Can Singing Save America?

I feel better when I sing, and scholars tell me I am not alone. Which is why people like to sing when they go to concerts, ballgames, and the weekend show at the local bar.


“God Bless America” has joined “Take Me Out to the Ball Park” on the schedule at most major league baseball games. And “The Voice” is one of the hottest shows on television.


I grew up singings: at school, in church, and to some extent, at home. Helping kids learn to sing is one of the best gifts a parent can give a child.


As a minister, I have long felt that the most important part of any worship service is the congregational singing—not the choir or the organist or the praise band, but the people singing. If the people don’t sing, I question the spiritual vitality of the organization and the intelligence quotient of the pastors.


And at the concerts, the best part of the show is when the people join with the performers to sing “Sweet Caroline” or “YMCA” or a thousand songs I do not know because they have been written in the last forty years!


Sometimes I think we as a country should take a break from politics, television, and social media, gather at a local diner, and just sing for a while. Maybe we have a piano, maybe guitars and a harmonica, or the entire Marine Corp Band.


We could sing a little Bob Dylan, a few Beatles tunes, and a verse or two of “Amazing Grace.” I like the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and when I sing it I feel so much better about the whole state and all its people.


Jon Meacham the scholar and Tim McGraw the performer live in the same neighborhood of Nashville. They both like music so they teamed up to write and publish a book, Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation. They focus mainly of music in the political life of the nation, like during political campaigns, wars, and social movements.


I reviewed that book on The Meetinghouse and you can read that review here. But even as I was reading it, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a songbook for America, one that included folk songs, stage songs, church songs and even state songs like “Georgia on my Mind”.


What songs would you like to see in such a collection: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “This Land is Your Land” or “There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land”?


In the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Freddy Mercury told his band Queen that he wanted to write and perform a song that the crowd could sing along with them; and what he came up with is “We Will Rock You”, now sung often at games of the National Basketball Association.


And the recent documentary series by Ken Burns, “Country Music”, drew attention to the role that music played in assuaging both the anxiety of the Depression years and the anger of the protest years. One picture showed Johnny Cash, Shel Silverstein, and Bob Dylan jamming together—when was it? Sometime in the 1960s, when social divisions were much worse than now.


We have more than our share of animosity now, and it promises to get much worse during an election year. People of both sides use rhetoric to demonize their opponents and predict a bleak and conflicted future. In such a time as this, we need to sing.


“I hear America singing” wrote Walt Whitman in a famous book of poetry published in 1860. It was the eve of a far more contentious time than now. He described the working people of America and their habit of singing as they worked.


I would like to hear America singing again—not just listening as others sing, not just downloading recorded music off YouTube—but singing: the people singing. We need to put down our guns, and placards, and legal briefs, and political caps and join together to sing “Down to the River to Pray” and “Pretty Woman” and “Sounds of Silence” and a very old song like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”


You can already see that I don’t know many of the new songs. But if you will meet me under the tent, or at the local pub, or even in the sanctuary of the Pentecostal church, I will spend an hour or two singing with you. And in doing so, we just might sing ourselves into a friendship that will be good for the country.