Summer campfires and sing-alongs aside, the history of God's people is written twice: Once in documents beginning with the Torah and the Bible, and simultaneously in the music passed from family to clan to tribe to city-state to nation, through war, commerce, slavery, and emigration, and between successive generations.
The folk tradition maintains an astonishing integrity. For example, the classic nursery trio "eeny meeny miny moe" is thought to have originated in pre-Christian Scotland as a counting technique used by shepherds. Two thousand years later, these words are the engine of many counting-out rhymes in places far-flung as Melbourne, Saskatoon, Chicago, and Bombay.
In this country much of our church music tradition is European, but the pot still simmers with international ways to praise. The Appalachian harmonies of shape-note singing, preserved nearly intact since the early 1800s, gave us tent standards like "Amazing Grace" and "Wondrous Love." African-American gospel gems like "Wade in the Water," and "Didn't It Rain?" raise rafters as well as the spirit. Soulful spirituals like "Steal Away" and "Jacob's Ladder" reveal the plaintive side of African roots meeting Christianity. A group of women in Milwaukee sing a new set of verses to the tune of "Jacob's Ladder," beginning "We are weaving Sarah's circle...." This is the beauty of the folk traditionevolution within a structure.
The faith-sharing tradition of Latinos in the Southwest adds songs like "Demos Gracias," "De Colores," and "Un Espiga Dorado por el Sol" to the body. Just for fun, church camp and teen revival standards like "Give Me Oil for My Lamp" and "Jesus Save the Popcorn" testify to the lighter side of Christian folk music.
Pop culture, while often pitted against the world of the arts, is more often the enemy of folk culture. The process by which phrases appear in inner-city double-dutch jump tunes as well as in scholarly studies (such as the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes) is endangered, according to linguists. Children play less now than in generations past, with their content increasingly scripted by video game plots, television exposure, and the movie-to-cassette revolution.
Making your family culture one of spontaneous and regular singing offers multiple benefits in both the secular and sacred arenas. Try these activities this summer:
Organize a church, community, or block party songfest. Midsummer's Eve was re-christened into the Feast of St. John the Baptist by early believers. A night of gospel and revival singing is a way to reclaim this ancient and enjoyable holiday.
Sit on your porch, stoop, fire escape, or front lawn and sing with family and friends. Decks or patios are fine if you have them, but an important way to build community with your neighborhood is to spend time facing the street rather than cloistered in the back yard.
Let singing lighten your heart and the load while working. My first memory is of my mother singing while washing dishes. Our 10-year-old, Hannah, doesn't mind sweeping in time to musical soundtracks like The King and I and South Pacific.
Rise Up Singing: The Group-Singing Song Book, by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson. Ballads, silly songs, gospel, lullabies, blues, camp songand in a friendly format. Now available are companion learning tapes that make it possible to learn new tunes without reading music. Inquire about group purchase discounts. Highly recommended! Contact Sing Out, P.O. Box 5253, Bethlehem, PA 18015; (215) 865-5366.
Now We'll Make the Rafters Ring: Classic and Contemporary Rounds for Everyone, by Edwin Finckel. Chicago Review Press, known for its commitment to how-to books for the often ignored 10-17 age group, publishes this guide for those singers ready for informal choral work. Contact CRP, 814 Franklin St., Chicago, IL 60610
For little children, nursery rhymes are the first songs, uttered in breathy chants. Try these two new international collectionsStreet Rhymes Around the World and Sleep Rhymes Around the World, by Jane Yolen (Boyds Mill Press). Each rhyme is illustrated by an artist from the culture, making the book a visual treat as well.
Marybeth Shea, who has been a poet in residence at Mt. Ranier, MD, area schools, was on the faculty of the University of Maryland Art Center when this article appeared.