In his best-selling book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam quantifies the phenomenon through evidence gathered in nearly a half-million interviews. Far fewer of us now, compared with 25 years ago, belong to organizations that meet regularly. Most of us know less about our neighbors than our parents did, and we meet with groups of friends less regularly. And though more Americans bowl than at any other time in history, the majority bowl alone, not in leagues as they did in the mid-20th century.
It's quite possible to pass a life without engaging in community. Plenty of us do it. I was asked in a questionnaire recently which groups I belonged to or participated in, and I was shocked to discover that I had to think really hard to identify even one.
That's one reason I've taken to heart an unusual community that I've been writing about for the past several years, the community of Sacred Harp singers. Last weekend, I attended the Rocky Mountain Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Boulder, and found, as I've found each time I've attended a singing, a rich and genuine experience of community.
At a Sacred Harp (the name comes from the songbook) singing convention, people from all over gather together to sing early American gospel songs in four-part harmony, a cappella, for two days, stopping only for coffee breaks and dinner. Except at the meal and during breaks, there's very little talking, only singing.
Singers sit in four sections -- alto, soprano, tenor and bass -- each facing inward so that when you are singing, you can see the faces of the singers in the other three sections. A volunteer song leader stands in the center of the square and marks the beat of the song. The leader changes with each song.
The day moves quickly, and the sound grows as the day progresses. Singers become more sure and adept at reading the notes, and raise their voices with confidence. Occasionally, someone who has never led before steps into the square, just to see what it sounds like to be bathed in all those voices.
At the Rocky Mountain convention, 66 singers gathered from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas and Pennsylvania. Many of them belong to smaller singing communities in their hometowns, where they practice singing once a month. But even those of us who didn't have a singing home were welcomed as if we'd always been there. We sang for two days -- until our voices were gone. We left feeling connected by nothing more than the sounds of our own voices, united in song.
This community doesn't require that a singer worship or believe any particular way, only that the singer likes to sing and wants to learn to sing in the particular style Sacred Harp songs are sung. There is no comparison of the quality of voices. It's not about sounding beautiful; it's about singing together, to multiply the power of one voice.
During the memorial service at the convention -- a short time to honor those who have died in the past year or who are sick and shut-in -- a prominent song leader and teacher reminded us that "we are all bound by community; no matter where we go to sing this music, we are at home."
Simple and true. Being part of a community means being at home in the world. It means trusting others and extending ourselves, "unit[ing] with our fellow men." It doesn't come naturally, necessarily, but it should. It's easier than it seems. It's the difference between a single note and four notes sung in harmony.
To learn more about Sacred Harp singing, visit fasola.org. A local group gathers to sing in Colorado Springs on the second Sunday of each month, from 1-3 p.m. at the Boulder Street Church (828 E. Boulder St.). For more information, contact Pete Mathewson at 648-2274 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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