These words were written on September 14 with the memory of last Tuesday’s horror story still very fresh in mind. It is fascinating how while the political questions of Who, How and Why have begun to be hotly debated, certain religious questions have also been re-asked and re-examined. Did we not pray hard enough? Do prayers have any effect to begin with? Why was this allowed to happen? And so on. Still, many have flocked to their places of worship where prayers are being offered and songs are being sung.
No one will deny that songs under any circumstances fill a deeply rooted need in the human psyche. First of all, it is a form of community event, even if it involves a single performer and a silent audience. But in churches and synagogues, singing is a group effort and the members of that group are more closely drawn together by doing the same thing at the same time and for the same purpose. Thus we create a united act of defiance against the ones who sought to tear us apart.
But that cannot be all. Why sing at all? Yes, of course that is the accepted means of expression in places of worship. But that begs the question. What is there about songs that tends to ease our sorrow? This question was asked, for example, in the early days of Tin Pan Alley; and at least one analyst came up with this answer. Few people can express themselves well in words. Lyricists, by their very nature, can. Therefore most of us have to express our feelings in the words of others.
Now these words can be optimistic or pessimistic. If optimistic, then the effect on sorrowing singers is palpable: it expresses hope. In the case of September 11, some might ask, Hope for what? The horror was done, it is a fact, a fact that all the songs in the world cannot erase now. Hope that it will never happen again? That is too naïve to elicit comment. Perhaps the answer is this: hope that we will never sink so low as even to be glad in our hearts that such a thing can happen to innocent citizens. Think: people who gather to sing such songs are not the kind to condone, let alone commit, such acts. And who knows? Possibly such optimism will hold them back from knee-jerk thoughts of “retaliation” against other innocents in this world.
If pessimistic, what possible solace can such songs afford to people already grieving? Help me disentangle this concept. If you are mourning the death of a person and read “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” you can not only feel that you are not alone in your grief but (to repeat) that the poet has expressed such grief far better than ever you could. Now this poem has been set to music, so if you actually sing the lyrics you have added an extra dimension to the healing power. And finally, if many people gather together to sing it… Well, I think we have already drawn the necessary conclusion.
Take what is possibly the greatest non-religious expression of love-in-death, the “Liebestod” that ends Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Some of the lines translate more or less thus: “Do only I hear this melody that is so wonderful and gentle sounding within him, saying everything, reconciling gently, piercing me, hovering over me, sounding around me?” This is Isolde over the dead Tristan. Could it not be an entire nation over the thousands who died early in the morning because of a handful of maniacs who were convinced they alone were right or could never be anything but right? Many politicians rushed before the cameras to express their sorrow in words that may or may not have been scripted for them. Did any of them even come close to what Wagner wrote? Or Burns?
After our Civil War, there was a great outpouring of “angel songs,” mostly about the deaths of beloved family members, usually wives and infants. It was almost as if we had recoiled so forcefully from the horrors of the recent carnage that we sought to be reconciled with our religious beliefs, with our consciences, with the world in general. The point is, the songs did help and that is what is important.
So theological considerations are all beside the point. The very act of singing was then and is now an absolute necessity for us to keep our humanity and to find consolation as best we can. Let it be hymns, popular songs, or grand opera–singing, even when done alone, is an act of communion with all those who have grieved in the past or are grieving at that very moment.
I doubt if I have offered anything profound and I certainly have not answered the question I posed, but I simply was compelled to tackle this subject on this date in our history.