Discover more from The Feelings Union with Lisa M. O'Neill
Song as Summoning, Voice as Vessel, Chorus as Communion
A few weeks ago, I was at an outdoor concert listening to a favorite local New Orleans musician Maggie Koerner. Her voice sits firmly inside soul and blues. Rooting and rooted. When she sings, it feels like she’s summoning something, through the earth, through her body, into the air. Her stage presence reflects this. She moves and bends and crouches down and rises up and opens her arms wide, channeling. Lorca, writing about flamenco guitarists and dancers, called this duende.
He writes, “‘I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”
While Koerner sang, the crowd sat on a patchwork of brightly-colored blankets, punctuated by camping chairs, with children running through. I was standing on a blanket on the grass listening to a friend of a friend speak.
“Don’t you ever just wish you could do that?” she asked. She gestured toward the center of her chest and then made a motion up towards her throat and out of her mouth. She was saying, take everything that has built up inside you and offer it outward.
“Well, you are a musician, right?” she said to me.
“Yes,” I said. “But you can do that. We can all do that. It doesn’t matter if it sounds different than what she is doing.” And then, out of my mouth came the words:, “Capitalism has co-opted singing, but it used to belong to all of us.”
It used to belong to all of us. So many things used to belong to all of us.
I went on to share my thoughts on how our increasingly secular culture has given us less spaces to sing together. And about how songs had been a crucial lifeforce and way to support one another in the U.S. Civil Rights movement and movements of all kinds. I thought of other cultures I have visited and learned from where songs are crucial vessels for knowledge: how customs and history are passed on. They are not peripheral to existence— they are at the core of it.
For almost a decade, I taught college writing, mostly composition, full-time. The work of teaching writing is deeply inspiring, but teaching academic writing alone can be monotonous. I’d get really tired of talking about thesis statements and was always looking for ways to insert wonder into the classroom space. I loved bringing pop culture and art and music in for us to look at and talk about together. My friend Aisha showed me a video she’d brought into her classes, and I started showing it regularly to mine.
The three-minute Youtube video is of singer Bobby McFerrin, who is presenting at the World Science Festival. He walks away from the conference chair setup to the front of the stage and demonstrates about the human voice and our natural instinct to make music, waiting inside us.
He makes of the stage an impromptu piano and, of his body, a finger rendering the notes. He jumps sideways up and down the pentatonic scale and, as he does, he vocalizes the notes in strong, clear sounds. He gestures to the audience to sing along and they do, singing with him up and down the scale. As the crowd gets more confident, he begins to vocalize over them in a different melody. At the end, he drops his own voice out completely, and the crowd continues to sing the next note, and the next one. When they reach High C, he gestures as the conductor to end the song, smiles, and claps for them. The most gentle: See, I told you.
“Regardless of where I am–anywhere– the audience gets that,” he says.
It is already inside us.
Awhile back, I had a conversation with my friend Julia who was, like me, raised Christian. And she was talking about how what she misses most about church is the chorus. Church doesn’t fit either of us anymore but we have missed the power of gathering, standing side by side, and lifting our voices together in song.
That absence combines with the relentless messages of late-stage capitalism that only a few are talented and that you have to be “good” or “good enough” at something for it to be worth yours or others’ time. Lie! That hobbies and the time they take are only valid if you make money doing them. Lie! That only some of us are creative and the rest of us should just hang up our tap shoes or guitars or aprons. Big, Ugly Lie!
Singing, in fact, is something all our bodies were made for. I discovered as I did research for my collection of essays on sound—in a passage I cannot currently locate, in a book I cannot currently name—that there is no clearcut, practical evolutionary explanation for why we sing. While other mechanisms of the body have clear purposes that can be traced and understood, singing does not. And yet our bodies are made for singing. And singing, it seems, is a function of the body made simply to give us joy and pleasure and a feeling of connection. And when you think about it, isn’t that one of the most clearcut reasons you could name? That the body (and the spirit encased inside) must bear hard things and, in order to do so, is designed with special features to bring us joy. To make us feel less alone.
My mom says that before I could even really string sentences together, I was singing. Always singing. We still have the cassette tapes of my voice as I sung into that brown and tan Fisher-Price portable tape recorder with a tiny microphone attached. My voice is confident and blaring. You can hear inside it the joy of making sound.
I can’t remember the precise moment when I began to learn about good singers and bad singers or not good enough singers, but it clouded my vision for a very long time and still, sometimes, does. Those voices began to creep in—the comparisons to others, the lost parts in musicals, the critiques by adults who I thought knew something about what I could do, the bandmates who said things in passing that carved a spot in my synapses.
When I listen to other people singing, my ear doesn’t fix on critique. Hearing others sing gives me a lot of joy. I love listening to people with those distinctive, chills-inducing voices, but I also love listening to people who don’t identify as singers. I even have a special place in my heart for off-key karaoke—I love the earnestness that comes with opening your mouth and giving your feelings an outlet. I appreciate and understand the desire to sing out loud in front of others. To say: I am here. And sometimes: these feelings you have, I have them, too. Or: you are not alone.
