I was at a house party on the Fourth of July, and as often happens in a house with musical instruments, everyone found their way to the piano and a guitar and commenced spirited singing. But there was a problem: We couldn’t find any songs that everyone knew. Irish folk songs seemed to be the least common denominator, and so, on America’s birthday, I found myself stumbling through the lyrics to “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”
I enjoyed singing along, but as a recent graduate trying to find my niche in a new crowd, and as one of the few people in the room who wasn’t at least part Irish, I felt disconnected from everyone else. Why couldn’t we find something to sing that would bring us together as Americans?
Being of Lithuanian descent, I come from a background where breaking out in song during family or social gatherings is common. My experience singing Lithuanian folk music in particular has taught me that singing with others expresses solidarity by fostering a sense of camaraderie and communion and imparting a shared identity. It’s no accident that the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) successfully overthrew Soviet occupation in part through the Singing Revolution: nonviolent resistance that often involved singing folk songs in the streets.
Unfortunately, singing together just isn’t part of the American cultural consciousness. American folk songs exist, and we have uniquely American genres of music, such as jazz and country, but if you took a random sample of Americans and put them in a room together, could they find a common repertoire to sing? I doubt it.
It’s understandable why this is the case. The United States is a young country with a massive territory and diverse geography, and it’s a melting pot of immigrants from every inhabited continent. Though such diversity is beautiful, one of the consequences is that the overarching “American culture” is rather thin. As Ian Marcus Corbin argues in The American Conservative, our ties and loyalties are local; the things we consider stereotypically “American,” like country music and big open sky, are regional phenomena to which many Americans can’t relate.
Yet even most cities and regions that do exhibit strong local identities don’t seem to have a culture of singing. I’m not the only one who feels that something is missing. As I was writing this piece, someone in my parish young adult group invited all of us to his house to sing folk songs and spirituals and sent the repertoire in advance so that we could familiarize ourselves with the songs. My friend’s organized effort underscores not only the lack of a singing culture in the United States, but also that the desire to sing together persists. No matter how much Americans value individualism, we’re still social animals who long for outward expressions of communion with others, particularly those with whom we share a national or patriotic identity.
I don’t believe that the United States will develop a singing culture that will bring us together as Americans. But I do think that American Catholics can and should cultivate unity amongst themselves by rediscovering their rich tradition of sacred music, an effort that will take time. I had what I would consider a solidly Catholic upbringing; yet I didn’t hear the “Salve Regina” until college, and I couldn’t tell you the lyrics to “Veni Creator Spiritus” beyond the eponymous first three words.
For us as Catholics, the ability to join together in song is imperative. Scripture is full of exhortations to sing together, an act which we can understand as manifesting publicly the union that the Eucharist establishes between God and man in the Body of Christ. As American culture becomes increasingly hostile to anything it perceives as threatening the golden calf of autonomy, reconnecting with our musical heritage will be necessary not only for our own spiritual enrichment but also for the sake of fostering the identity that both binds us together and sets us apart.
According to accounts of martyrdom, from the early Christians in Rome to the nineteenth century Ugandan martyrs, Christians who die in the name of Christ often go to their deaths singing hymns. If the late Cardinal George’s often-cited prediction about his successors comes true, then Americans persecuted for their faith will find strength in singing together. But it needn’t get to that point: if Baltic folk songs could help bring the Soviet Union to its knees, then how much greater is the power of sacred music to transform the culture we presently live in?