Here’s a post I made on Facebook a few years ago and a few of the comments that friends added—
There is a difference between singing songs TO an audience, and helping them sing with each other.
I am a musician who was born in 1950 in the USA. Today my husband Zeke and I listened to a bunch of young people singing activist songs from the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights, union and anti-war movements (also known as The Great Folk Scare). The young musicians did very well. Great singers, some excellent instrumentalists. Remembering some of the songs, and seeing and hearing those songs being cherished and offered anew by musicians who weren’t yet born then, brought tears to my eyes.
I also felt odd and bit sad, because though they invited the audience to sing along, they didn’t really facilitate that. The audience sang a little, softly. But they didn’t raise the roof or connect with one another.
I’ve been trying to think about what I do differently, and what Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and the other people from whom I learned those songs, did differently. I think it involves teaching, leading, and inviting until the audience kinda gets going, and then dropping back so the audience can primarily hear one another and realize they are part of something big. Also, it’s important to offer protection to those who fear humiliation if they sing. All together we are beautiful. But I hadn’t thought about how much it’s a learned skill to get a general audience to sing freely. And how necessary that such singing together be a primary intention if it’s going to happen well.
Bob Franke: I think that the many young people who have grown up thinking that music is a commodity to be bought need to be taught that it is a birthright that has been stolen.
Judy Fjell: Thank you SO MUCH for posting this, Flip. Yes, we folkies of the sixties learned some things we don’t necessarily know that we know. (Good grief it sounds reminiscent of Rumsfeld’s famous ‘known unknowns” quote). I know exactly what you are talking about and I so admire those who can incite an audience to riotous or heart-full singing
Max McLaughlin: This is what Utah Phillips preached from the stage most of his career. It’s why I became involved in the folk music community, it’s why I play and sing, it’s why I perform. To paraphrase Bruce, “The music doesn’t belong to the damned music companies. They flat out stole it! It’s ours goddamn it, and we have to take it back, and bloody well sing it!”
Adrianne Gunn: …you have a tremendous gift/talent for connecting with an audience. Eating out of the palm of your hand and leaning in for every breath kind of enchanting way with an audience….It’s like you’re gently spoon-feeding everyone each bite and phrase of your songs.
Flip Breskin: It’s been my experience that, with an explicit invitation that includes a description of the ways we’ve been silenced, and the specific loss of connection and power connected with that, at least in a house concert or actual listening venue, I can generally coax the audience into singing, even these days. But it takes explaining that group singing is a revolutionary act.