When All Baltimore Sang

September 27, 1994|By RICHARD A. DISHAROON

The Park Board

Requests the Pleasure of the Company of Mr. and Mrs. Baltimore and Family at a Moonlight Garden Party Tonight at Druid Hill Park

This invitation, which appeared in The Evening Sun July 25, 1925, marked the beginning of one of the most successful projects launched by the Baltimore Municipal Department of Music. The concert featured concert selections by the combined Municipal and Park Bands, vocal soloists, and one of the most popular aspects of Municipal Band concerts, community singing.

The crowd of nearly 30,000 prompted the Park Board to hold a second party at Patterson Park attended by another 30,000 Baltimoreans. The city continued to sponsor musical lawn parties, adding concert sites at Memorial Stadium, Wyman Park and Gwynn's Falls Park, through 1946.

But 1925 was not the advent of community singing in Baltimore. According to Ray E. Robinson, former dean of the Peabody Conservatory, it was in the spring of 1915 that the conservatory initiated a movement to interest citizens in singing good popular songs ''as a wholesome and inspiring influence in the home, the school, fraternal societies and miscellaneous gatherings in general.''

The first effort was an outdoor community sing held in Mount Vernon Place on July 13. With accompaniment by the Municipal Band, 1,500 people gathered in the rain to sing popular songs of the day. The words were projected by means of lantern slides onto a huge screen. Henrietta Baker Low, head of the conservatory's school music program and supervisor of music in the Baltimore public schools, led the singing. The success of the concert was assured by the presence of trained singers in the crowd, printing the words in newspapers and teaching the songs in public-school music classes.

Community singing became a fixture at Municipal Band concerts which were played in every Baltimore neighborhood. According to the Baltimore American, a crowd of 15,000 ''really sang'' at the first concert in West Baltimore, and 2,000 school children led 50,000 Baltimoreans in singing ''war songs and patriotic airs'' at an All-American Rally in Druid Hill Park on July 4, 1917.

These events were brought to mind by David R. Boldt's commentary on ''What Makes Democracy Work -- Civic Traditions in Modern Italy,'' by Robert D. Putnam (Opinion * Commentary, Sept. 7). One of Mr. Putnam's conclusions, quoted by Mr. Boldt, is that ''government effectiveness might be improved by encouraging the growth of civic community.'' He cites the Italian choral societies that have existed since the Middle Ages.

Although the community singing at Municipal Band concerts was not done by formal entities such as choral societies, it did bring Baltimoreans together in a way we have not seen for years. The joy of singing together gives strangers, even those from different ethnic backgrounds who speak different languages, common ground on which to start a conversation. This informal contact no doubt can lead to discussions about other aspects of city life and government. From 1915 to 1946, Municipal Band concerts provided those opportunities by disseminating information through movies about the city's growth or to give instruction in public health and safety. Since 1946, fiscal constraints gradually reduced the number of Municipal Band concerts to a bare minimum in too few locations around the city.

Could it be that some of the problems of the last 30 years might have been avoided through the community spirit engendered by community singing? Maybe a greater sense of working together for a better city could be achieved by arranging for citizens to sing the songs of Baltimore' various ethnic groups. I would bet that many of us would enjoy singing a rousing rendition of the Beer Barrel Polka or some of the best-loved spirituals and gospel songs. And in the process, we might develop a better sense of working together for the common good.

Richard A. Disharoon chairs the music department at Pikesville High School.

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