Standing in the grass on a late summer afternoon outside of the old Newport Elementary and High School, a storm is piling up in the west, but above the grasshoppers and thunder, you can hear people singing.
It’s “This land is your land.” It’s the Giles County Community Chorus’s first Community Sing.
Closed up most of the summer, the old school auditorium is hot and the sun’s pouring in the backstage door into the theater gloom that smells like cut grass and baked dust high up in the rafters.
The door is propped open with a paint can to let a breeze in and a big fan is stirring the gold curtain and the projection screen, while out in the auditorium with its red walls and wooden slat floors and fold-down wooden seats, the audience is flapping blue paper fans and singing loud as Giles County Community Chorus Director Thomas DeBusk bounces them through “I’ve been working on the railroad” with guitar and a keyboard pounding away and then they crash straight into Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”
“It’s a community sing, not a choir or a lesson, just ordinary people coming together in a public place to sing, just for the fun of it,” DeBusk said.
Members of the GCCC are scattered among the audience to demonstrate close up as DeBusk led them all through warming up with a nursery rhyme competition and keeping them on track in four-part rounds and harmony.
Community singing is ancient of course, and throughout the 20th century, people all over the country, whole communities came together informally in parks, at camps and schools, with songs that were easy to play and sing, singing rounds and national anthems, popular American songbook tunes.
DeBusk thought of the community sing as a way raise awareness of singing, bring the community together and raise funds for the school’s backpack lunch program.
“We truly hope that the participants will enjoy the experience, and recognize it as a way to build a spirit of community and camaraderie with their neighbors. There is far too much strife in the world right now, and we’d like to help change that,” he said.
So, for $10, each singer, about 65 people, old and young, some with children on their laps, got a big blue paper fan and a green kazoo at the door, professional singing guidance from DeBusk and chorus members, they fed hungry children and strengthened the ties of community on a summer afternoon.
“If you can follow with a kazoo, a melody, you’ve got all the skills you need to sing,” he said.
“Who here thinks they cannot sing?” he asked in a smooth tenor from the stage. On the screen was a giant word “No!” Many hands went up.
“Everyone has the ability to sing,” DeBusk said. “Whether they believe it or not. Some people think they can’t sing, but that’s only because they’ve never been given the tools they need to do so.”
For nearly two hours, people sang, “Shine on Harvest Moon” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
They kazoo’d “Take me home country roads” and couples held hands in the aisles and swayed singing “Can’t help falling in love with you.”
Throughout, DeBusk encouraged the audience reminding everyone there’s not a lot of difference between speaking and singing—you just sustain the sounds for a longer period of time.
Do some people come by singing more naturally?
“Yes,” DeBusk said. “But others learn to sing, and to create pleasant and pleasing sounds. With the right guidance and encouragement, almost anyone can sing.”
“This is our first attempt at this event, but if it goes over well, I suspect we’ll do more in the future,” Mark Freeman, a tenor in the chorus said. “We’ve tried to choose songs that most people are likely to be familiar with, and songs that are not complicated so that everyone can take part.”
Singings were held at schools like this one, churches, museums and universities. Folks sang songs known regionally, like sea chanties on the coasts or Appalachian sing-alongs through the 50s and into the folk singing 60s, falling out of fashion in the 70s as music industrialized.
But the tradition may be reviving with events like this one, Blacksburg’s Sidewalk Stage troubadour Chris “Dr. Moon” Saunders’ sing-alongs at the library encouraging community spirit and evidence that there’s music all around us.
On the stage with DeBusk was Dale Joyce on guitar. She’s planning to join the GCCC. On keyboards was Jonathan Elmore. He’s 19 and majoring in the music program at Virginia Tech. They both can sing.
And the audience were, it seemed, no strangers to song and the good feeling singing with others gives.
For more information about the GCCC, visit gilescountycommunitychorus.com.