I finally gave in to temptation yesterday and bought an mp3 player. It is such a cool little gadget, and I really like being able to listen to my music or podcasts as I go about my housework (I can see it will be helpful while grading papers, too). But as I was listening last night, I couldn't help but wonder what this little wonder gadget that everybody has is costing us as a culture.
One of the books I used quite a bit as a resource while researching my historical novel was Flowering of the Cumberland by Harriette Simpson Arnow. In the chapter titled "Social Life and Diversions," she says, "More widely enjoyed than the keeping of journals, and possibly second only to conversation as a pastime was music, especially singing. Everybody sang: the boatman sang to the river, the teamster to his team, the baby tender to the baby, and even the hunter, rejoicing in his kill, might sing...." She then goes on to catalog some of the types of songs people sang: work songs, play songs, traveling songs, ballads of unrequited love, songs written specifically for special occasions, the hymns of Watt and Wesley.
Thinking about it, I don't recall that I ever hear anyone singing in daily life today, unless it is to add their voice to the song already playing on the radio or CD player. I myself almost never sing outside of church. I remember when I was growing up that my sisters and I sang quite a bit. We sang "Playmate, come out and play with me, and bring your dollies three, Climb up my apple tree. Look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door, and we'll be jolly friends forevermore." (I'm sure that's a song my mother taught us, because I remember hearing my grandmother sing it too.) We learned "Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day" and "Chicken crowing on Sourwood Mountain" in music class in school (with Mrs. Stewart playing along on the autoharp). We sang "Blessed Assurance" and "Sing to Me of Heaven" as we were swinging under the mulberry tree, and I remember one occasion when my youngest sister made up a very long and very dramatic song about a little deer. So it's not that I was never a singer.
It's like we've delegated music-making to other people, the same way we've delegated making our clothes (and more and more lately, cooking our food) to others. Instead of singing ourselves, if we want some music, we stick a CD in the player or turn on the radio or poke in the earbuds. I guess there's nothing so wrong with that -- except that the music we're listening to is a "product" that is produced in a corporate studio and shaped to fit a particular market that researchers tell excutives like certain characteristics. And if you're listening to popular music, whether it's rock or country or pop, chances are it all sounds sort of similar with only minor variations. In the Intro to Mass Comm class I taught a couple of times this was called "cultural homogenization," and it's just what it sounds like. Take a country song, add a dance beat behind it, and you've got a hit with the pop crowd.
The problem with homogenized music is that we lose something unique. The problem with recorded music is that we lose some ability to express ourselves. Sure, we can put on particular music that fits the mood we are in, but is that really the same as breaking in to "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" when you are feeling low, or "Joy to the World" when you feel exuberant? There's just something about producing the music yourself - even if it's not perfect! - that makes it seem like more of a expression of what's going on inside.
I have to go hang some jeans on the clothesline now, and I'm going to sing out loud while I do it! I encourage you to sing today, too. Find a place where no one's around if it will make you feel better, turn off that radio, and let fly. It's what our forefathers and mothers would do!