Brian Eno wrote an essay for the NPR series “This I Believe,” which was broadcast this morning. Eno is probably the world’s most famous electronic musician (meaning a player of electronic music, not a silicon-based musician). The majority of his work is instrumental music, often ambient. Many of his fans (including me) lament the lack of vocals in much of his work. And he wrote an essay beginning, “I believe in singing.” Plain a capella singing.
And it makes perfect sense, really. His essay says nothing about the value of listening to singing, on CDs by other people. It’s all about the value of singing. Not only is it beneficial physically (“You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly”) and psychologically (“Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness”), he also discusses its “civilizational benefits.”
When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
He’s absolutely right. I have been immersed in the bluegrass / traditional country music / old-time world for years now, and have almost entirely stopped going to the blues jams that a harmonica player more typically would be found at. Some of that has to do with my love of melody, but a lot of it has to do with the opportunities to sing. At first I was reluctant to sing, believing I wasn’t “good enough,” as so many people sadly do, but the more I did it the better it felt and the more I realized that the joy of it was not in being “good” but in being together.
He includes a recommended list of songs, many of which you could hear at any of our jams — “Keep On the Sunny Side,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — and others that would fit right in, like “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “Down By the Riverside.” They’re simple songs, based, as he says, “around the basic chords of blues and rock and country music.” They are not only word-rich, with beautiful lyrics, but also rich in words with long vowels, where the harmonies really shine. “When you get a lot of people singing harmony on a long note like that, it’s beautiful.” These songs are indeed good to sing together, and not only that, they really aren’t very hard. There are no complex scales or unintuitive harmonies. The choruses are usually brief and easy to remember. Generations of people have been able to sing and enjoy them, and that’s why they’re traditional American tunes.
I believe in singing to such an extent that if I were asked to redesign the British educational system, I would start by insisting that group singing become a central part of the daily routine. I believe it builds character and, more than anything else, encourages a taste for co-operation with others. This seems to be about the most important thing a school could do for you.
Thanks to my “new life” I have been able to spend a lot of time this year singing for days on end. One of my most transcendent experiences of the year was an unaccompanied gospel sing at Ashokan — I am an avowed atheist but I’m also a believer — in the spirituality of singing together, in community, in “the great social virtue” that Eno describes.
We all need more singing in our life.