The Mid-Winter Singing Festival
By RUSS FRANZEN
The following article was written by
Russ Franzen, the op/ed columnist for the Journal newspapers. It
is reprinted with permission.
An old man walked slowly to the front of the room. Nearly one
hundred people watched quietly as he settled his creaky bones onto
a chair facing them. Within seconds, the room was alive as the old
man led a rousing rendition of Mountain Dew.
People belted out harmonies and laughed at the lyrics, like a group
of friends who gathered in someone's living room. A banjo and two
guitars followed the old man's lead. When the song ended, another
audience member shouted out the name of a song and became the song
leader. The banjo player, Mark Dvorak, was the leader of the impromptu
hootenanny. It was actually a workshop called "The Spontaneous
Folk Ensemble," that was part of the Mid-Winter Singing Festival
in East Lansing.
The festival was produced by folk singer Sally Potter and a small
group of people affiliated with the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse.
It was the first of what the group hopes will be many such festivals.
Its mission was simple - to get people together to sing. Back around
1980, St. Louis radio icon Jack Carney organized a parade for people
who never had the chance to march in a parade. The "I've Never
Been In A Parade Before Parade" was a great success. Every
Christmas season, people all over the country gather to sing along
with choirs and orchestras in do-it-yourself editions of Handel's
Messiah. People, at some level of their consciousness, want to be
involved in group activities. That is why a singing festival, like
the one last weekend where people just get together to sing, seems
to be a success waiting to happen. Even as we isolate ourselves,
Americans still want to be part of a community. We want to be in
a place where people know each other. A place where people care.
A place where people of different races, creeds, political views,
and social strata harmonize to make a better world. The world is,
after all, like a choir. Different people find their place in the
choir, take different parts and, hopefully, sing along in the same
The festival happened on a day when our government continued its
preparation for war and the nation mourned the victims of another
space shuttle tragedy. It was fitting, it seemed to me, that people
gathered to sing songs of peace and hope, mourning the tragedy while
celebrating Life. It brought to mind the words of a Robert Lowry
Through all the tumult and the strife/ I hear that music ringing./
It sounds an echo in my soul./ How can I keep from singing?
On that day, hundreds of people came together, as
a community, just to sing. Like it was in the days before television,
computer games and cyber villages pulled us away from our front
porch and living room sing-alongs. We still sing, of course, but
in places like our cars as we listen to an oldies radio station.
It is not the same. Even as we isolate ourselves in our technological
cocoons, Americans still want to be part of a community.
It was good to be part of the Mid-Winter Singing festival. I hope
it enjoys a long life. And, as society tries to revive our fading
community identities through artificial means, like New Urbanist
neighborhoods, I hope we do not forget that nothing brings people
together better than a simple song that everyone can sing.