Seeger used to protest the Vietnam War when I was still learning to crawl. These songs are part of their heritage, and they’re part of what makes them American.

They’re a part of our identity, and we’re letting it slip a way.

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