I hate American Idol. I get that competition and stardom has its place in the ecology of human community— witness my jubilation at the Giant’s World Series victory, my appreciation that Ella Fitzgerald won the Apollo Theater Contest and blessed us with hundreds of subsequent recordings. But as a culture, we spend so much time gazing at the stars that we don’t notice the beauty at our feet nor the pleasure of walking together on this earth. Competition and accent on individual excellence is like the flowering tree that briefly calls attention to itself and enhances the landscape. But nature keeps the tree checked and balanced— the other woodland creatures and plants don’t stop what they’re doing and sit and admire it for hours on end and the tree doesn’t have to carry so much weight with its beauty that it starts drinking and has to go into rehab.
Last night I went to the monthly Sea Chantey sing down at the San Francisco Hyde Street Pier. If you’re local or visiting and have never been, get thee down on the first Saturday of every month. There’s a pre-sign up just to control numbers, but I suspect it’s flexible if you miss it and the event is free. You board one of the boats, sit down to hear a few introductory remarks, someone sings a phrase and suddenly 50 robust voices fill the air with the short and powerful chorus. The beauty of sea chanteys, mostly meant to unify the rhythms of the work, is that one person does the solo work of keeping a little story going and the rest sing a refrain that takes little thought, leaving them free to concentrate on work. The soloist can change from song to song— just because you know a lot of verses doesn’t excuse you from work! The spirit is community all the way— no big adoration if you sing a bluesy verse with ornamentation. Appreciation, yes, because such quality singing enhances the event. But it doesn’t make you a superstar.
Early on in the singing last night, a woman stood up and started singing a long song that had two verses to every chorus and the chorus itself was long and complicated. You could feel how it deflated the event, excluded most of the folks and called unnecessary attention to her performance—which wasn’t that inspired to begin with. To balance it out, the next singer sang a song with a two-note refrain oft repeated. Harmony was restored to the evening.
This is precisely the atmosphere I felt in the trip to Ghana last summer. Though West African Pop stars have their American Idolish moments, the center of the musical aesthetic is to bring all your talent and skills to serve the community event. If you do something particularly well, people will come and stick money on your forehead. Room for appreciation, but little patience for idolization.
But we don’t always need to look to Africa for examples of how music unifies and binds together and lifts up and refreshes a community. The group last night— all ages, races, musical backgrounds and even a French and Swedish chantey thrown in— constituted a bunch of strangers who knew some of the same songs (one definition of “community”) or were invited in to feel as if they knew the songs by the brevity and ease of the refrain. No ego, no one person dominating, a democratic invitation for anyone to stand up and lead off (I did one!), a large collective grin when the song went well (as 99% of them did). One of the highlights was a 10-year old boy leading! And how refreshing that no one was reading lyrics from their i-Phone. The music was stored in their minds and bodies and except for a banjo here and a concertina there, nothing more was needed.
Perhaps some entrepreneur is reading this and thinking about launching the new TV show—Community Idol. Which boat has the coolest chanteys and the most unified community?!! Well, you can see the problem. The simple pleasures of lusty singing with fellow humans doesn’t make for good TV. You just have to be there.
See you next month!