I wonder what it would be like to sings songs “as if you had always been entitled to sing them” — entitled because they were the songs of your people, your world — and songs neither bought nor sold but rather inherited and passed along.
I remember well enough the horrible moment when somebody - the kind of person who brings an acoustic guitar into an Indonesian rainforest - suggested that we should all sing traditional songs from our home countries. I looked around quickly to make sure the guitar wasn’t coming in my direction, but I was thankfully spared. One of our hosts from Borneo began singing something beautiful in his language. Then a German picked up the guitar and belted out something lusty and Germanic. Then a couple of others. It was all quite fun.
Then the guitar came round to another English person - one who, unlike me, knew how to play it - and there was a momentary silence, followed by a hushed consultation with a couple of other English people. What shall I play? It became quickly clear that none of us had a clue what a traditional English song was. Somebody suggested What shall we do with a drunken sailor? but we only really knew the chorus.
In the end, the inevitable happened: the Englishman played a Bob Dylan song. Everybody, including the ones from Borneo, sang happily along.
… It made me slightly angry and embarrassed and confused all at the same time, but most of all it made me feel like I was missing something. Why didn’t I know any folk songs from my own country? Why did nobody else from my country know any either?
I grew up, and still live, in a culture where communal singing feels natural. One of the side effects of being raised in a Bruderhof community is that by one’s twenties, one can sing a couple of thousand songs by heart – folk songs, spirituals, hymns, carols, oldies, protest songs, and chunks of the big oratorios by Handel, Bach, or Mendelssohn. This memorization occurs whether one likes the songs or not, through repetition. As an Anabaptist church, we don’t have a lectionary, prayer book, or much of a liturgy. But when we meet, which we generally do daily, we sing.