I have had a number of people ask for the text of the homily I delivered yesterday during the annual music service at The First Universalist Church Unitarian Universalist of Auburn, Maine. Here it is in its entirety.
How many times have I heard: “I couldn’t carry a tune if it was strapped to me.” “You don’t want to hear me sing.”Or “I can’t (or don’t) sing.”? There are many variations on this theme, but the net result is always the same. For one reason or another, every person who utters one of these phrases has been told (or convinced themself) to give up singing. I often hear such things when I encourage people to join the church choir. I’m just waiting for someone to quote Jarod Kintz from his book “Who Moved My Choose?: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change by Deciding to Let Indecision Into Your Life.” He wrote: “I only sing in the shower. I would join a choir, but I don’t think my bathtub can hold that many people.”
It’s only been in the last 500 years or so in western culture, and mostly in the last 100 years, since the invention of recorded music, that the line between audience and performer has crept into our social consciousness. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that most extant aboriginal cultures use the same word to mean “to sing” as “to dance.”
Our ancestors would not have been without music, and before the radio, before the phonograph, if you wanted music it was performed live, and nearly everyone was a musician of some sort or another. They would gather around fires or in kitchens with voices and instruments and some lubricating beverages to play, sing, and dance. It was fun, it drew people together, it passed long winter nights, it celebrated weddings and births, and remembered departed souls.
Sea chanteys were invented and sung by sailors to synchronize hard work on ships, like the pulling of ropes, or spinning the capstan, before the machinery existed to automate those jobs. When we sing these songs now, we tend to clap in the places when the work would have happened.
We’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot along, we’ll roll the old chariot, and we’ll all hang on behind.
The songs were infectious enough that the men would sing them after the work was done during the mugup below or in the pub onshore. They’d make up more verses, sometimes very humorous verses. I still sing some of those old songs in pubs, and people still sing along.
Today’s music service theme is our church’s mission: “Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by our diversity, we equip ourselves to minister through the transformative power of Love.” We recently lost a man who lived out a similar ministry. Rooted in the sacred and strengthened by the diversity of the entire human race, Pete Seeger equipped himself with banjo and voice to minister to us all through the transformative power of Love. Pete’s voice fell silent last week. He entertained us and got us singing for most of his 94 years. He gave us the gift of timeless songs: “Where have all the flowers gone, Long time passing, where have all the flowers gone, Long time ago…” He gave us questions to ponder: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” He called us to arms and told us to peacefully go forth and sing to change the world: “Well I have a hammer, and I have a bell, and I have a song to sing all over this land. It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom, it’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”
Wendy Schuman asked Pete his views on religion. He said: “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.
I’ve had preachers of the gospel, Presbyterians and Methodists, saying, “Pete, I feel that you are a very spiritual person.” And maybe I am. I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together.” That’s exactly what he did when he got people to sing together.
That’s what I try to do. In some ways, Pete gave me my career. He was the archetype. He set an example which I and countless others hold up now. It’s the reason I am the choir director at this church. It’s the reason I write songs and feel compelled to shout them out. It’s the reason I remind people they can sing—they should sing. We all should sing. It’s the reason I sing old songs which are worth remembering and handing down again and again like prized family possessions.
The voice is the only instrument we all can play, the only instrument that is hidden inside of each one of us, the only truly organic instrument. When we are born, the first thing we do after taking our first breath is to make a sound with our voice—our innate instrument. The cry of a newborn baby is music, just as the twitter of birds, the rumble of thunder, the babble of a brook, or the silence of the dawn. Every sound—every vibration moving through the air which meets the ear is music. The sound of a mother’s voice to her baby is music. The purr of a cat in your lap is music. So is the slam of a door or the whistle, clickety-clack, and rumble of a train. All music.
In 1952 Composer, John Cage, wrote 4’33”. It’s a piano piece in which the performer takes the stage, sits at the piano and proceeds, stop watch in hand, to not play the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, at which point he closes the piano cover and exits the stage. Many people have mistakenly thought that the piece is about silence. It’s not. According to Cage, the music is the sounds of the audience: occasional coughs and sneezes, shifting in seats, the rattle of someone retrieving an item from a pocket, and so forth. The point is every sound is music, and if we accept the premise, then every voice sings.
Singing feels good. It’s good for us. It releases endorphins in the body. It makes us healthy and happy.
Let’s try something together. Let’s all take a slow, deep breath together, hold it for a couple of seconds and then slowly let it out by humming. This is not a recital, there is no wrong way to do this, so please just try it.
Did you feel that? That feeling of calm come over your entire body? That was a release of endorphins. It’s actually good for you. Laughing actually does the same thing (laughter is singing—it’s music).
OK, I admit it, some days I don’t feel like singing. Sometimes I don’t want to “go to work.” I don’t want to get in my car, drive to a pub, set up my equipment, and sing and play guitar. It’s a job after all. But after a few songs, after the audience starts to smile, clap, sing, and dance, I start to get into it. I start to become energized by the music, and suddenly I realize: I love this. I love doing this. I love making music, but most of all I love watching and hearing all those people singing timeless songs with me. And that is what places me in the great circle with countless other singers, the great circle that includes Pete Seeger; Woody Guthrie; Joan Baez; John, Paul, George, and Ringo; John Denver; my own father; and innumerable others who have stood on stage or in kitchens or in churches like this and encouraged a room full of people to join their voices together.
Stephen Sondheim said, “If I cannot fly, let me sing.” I certainly agree. When I sing, I feel like I am soaring. My troubles cannot follow me when I sing. It’s a true escape, but it’s an escape best shared. The shower is a wonderful place to sing, but that’s just the warmup. Be free with your breath, your voice, your music. Share it and feel the rewards it brings. Invite friends and family to your kitchen, tell them to bring guitars and fiddles, and start doing what we are wired at birth to do. Let’s start today, in this room, with our music service. Let’s enjoy the musical offerings this morning, and let them be the catalyst for a musical-spiritual experience.
Gangai Victor founder of the Indian Christian Blog, VotivePraise.com wrote: “It’s easy to sing the song, but to pray the lyrics from deep within… that’s worship!”
Let us worship.