Joe has a good point about community singing. Rise Up Singing is probably the best resource for that sort of song circle. However, the song circles in Portland (Oregon) have been mostly folk and traditional and have suffered from an influx of blue book singers. Our weekly song circle was essentially taken over by them--that is, we let the culture of our Monday night session drift toward the blue book and did nothing to change that drift. In fact, the better singers--and by that I mean the singers who are most deeply invested in their songs(some of whom have a hard time carrying a tune)--basically abandoned the Monday night sessions. I don't know if it's even happening now, but my impression was that they had no leader and really needed one. Joe?
A little over a year ago it was suggested I write an article for our local newsletter about the negative aspects and dangers of an over-dependence on Rise Up Singing. Here it is, for what it's worth. As I point out, I want to start a dialogue about the topic. It's become an important part of our organizational culture and needs to be addressed.
Since the article came out things have improved. We don't allow a song from the blue book now unless someone knows it well enough to lead it all the way through.
SOME THOUGHT ABOUT RISE UP SINGING
by David Ingerson
Rise Up Singing is used so frequently at song circles that we
refer to it as The Blue Book, The
Hymnal, or simply The Book. Yet a number of singers fear it has
changed the culture of our song
circles for the worse. Here are some of my thoughts about the
issue, presented as a starting
point for a community discussion.
It seems to me that the more we depend on Rise Up Singing, or
any single book, for that matter,
the more we lose the qualities that make song circles the
invaluable experiences we have come to
expect. We lose value in three areas: musical, communal, and
We lose the joy of singing well. Good feelings spontaneously
arise within many of us as we sing.
This upwelling of joy is, for me, one of the important
pleasures in life. It is enhanced when we
are familiar enough with the song to sing with confidence,
verve, even abandon. In this way the
song flows naturally from the center of our beings--an
experience that can touch us deeply. When
we have to struggle with a song, however, the joy leaks away and
leaves frustration. All too
often this is what happens when we sing from Rise Up Singing. A
song is requested but no one
knows it well enough to lead the singing. The group stumbles
through the song anyway, with
frequent mis-scanned lines and usually at a funereal tempo.
There is a palpable deadening of the
spirit in a song circle when this happens several times during
When we depend on Rise Up Singing we also lose a large amount
of the variety that enlivens folk
singing. The many differences among song versions and the
variety of performance styles is the
very soul of folk singing. Yet if we depend on Rise Up Singing,
we have only one version of each
song, a pitiable musical poverty.
In addition, a book--any book--can only hint at the possible
styles for singing a song. A book
can only point to performers and recordings as sources for those
stylistic varieties. If we don't
go beyond The Book, we are left with white bread singing:
bleached, doughy, bland, and pre-cut. A
number of singers have also complained that singing from the
Blue Book becomes repetitious and
eventually boring. We lose the musical energy and momentum that
electrifies the best of song
circles: confidence falters, tempos slow, ownership of the songs
slips away, and tentativeness
sets in. As a result, feelings droop, the fires die down and we
might as well be sitting at home
in front of the TV.
This loss of energy directly affects the feeling of community
in the song circle. Helping create
and partake of that energy binds us into a community. But
people with their heads in a book,
struggling through a song they don't know well, and singing
tentatively, are less likely to feel
bound together. This loss of communal energy has created a
downward spiral at
some song circles. As more and more songs are
sung from the Rise Up Singing
during an evening, it becomes more difficult to break away and
sing something not in the book. I
have seen "anti-Blue Book" singers pick a song from Rise Up
Singing when the culture of a
particular circle is dominated by The Book.
We lose leadership. We lose the forward direction provided by
individuals who know a song, who
have made it their own, who can lead it or sing it with
confidence. We lose the regional flavors
of local songs and songs composed by members of our community,
which are absent from the book.
Instead, head-in-the-blue-book breeds a conformity, a timidity,
a backing away from taking risks.
This brings us to the personal losses we experience from
over-dependence on Rise Up Singing.
The level of risk-taking in the group seems to have dropped.
Relying on the crutch of one
wide-ranging source offers a level of comfort that, in my
opinion, too many people seem to be
accepting. Fewer songs are coming from other books or
recordings. Fewer singers are learning new
songs. After all, why go to all the trouble of transcribing or
looking up the words to a new (for
you) song and then all the work of memorizing the words and
making the song yours if you can just
turn to page 275 and sing the same old favorite once again?
We lose ownership of songs. When you learn a song well enough
to lead it or sing it solo, you
have put your own stamp on it. It becomes yours. There is a
different feel to a song sung out of
a book than to one owned by the singer. The former is usually
tentative and bland; the latter
more vibrant and distinctive.
So we lose the new blood of singers learning new songs. We
lose the stimulation of singers
venturing into different styles of folk song. We lose
leadership. We lose ownership.
WHAT I AM NOT SAYING
Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not against
Rise Up Singing or using it at song
circles. It is a valuable resource for words, chords,
discography, and sometimes a little
background. I am against depending on it alone.
I am not against including people who use the only
Blue Book. I welcome anyone who
wants to sing. I am against using the Blue Book when no one
knows a requested song well enough to
I am not against people coming to song circle not knowing a
song to sing. Nor am I against
people requesting a song from Rise Up Singing. It has a huge
number of wonderful songs. Let's
just make sure someone can lead the requested song. If not,
let's pick a different song that can
be sung with gusto (and maybe someone can learn the other
In the end we are involved in an oral activity. We sometimes
need a written crutch. The more we
depend on that crutch, however, the more crippled that oral
activity seem to become.
Do you disagree? Good. Let's talk about it at a song circle.
Have I left something out or gone
off in a wrong direction? Write your ideas and send them to
Local Lore. We need to bring this
issue out in the open and make our culture more explicit.