The Mid-Winter Singing Festival
February, 2003

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 direction.

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 hymn:

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.


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