»  National Review Online

November 22, 2001

  Sing, con allegria!


There are, of course, many ways to give thanks, all correct and appreciated in their proper places. There is one style of thanksgiving, however, that is pretty much neglected in the modern age, to, I believe, our great loss. We don't sing our thanks any more, as people used to do instinctively.

In Tom Sawyer, when Tom, Joe and Huck suddenly show up in the middle of their own funeral service, the congregation is at first stunned into silence. Then:

Suddenly the minister shouted at the top of his voice: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow — SING! — and put your hearts in it!" And they did. Old Hundred swelled up with a triumphant burst …

Nobody sings like that now, not even church congregations. Somerset Maugham liked to boast that he never did anything that he could pay someone to do for him. In this respect, at least, we are all Somerset Maughams now: nobody sings — nobody, I mean, that isn't paid to.

This is a source of some distress to me, for I love to sing. My voice is not very good — I command only a narrow bass-baritone range — but I sing whenever I can without embarrassing anyone. Which nowadays means either alone and out of earshot of fellow mortals, or in church.

Siegfried Sassoon's lovely WW1 poem "Everyone Sang", in which a party of soldiers suddenly bursts into song, ends with the promise that " … the singing will never be done." Sorry, pal — it's done. Nobody sings any more. Walt Whitman famously heard America singing while it worked. Forget it: the fellow who comes in to tile your bathroom will not sing — though he will, almost certainly, regard it as a condition of employment that he be allowed to play his radio at high volume all day long: soft rock if you're lucky, gangsta rap if not. A contemporary poet would hear Whitney Houston singing while the rest of America yawps barbarically into its cell phones.

I am going to try not to be snobbish about this (though I am not going to try very hard) but I think I can sing at least one verse of about two hundred songs sight unseen: most of Amis and Cochrane's Great British Songbook, a fair chunk of Hymns Ancient and Modern and a miscellany of others ranging from "The Good Ship Venus" (a disgusting rugby-club ballad) via "O Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie" to "Vesti la giubba" transposed into my own personal key. Yet what does it avail me in this gloom of solitude?

None of my American acquaintances sings at all, ever, not even when pardonably well likkered up. If I sing in their presence, they display embarrassment. My wife is from a different culture and knows none of my songs, even though we first met as members of the same college choir (whose show-stopper was: "Without The Communist Party There Would Be No New China!")

My 6-year-old's favorite, and possibly only, song is a pastiche on "Jingle Bells" with the words: "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg …" while the 8-year-old is picking up Britney Spears lyrics. I am reduced to singing in my car, the vocal equivalent of solitaire.

Not even church provides much outlet. If my own congregation is representative, the commonest form of vocal display among Episcopalians is lip-syncing. My pleasure in the hymns is much reduced by the uncomfortable knowledge that I am one of only three audible voices this side of the choir.

Organized worship aside, the only hymn known to any large number of Americans is "Amazing Grace." It's a nice hymn, and has been giving comfort to thousands this past few weeks at the funerals of those killed by the September 11th terrorists; yet still, I wish America were not so hymn-poor. The great hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries are art of a very high order, and it would be a loss to humanity if they sank into disuse. Many of them you can just read, as poetry. Some of the lines stick in your mind unforgettably, like bits of Shakespeare or Kipling.

Our shield and defender,
The ancient of days,
Pavilion'd in splendor
And girded with praise.

(That hymn, incidentally, was written by a politician: Sir Robert Grant, Member of Parliament — Conservative, of course. I wonder if any member of the current British Parliament, or any member of the 107th Congress for that matter, could produce lines of that quality.)

Does it matter that nobody sings? Why raise our own feeble, untrained voices in song, when at the touch of a button we can hear Cecilia Bartoli or Tony Bennett? Are these skills that have become pointless, like butter-churning and razor-honing?

Well, aside from the sheer animal joy of it, I believe there is much to be gained from breaking into song now and then. For one thing, there is a better acquaintance with genius. You cannot appreciate the challenges that Verdi placed before singers, for example, if you have not attempted one of his arias yourself. Try "A fors' è lui" from La Traviata and discover the almost sadistic skill of the composer in refusing to allow you to draw breath precisely when you most need to.

And then there are the words. The human voice is not merely another musical instrument; it is a vehicle for the expression of ideas and feelings through the words sung. All good writers for the voice, from vaudeville to the opera hall, have understood this. I have been singing the great Anglican hymns for thirty years, yet the best of them are still revealing new meanings to me. Song serves this function much better than poetry or prose, for reasons ultimately physio-neurological.

Some years ago I was working as a computer programmer. My colleague in the same cube was an American Jew named Avrom, who had had a religious education. Reaching to the shelf for a well-thumbed manual, I remarked on the paradox that I could remember the words of every pop song in the charts from 1965 to 1975 but could not remember the syntax of the programming language by which I earned my living.

"I can explain that," volunteered Avrom. He then described to me how Yeshiva students memorize their texts: by reading aloud in chorus, nodding their heads in rhythm to the words, rocking their bodies, chanting. The body, the voice, the words, the meanings — total immersion.

There you have the proof: we were meant to sing, in our very cells and fibers. Postindustrial civilization, which neither sings nor dances, leaves hollow places in our spirit. So sing! — if only while driving your car.