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Singing through the dark times

  • Members of the community come together to sing on the Montague Center Common at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Members of the community come together to sing on the Montague Center Common at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2020 10:00:20 AM

Editor’s note: The singing group related in this story is exclusively reserved for Montague residents. The story’s author, Richie Davis, wrote for the Greenfield Recorder for more than four decades and, in retirement, is part of numerous area singing groups. Davis asked that no one from out of town attend the group, which must remain small to maintain adequate social distancing in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Time in the era of COVID-19 has become a stranger — an elusive and forgotten construct. It’s hard to tell when its passing by.

Over three weeks ago, I received a chance email from a friend who mentioned, offhandedly. “We are singing on the Montague Common Wednesday at 2. Standing far apart. Join in if you’d like.”

How intriguing that sounded — I wasn’t really sure who “we” was or what “we” might be singing, although she and I have sung together for a while in Greenfield Harmony, a chorus that began in this little village years ago but recently curtailed its Monday night rehearsals about a month ago, leaving our larynxes to languish at home.

So, come Wednesday at 2 p.m., maybe a half-dozen Montagueans — some of whom had never met each other —  began singing whatever songs popped into our heads: “Can’t Take My Eyes off You,” which Frankie Valle sang in 1967, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” combined with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “I’m Gonna Sing, I’m Gonna Dance, Hallelujah.”

The group was named “From a Distance,” a title that seemed outrageously appropriate as singers spaced themselves deliberately 8 to 10 feet apart in a huge circle around the triangular town common.

Some moved around, some even danced as if they felt the need to shake off the stillness, trying to hear how those three interwoven “sing, sing sing, dance, dance, dance” tunes hung together.

What became clear that afternoon was that the singing had been inspired by videos of Italians, Germans and Spaniards singing from balconies to raise the spirits of housebound neighbors and in support of the victims of this pandemic spreading like wildfire around our planet. Those videos, which themselves went viral, were not like other showcase videos filmed by crooners or polished performances by professionals; they were ordinary people raising their voices, in some cases accompanied by guitars, keyboards and even pot-banging. 

Likewise, our own call-and-response tunes, chanteys and work songs with repeating choruses sung around the Montague common were not performances, but a pouring out of music in order to tap into our emotions and reach out to one another during this time of social distancing.

Since the group started, there have been some spectators and some have excused themselves, saying, “I really can’t sing.” For them, I’ve shared the advice of Kentucky gospel leader Kathy Bullock: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.”

Most amazing of all that first day was the decision — informal, like everything else we did — to meet again the next day because it felt right. The Montague singers have met every day since.

All are serious about staying at home, about keeping far away from each other, about not taking anything from one another, about washing our hands carefully again and again. But the singing has gone on, like any other outdoor recreation done apart from one another.  

The daily sing, with songs of affirmation, songs of community and solidarity, as well as songs of healing and gratitude, fit this little village, where musical celebration seems to have taken hold. As the home of nationally recognized fiddler and contradance caller David Kaynor, Montague Center plays host to an annual May Day celebration, weekly fiddling jam sessions, contradances and open mic nights at the Montague Common Hall and an annual house concert festival. For a while, there was even a Montague Jazz Festival.

Yes, we might be a bit safer singing in the shower (unless we fell) or sort-of-together on Zoom but standing far apart on the common in unison and harmony on the common is real. 

More than songs

Singing is more than just mindless
elevator music” or “supermarket shopping songs.”

A March 2018 Chicago Tribune article pointed out how singing can be a natural antidepressant and can reduce stress by stimulating endorphins in the brain and releasing the hormone oxytocin to alleviate anxiety and tension, while also lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosting antibodies in the blood, according to one study. 

It can also exercise the diaphragm and improve lung function and deliver more oxygen to the brain, boosting alertness. 

But it doesn’t take scientific research to conclude that singing together can leave us feeling better.

“I can’t be sad when I’m singing,” one elderly member of Northampton’s Young at Heart Chorus said years ago, while explaining to me why she loved going to that group’s rehearsals.

Drawn together on our own town common at a time of social upheaval, we’ve experienced the same truth.

Day after day, as we’ve walked across the common and come together — while still keeping our distance — the joy of being in community with shared purpose is clear, judging by what singers have said afterward.

"If we can join ourselves in song ... our hearts will live when we are gone," says one line of songwriter Si Kahn’s “Here is My Home,” which has become something of an anthem. “The spirit that finds music here ... will live for ever in the air. Here is my home.”

All of us take this global pandemic seriously, we know people affected by it, we respect and honor the healthcare workers — sometime in our songs — and adhere to safety measures that have been prescribed. But we also hold dear those around us as we remember the natural and communal elements that make Franklin County feel like home.

The bell atop the First Congregational Church tolls at 2 p.m. when it’s time to begin, at 3 when it’s time to end and sometimes at 2:30, in the midst of singing, “Ring out, Bells of Montague.” 

Together, we've had days when people want to sing Broadway showtunes. or “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” or “This Land is Your Land.” We go with the flow and appreciate that plenty of singing probably goes on inside the home to help hours pass more quickly. Yet singing together seems to be a vicarious joy even for people driving, cycling, or walking by, judging by the honks and thumbs up. 

Social distancing

We’ve also heard concerns from people about the risks we're taking, sometimes pointing to the example of a Washington chorus that continued singing together even after the coronavirus had reached that state — resulting in multiple infections and even deaths. Yet in their long indoor rehearsals, in close proximity, that chorus's circumstances were different from our outdoor sessions.

“We continue to rigorously exercise all recommended precautions against droplet and contact transmission,” one of our members, Will Quale, wrote on a website, towncommonsongs.org, which he developed to track our songs and experiences for other communities to come together in song. “We continue to follow scientific research and health organization guidance (as well as state and local orders); we continue to discuss these issues and our feelings about them with each other as a group; and we are open to exploring additional precautions and sharing our thoughts and experiences.”

The website, which includes words to all of the more than 100 songs we’ve sung, and in some cases information about them, is meant to drive home the main point that anyone can sing. 

In Montague Center, we sometimes sing songs from the annual May Day celebration — which seems likely to be canceled this year — and felt free to change some words to make them Montague-specific while also limiting crowd size by asking that singers only be from Montague. So far, that's worked.

“Keeping the sing small and local is critical to all our safety under present circumstances,” said Quade. “We dream of a future where it's safe to invite you here and a future where you've started a new sing you can invite us to as well! Stay safe, stay positive and help each other.”

We’ve tried to do that in Montague by caroling some of our shut-in neighbors who’ve invited us to serenade them.

Music has a way of floating over a place and even as we sow songs like seeds and stay on guard against the invisible, dangerous virus, singers embrace in our enlarged circle the vision of how much suffering there is, how many workers are putting their lives on the line to end these hard times, and how much faith we have that we all can get past this.

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor at the Greenfield Recorder. richiedavis.net.


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