Singing Together for Building Community

Debbi Kauffmann

Debbi Kauffman will be leading a Community Sing at 12:45-1:30 PM on the Patio Stage on Sunday, July 28.  It's just one of several singing sessions scheduled throughout the weekend.

When people think of community building and activism, singing together isn't necessarily the first activity that springs to mind. But, after talking to Debbi Kauffman, it's not so hard to believe. Community singing can be a powerful tool for community building, and an enjoyable one as well.

Humans have engaged each other in song since the beginning – almost as an ingrained or natural behavior. Singing is a way of collective mourning and celebration, a way to preserve and transmit history and stories, and a way to bring together disparate groups into a unified whole. This unifying factor is what Debbi identified as probably the most important aspect of community singing, to her, and it is achieved through a variety of means.

First, the authority of the “leader” is marginal. The leader of the singing is not so much a director as a facilitator – someone who helps to organize the event, perhaps supplying lyrics to a preselected group of songs that are commonly known, and then gets out of the way. Debbi talked repeatedly about the idea that the group leads the leader as much as the leader leads the group, which makes sense in a democratic, shared activity like community singing.

Second, these community sings, like the one that will be hosted at the Susquehanna Folk Festival, are not performances. People of all talents are welcome. And while the opportunity is certainly there to learn something and grow as a vocalist, it is not the emphasis. Instead, the unity, sharing, and collaboration create what Debby called a “raw, powerful energy.” She struggled to verbalize what this was – but though difficult to put into words, it is something that community singers all share and can help newcomers to experience.

Finally, Debbi pointed to the seeming contradiction of what she called an “apolitical activism.” The songs that are selected tend to be classics in folk traditions, and are a blend of sacred and secular music. However, religious devotion is no more necessary to enjoy and share in the unity created by classics like “I’ll Fly Away” or “I Saw the Light,” than being born in Wheeling is necessary to appreciate “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia.” These old, well-worn tunes transcend the differences of people, focusing on common human ideas and themes, like hope, joy, and a sense of belonging.

This is what makes community singing special: the unifying effect it has on people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religious traditions, and geographies. It brings people together around the commonalities of the human experience, and the joy found in sharing those experiences with each other. Community singing does all this while putting a smile on the singers' faces as they experience the joy of creating music and expressing themselves in song.