Song as summoning, voice as vessel, chorus as communion.
Recently, I was reading a post by a band I love called Rising Appalachia. Their music walks the line of folk and Americana and is rooted in string instruments, vocals, and percussion. The sisters who head up the band harmonize. The drummer often plays a giant, carved-out gourd mic'd from the inside. The sisters wrote about how every gathering growing up was ordered around singing and that continues. A life lived in song.
I wish I had more singing in my life. I wish we all had more singing in our lives.
One of the things the pandemic has taken is being together in song. In the last few decades, music has been present to me most through going to concerts. Sometimes, I would go to one or two shows a week, and those shows fed me in ways I both realized and didn’t fully understand the depths of until they were gone. That experience of being held in space, in song, with a crowd of others. The–there is no other word to describe the sensation–magic of experiencing that as a collective. And, of course, the cathartic ritual of singalongs.
The first concert I attended since the pandemic started was in fall of 2021. I was masked and vaccinated but still very much afraid of being in a crowd indoors (still am) but my need for music superseded my need to be cautious.
Allison Russell was opening for Lake Street Drive. (She’s another great example of duende. To watch her, to hear her is to feel something greater; she is oracular in her music-making.) But before they arrived on stage, the house music began playing Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.” And suddenly and all at once, every single person in the venue started singing at the top of their lungs. If it MAKES you HAAAAA-PP-EEEY.
I had never experienced a crowd waiting for a show to start singing along to house music like this. You could tell we hadn’t been together in this way in a very long time. We were craving it. We needed to sing. Together.
There have been times in my life when I haven’t sung, for short but also very long spells. There was a time when the inner critic and also a whole chorus of shoulds and should nots barriered my basic desire to open my throat and let that sound come out.
Our critical voices are super sneaky. They start subtle. They sound like logic. They sound like good excuses. Until you’re years away from doing something you love and trying to find your way back to what once brought you so much joy.
I’m still working on honoring the impulse to just sing, alone or with someone, on a stage or in my kitchen. And to do so not because I’m great or good enough or special but because I have a voice and singing is something my body deeply wants and needs to do.
I once wrote an essay about how much I love earnestness. The tender beauty of our earnestness is so quickly ground to dust under the heel of this culture of constant performance. Our lives have become something to incessantly record which can then be immediately consumed. Our plates and our projects and our personas are constantly on display—algorithms demand we perform, algorithms are insatiable.
But give me the earnest over polished any day. I love the tiny three-year-old me who couldn’t stop singing, who didn’t know how, who didn’t even have the thought that anyone would make her feel like she should. She’s still inside me, pouring her voice into that Fisher-Price microphone and offering a song to anyone who will listen. Because it feels so good to sing. Why would she deny herself that joy? Why would she feel these notes inside her and not let them out?
One of my favorite songs is “One Voice” by The Wailin Jennys. I listen to it when I’m feeling down or when I want to feel connected to others. The song is paired down and simple, just guitar and vocals.
It begins with one singer: This is the sound of one voice/ one spirit, one voice/ The sound of one who makes a choice/ This is the sound of one voice. Then comes the second and third singer, adding their lyrics and blending into three-party harmony. Until this is the sound of all of us/ singing with love and the will to trust/ Leave the rest behind, it will turn to dust./This is the sound of all of us.
Song as summoning, voice as vessel, chorus as communion.
The same week as that concert and that conversation with the friend of a friend, I was finishing Inciting Joy by Ross Gay. Gay explores the power of joy as something that exists alongside and intertwined with grief, sadness, and dark nights of the soul. The book is breathtaking and life bolstering.
In the final chapter, he writes about meeting several members of the 2013 Food Sovereignty Prize, one of whom was from a woman from the Dessalines Brigade in Haiti. Gay heard the story told of how Monsanto used the tragedy of the 2010 earthquake to send a “gift” of seed to Haiti, knowing that their seed could not be saved and that Haitian farmers would later be indebted to them to buy more. In protest, the Dessalines Brigade burned the seed.
A young Black farmer asked the woman award-winner and farmer from the Dessalines Brigade “what they do when it’s difficult, when times were hard and it was a challenge to keep going.” Ross reports that she “looked the young farmer in the eye, and said, “We sing.”
Our bodies know the way. We need only give ourselves permission.
Folk music legend Pete Seeger once said, “The easiest way to avoid wrong notes is to never open your mouth and sing.” And then: “What a mistake that would be.”
I am speaking of singing but I am also speaking of a deep refusal to be ground down by pretense and criticism and all the voices of who cares if you do and how dare you and why bother. We must do the things that make us feel alive for no other reason than they make us feel alive. Singing out because our bodies were made for sounding. Singing out because we can.
Thanks for reading The Feelings Union with Lisa M. O'Neill! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.