Friday, August 20, 2010


I love singing. I didn't really know how much I love to sing until I started hanging around morris dancers, who sing around campfires and really anytime they get the chance. Pub songs, sea shanties, labor hymns, grange songs... all kinds of stuff gets thrown into the repertoire of a certain kind of sing. That's what it gets called mostly, a "sing." No books, usually, an mostly no instruments. Harmony at the best of times, generally worked up to as the song progresses through several rounds of the chorus and the singers can fell out where to go. Or worked out over multiple singings over the course of years.

There are other kinds of sings too. Rise Up Singing is a very popular basis for sings: everyone gets a copy, and people go around picking out songs. The great advantage of book-based singing is that the selection of songs is based on preference: everyone gets to choose one, and they don't have to be good at memorizing to lead it. It is a much more democratic process than a non-book sing.

But I like the non-book sings best. It's been great seeing sings start to emerge as a regular, public, sustained thing here in the Minneapolis-St Paul area. Phil Platt of the Eddies started one in the fall of 2009, and I started another one this fall... so far so good. And Betty Tisel has been organizing others. I hope this thing continues to spread

I've tried, in sings I've been responsible for, a "pick, pass or lead" formula, where we go around the circle, and people have the option to lead a song themselves, pick a song, or pass. Everyone gets a turn. I've also learned from watching Phil a way of essentially emceeing things, which is useful balancing a set with experienced and inesperienced singers.

I've been reflecting lately on the shape of the sings I really love. The impromptu gatherings at morris ales (there was one at the 2009 Midwest Ale in a passageway outside the dining room that absolutely knocked my socks off), the after-hours sings at Old Songs Festival or Mystic Sea Music Festival, or some of the gatherings of morris folk at parties here and in Massachusetts.

Here's my theory: a really good sing needs spines, muscles and body mass. Metaphorically.

It needs spines: people who can really hold a song up as they lead it. Strong voice, consistent enough sense of notes so people can tell the key and follow along on the melody, and a good memory.

It needs muscles: people who can push and pull harmonies out of the melody. Interestingly, though I tend to try and do harmonies, I think there's another kind of dynamic that's in play here too, providing the song with dynamics. One of the weakness of many of the book-based sings I've been to, is that you lose the rich texture of call and response, solo verse and group chorus (or often, solo first line of a familiar verse, small group on the remainder of the verse, and whole group on the chorus). Instead, everyone sings everything. It feels flat to me by comparison when this happens.

Finally, you need body mass. It really makes a difference to have 30 people in the room instead of 10. For one thing, it's more forgiving of experiments. For another, the dynamics I talked about above are even more in play.


The thing I've noticed is that running a sing is a lot like clerking at Friends meeting: it's not about ordering people around and getting them in shape to sing on key. That's a choir, not a sing. No, it's about creating a structured space within which people feel free to take up their roles as spine, muscles and body. And then, mostly, getting out of the way. It's a lot like being an emcee in general: you can't just give over all responsibility, because people get bored by the utter chaos that ensues. But on the other hand, your job is take the spot light for just as long as it takes for the next "act" to get it together, and then make the audience forget it was ever looking at you. And in the case of a sing, it's about paying attention to the song first, then the singer. People will let themselves be swept along by a song where they would be suspicious of being swept along by a singer.

I grew up in Pete Seeger. He's someone who's spent his professional life getting people to sing. It's easy to make fun of his "lining out" style, but he took what had become a nation of passive audiences and got them—a lot of them anyway—to find their voices again. That's why he tops my list of "people I admire."

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