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Community singing: The comeback

A January gathering of Minnesota Community Sings. The next community sing will take place Saturday in downtown Minneapolis.
Photo by Kathy Easthagen
A January gathering of Minnesota Community Sings. The next community sing will take place Saturday in downtown Minneapolis.

Unimaginable today, but the Page One banner headline of the July 27, 1930, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune blared: “MINNEAPOLIS IS TEACHING AMERICA HOW TO SING.” The biggest story that day was about people of all singing stripes coming together to lift their voices in area parks — a phenomenon that is on its way to being revived by Betty Tisel, a Minneapolis native/singer/activist, who launched Minnesota Community Sings with a couple of friends last year.

“I have put a lot of energy into the community singing movement in Minnesota,” says Tisel, between securing microphone stands and Braille song sheets for the next community sing, which happens Saturday (3:30 p.m.) at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.

“Doing this work has meant my doing less political activism, but I feel OK about this because the payoff for community singing is that people get refueled for the struggles we have to keep working on together.

“If we’re going to draw others into the work of building a just, sustainable world, that world’s gotta look like a place we would also like to live in. We need joyful, local, participatory culture. The celebrity/star system is just the music and arts equivalent of the military industrial complex. This is eat local, buy local, sing local. It helps me `keep on keepin’ on,’ and people who have attended the sings tell us that it helps them a lot, too.”

‘Sing More, Worry Less’
One of the Minnesota Community Sing’s slogans is “Sing More, Worry Less” — not a bad meditative approach at a time when the human race is worried about everything from potholes and poverty to natural disasters and nuclear meltdown.

Minneapolis Tribune archive

“Maybe there is a time and place for worrying; as you know, there is a heck of a lot to worry about,” says Tisel. “But community singing feeds us so that we can go out and keep on trying to make the world a better place. Singing brings me joy and a sense of vitality that is the essence of what I think of as good health. Singing in a group also raises your level of oxytocin, which makes you feel good and trust others.”

The community sing has a rich history, most notably in the film “The Singing Revolution,” which documents Estonians overcoming Soviet rule via in the late ’80s via community sings. As for the roots of Minnesota’s community sings, Tisel knows her history.

“During World War I, community singing was mandated by state governments, including in Minnesota, as a way to keep spirits up, propagate patriotism, solidify culture, and to basically keep an eye on people,” she says. “A statewide community song poobah was given the task of making sure that every county and township had volunteer community song leaders and regular gatherings for singing.

Phenomenon spread after the war
“After the war, community singing kept spreading. My singing buddy Bret Hesla and I became aware of the post-war Minneapolis park singing after Theodore Wirth‘s seminal book on the history of the Minneapolis Park system was reissued in 2006. It’s all there: For decades, people by the thousands went to their neighborhood parks to sing together on summer evenings. These community sings were co-sponsored by the Minneapolis Park Board and the Minneapolis Tribune. The Tribune provided excellent coverage. Imagine: standings printed in the paper, big honking trophies for the best singing park — it was the ‘American Idol’ of participatory culture.”

A Riverside Park community sing circa 1921.
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library
A Riverside Park community sing circa 1921.

Saturday’s sing is part of the Neighborhood Sustainability Conference, and will feature a multimedia presentation on the 35-year history of the community sing in Minnesota.

“Community singing is participatory culture,” says Tisel. “It’s different from a choir — everyone is welcome and there is no practice or performance. It’s different from a concert: There is not an audience; everyone sings. When people spend an hour or two singing together, they tend to get energized, feel connected, and leave saying, ‘When can we do this again?’ “

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Douglas Shambo II on 04/07/2011 - 10:43 am.

    Renewing community singing could just be the most important contribution to musical life in the Twin Cities in many years. You, GO, Betty!

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 04/07/2011 - 11:16 am.

    I love it, thanks, see you there.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 04/07/2011 - 11:37 am.

    Thanks Jim! Here’s our web site, with links to information on the Saturday sing: 3:30 pm, free, at Central Lutheran church: http://mnsings.com

  4. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 04/07/2011 - 02:27 pm.

    I highly recommend these events and commend the people who have been putting so much effort into making it happen. Here’s hoping for lots of singing!

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/08/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    Great Idea. My voice is so bad I didn’t make 6 grade choir but if there are enough people I will sing along too.

    My mom was just saying that a group that came to sing where she lives sang all the military songs for the service. I use to know all those songs I wonder if kids today do and if not does it effect patriotism?

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