Singing Down Memory Lane

Classic Arts Features   Singing Down Memory Lane
 
"A sing along is just taking that excitement one step further ..."

"Let's sing some old songs together we've sung many times before, and let's hope we'll sing them many times again." Standing on the Carnegie Hall stage on June 8, 1963, Pete Seeger: guitar slung over his shoulder: invited his capacity audience to add their voices to performances of songs that ranged from "This Land Is Your Land" to "Guantanamera" to "Skip to My Lou." But coming just six weeks after televised images of police in Birmingham turning snarling dogs and fire hoses on teenaged African American protesters, and with the March on Washington less than three months away, the emotional center of the concert was a set of songs dedicated to the civil rights cause. Seeger, the beating heart of the '60s folk revival, led the singing of "Oh, Freedom" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and climaxed his appeal to support the movement with a powerful sing-along performance of "We Shall Overcome" that reverberated throughout the Hall.

The willingness of Seeger's audience to become part of the show suggests some of the enduring appeal and varying manifestations of the sing-along format. This season, for the first time in decades, Carnegie Hall hosts two such participatory concerts. Under the musical direction of Ray Chew, two of gospel music's biggest stars: Donnie McClurkin and Kim Burrell: are featured in what McClurkin calls a "landmark sing-along concert" on December 9. The following month, internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe presents "Sing, America!," a program that gives audience members an opportunity to join her in singing familiar favorites from the Great American Songbook. "The excitement of the live experience is what drives people to go to concerts," says Blythe, recognizing, like Seeger, the possibilities of solidarity through song. "A sing along is just taking that excitement one step further because the act of group singing helps to create a community joined together by physical, active participation."

The concert hall sing along most familiar to present-day audiences is undoubtedly the "Sing-It-Yourself" Messiah. Performances of Handel's famous oratorio by professional orchestras and trained soloists joined by audiences who: with scores in hand: sing the choruses date to London in the early 1970s. They have since become a staple throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Today, a Christmas season passing without a local "Sing-It-Yourself" Messiah seems as likely as a tree without ornaments. And through this tradition, Messiah has become established as arguably the most widely familiar work in the choral repertory.

But as a brand name, the popularity of the "Sing-Along" format is perhaps most indebted to symphonic oboist turned intrepid pop producer Mitch Miller. The Mephistophelean-bearded yet irrepressibly impish Miller became a national celebrity in 1958 when he achieved spectacular success with the first three of his Sing Along with Mitch albums. In millions of homes, the stereo replaced the parlor piano as families joined the orchestra and male chorus conducted by Miller in the singing of familiar tunes from the pop charts, the folksong canon, and movie soundtracks. Sing Along with Mitch LPs, which eventually numbered well over a dozen, achieved such popularity that in 1960 the concept was translated to the medium of television. Opening with Miller's invocation to his NBC audience: "Please, don't just sit there. Come on and sing!": Sing Along with Mitch featured a 25-voice male chorus performing old standards as words were projected on the screen and soon became the top-rated program on television.

Catalyzed by Miller's series, audience participation even became a popular early-'60s nightclub concept and, newspapers reported, threatened to become "the entertainment craze" of the day. Manhattan cabarets like The Cattleman, Bill's Gay Nineties, and Sammy's Bowery Follies transported patrons to the Gilded Age through costumes and the collective singing of turn-of-the-century sentimental oldies. Miller understood that the memories summoned by singing along with "tested and proven songs" was the key mechanism of a format that can "open the door on people's private memories." The logic was simple: "Why has this thing caught on? For obvious reasons: selling nostalgia and the sound of people singing together. Do it in good taste and ring their memory bell." Chew, who has served as musical director for major productions that range from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to Dancing with the Stars, will take a similar approach at his gospel sing along. "We're going to recognize some very wonderful, iconic songs of inspiration that most of the audience will know." For "Sing, America!," Blythe has selected "tunes that everyone will recognize, regardless of their age. These tunes are part of our collective cultural consciousness. They may not know where they heard the songs, but they are somehow very familiar."

Making her Met debut in 1995, just a year after graduating from SUNY Potsdam, Blythe idolized Plšcido Domingo. But hearing home practice sessions by her father: a jazz musician who played saxophone, clarinet, and flute: led to a lifelong attachment to popular song and, these days, her passion for music from the 1920s and '30s. In recent years, Blythe has used this repertory as a means of cultivating what she describes as "active rather than passive audiences." By its very nature, the sing along professes a belief in a vital role for the audience. At the "Hootenannies" popularized by Seeger and his band of folk revivalists in the postwar years, audiences came "expecting to sing as much as possible," and recordings of a series of appearances at Carnegie Hall in the late 1950s (Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry at Carnegie Hall and Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall) reveal that singing along was a regular feature of his performances.

But Miller also acknowledged "the difficulties involved in getting a group of strangers to sing together spontaneously" and "to break down a normally shy self-consciousness." As a performer, McClurkin views the sing along as a unique opportunity for him and the audience "to enjoy the concert as 'one,' instead of it being just the artist singing to a few thousand." If some find themselves initially timid singing along with the dynamic McClurkin and Burrell: both award-winning, best-selling artists and ordained ministers: Chew nonetheless hopes to inspire his Carnegie Hall audience to lift every voice and sing. "I am going to have a very big choir and that is going to help everyone feel the whole concept of singing along. If you have 90 other voices singing on stage, then you'll feel more comfortable joining in."

Blythe is even more optimistic. "I have done several of these concerts already, and I can tell you that what I see in the audience is people more champing at the bit to sing than self-conscious about joining in. These were folks who were not just singing songs; they were reliving the memories that these tunes brought to them. The result is just pure joy."

: Mark Burford is an associate professor of music at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Saturday, January 23 at 2 PM Stephanie Blythe: Sing, America! Stephanie Blythe, Mezzo-Soprano Alan Louis Smith, Piano

The Song Continues is supported, in part, by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. Workshops and master classes are made possible, in part, by Mr. and Mrs. Nicola Bulgari and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. This program is part of the Marilyn Horne legacy at Carnegie Hall.

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