by Webster Young (First published in Express)
Our culture has forgotten the value of singing. One of the primary reasons for this is that, in the search for relief from monotony at work, people have replaced what used to be known as the work song with the radio.
Throughout history until recently, work songs have been one of the most important forms of music. Countless workers and travelers, in every nation of the world, throughout all human time, have been consoled by them — by songs that have been sung alone or sung together and that have raised the spirits of many.
One of the wonderful things about a work song, sung even to oneself, is that it can provide a lift in tense situations. Work songs and other types of inspirational song can give us relief from the stresses of life. They are one of the greatest blessings of music — a very simple and human resource. The right song — a song chosen for its appropriateness — has power.
Many people throughout the world are familiar with the Italian song, “O Sole Mio”. Non-Italian speaking people, however, would be surprised to know that it is a work song. It is the song of a fisherman, who works alone, spending hours out on the sea in his boat. His only companion is the sun. In a moment of boredom or discouragement, he sings this song to himself, raising his own heart to joy in the midst of hard work and a poor life. He loves the sun — and the sun reminds him of an even greater light – the love of his beloved.
I first thought about the power of “personal” song several years ago when, on one hot and muggy July day in New York City, I had to go far downtown in a hurry, and I grabbed a taxicab. Within minutes, the cab ran into a part of the city badly clogged with traffic. We sat in a sea of cars, nervously waiting to get moving again, and I began to feel the smog, heat, and dust of the city crowding in on us. The cab’s meter was ticking away slowly, registering the charges for every second we sat there.
It was made-to-order anxiety. But just as I was about to feel miserable, just at the right moment, uncannily, the taxi driver began to hum a little tune, quietly. I noticed that it had an oriental flavor. I wondered at it. Was it perhaps a Turkish folksong? I listened to the little melody….
To describe the song’s effect on me in poetic terms — it raised my heart, and the taxicab, and all the cares of the world out of the dust and up to a new sane view of life, to some peace of heart we all desperately needed. Somehow this little song was not only for us, but also for the whole hot and muggy city and its working men everywhere who labored under its heat. Just one little song – and our hearts had a grasp on life again.
This was the power of a work song, and it is a power that belongs to each of us, regardless of who we are, where we are, or how much money we have. It is simple and human.
The wonderful thing about the memorized work song is that it can be tailored exactly to yourself, exactly to your work and to your own needs. In our era we prefer never to use our vocal cords or our memory. We substitute the constant chatter of the radio or background music for the work song, and we diminish the value of work music.
Whatever background music does, it is weak – ineffective in comparison to what singing did in the days when workers put their memories and voices to work, and bore one another’s burdens. I submit that we can put this to the test very easily — simply by trying it ourselves. I have a list of songs that I sing to myself in trying situations. I will testify that, in singing a song to myself, at the right time, it has changed my attitude entirely — my whole day, perhaps my whole week. In a hard situation, especially one involving driving, everything seems to come into perspective again; I have felt human again and not like a cog in the gears of modern life.
An important part of the joy of song is that we use our own voice to make it. We need no machines– only our solitary voice, which no one can take away from us. This is part of the joy – the difference between one’s own voice, so natural and a part of us, and the juggernaut of modern industrial technology. When all the batteries have run dead, all the transistors and resistors worn out, when all the radios in the world are ruined and thrown away, you will still have your voice, the perfect human answer to oppressive technology.
If we find our own song, one that really uplifts us, we have a very effective weapon against the trials and tribulations of life. Song is so powerful that it can deliver from the fear of death. Christians and Jews sang songs to give them strength at the moment of persecution. American Indians often kept a memorized song ready, throughout their lives, for the moment of their death. Countless individuals and groups have derived strength from singing in the face of fear. If the right song is a power even over the fear of death, need we any further convincing we should choose and memorize the right songs for ourselves?
I would only add that, when one tries singing, he or she should take a simple and uplifting melody — not a pop song that needs a beat, but something that has a true and extended melody — a hymn, a folksong, some other beautiful melody. Sing a song that will take you to a peaceful place in your soul — and use it when you are down, or just working too hard.