now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year
A few weeks ago, when it was still warm out, the bedroom windows were open at night, and somewhere in the distance people were singing. Not just one or two people, either, but a whole chorus. They were somewhere in the park, almost beyond earshot. Their unfamiliar song carried faintly through the night; it swelled and grew closer, almost close, then it faded away, the singers carrying their tune through the streets before disbanding.
The sound was romantic, unaccountably touching. No one in my world sings spontaneously for pleasure anymore. The sound of the invisible chorus singing out in the night stirred buried memories of choirs I’d sung in back in the day. There’s something about it, when you’re singing with others: the sound of all those raised voices, the power of the relationship created among them, between singers and hearers, the satisfaction of the singing itself: there’s nothing like it, really. And the songs themselves, learned at church or school—or, long ago, even at work—, remind us of our shared past, our shared humanity. They are vestiges of a once powerful communal identity.
How lovely it would be, I thought, lying there in bed that night, if someone were to organize a chorus to sing for free in our parks, that would appear out of nowhere, and serenade us for nothing, except the joy and surprise of it—what a gift that would be. That mysterious music would be a magnet, drawing people in to a fleeting relationship with tradition and beauty. And once the word got out about the chorus, and the beauty of its singing, how people would yearn for it to appear!
That’s when the chorus of the unemployed sprang to life in my mind. Yes, so many of us are idle, so dispirited: the chorus of the unemployed would be an antidote to such things. Imagine someone organizing such a chorus, reviving all our old spirituals and folk songs, à la Pete Seeger. What an amazing and unsettling thing it would be, to have a visible emblem of the masses of Americans who are jobless and homeless, who have retreated into their home corners, silent, worried, and isolated. How great it would be to form them into a chorus, to give them voice, and to place them, en masse, back in front of society. Their song, their channeling of the American music of our past, would give them pride, and their appearance, unbidden, in our midst would be both plea and protest—would draw all of us, like it or not, back into a relationship with one another. It might prompt us to dwell on what so many Americans have been suffering, might even get the goodwill flowing.
Just think of the spectacle it might be: choruses of thousands, appearing on every green square in the country, before every city hall, forming themselves into innumerable ranks and rows, giving voice to our nation’s plight by singing all its obscure and sad—and glorious—and defiant—traditional songs. It sure would give the rest of us something to think about: those of us who still have plenty to eat, who sleep in warm beds, who own our own green lawns and drive around in Mercedes. Who knows? Perhaps one day we shall hear and see that vast chorus: the vast, invisible chorus of the unemployed.
I wrote this brief essay several months before I started to blog, and before I had heard of Occupy. I decided to publish it here because it relates to Maybe the Answer Is Song and other ideas I have in mind.