Hear America singing


March 06, 1996|By Albert J. Silverman

IT WAS TRUE. It was not poetic fancy. When Walt Whitman wrote ''I Hear America Singing,'' everybody sang or whistled -- and they continued to sing and whistle clear down into the 1950s. People of all ages gathered around the piano on Saturday nights to sing. They sang in the schools, harmonized in the saloons and barber shops and hummed and whistled in the streets and in the workplace. Even the street arabs hawked their wares melodiously.

Men and boys prided themselves on their ability to whistle. Those who couldn't pucker up and produce musical or piercing sound were objects of pity and ridicule. For those to whom the naturally produced sound wasn't loud enough, tin whistles, available at dime and confectionery stores, offered a satisfying shrillness. The same shops sold sets of castanet-like clickers, or bones, which serious whistlers used to provide a rhythmic, percussive obbligato for their performance.

TC I recall with nostalgic delight the spirited solo recital one virtuoso whistler gave as he strolled on Baltimore Street, puckering, clicking and clacking. His opus was the popular and rollicking post-World War I tune: ''How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?'' It was a bravura performance.

No college worthy of the name was without a glee club. Some achieved national fame and traveled widely, concertizing. The performances of the B&O Glee Club were of professional quality and were very popular. The ethnic populations of the city had their singing societies, the Germans notably, with several Saenger Vereine. In the large movie palaces the audiences sang, following the dancing ball, accompanied by the mighty Wurlitzers. In summer time, there were band concerts and community sings in the public parks and city squares.

Pensive and sentimental

What did they sing? Around the piano, the older folk favored the pensive and sentimental songs of yesteryear: ''In The Gloaming,'' ''Love's Old Sweet Song,'' ''Juanita,'' ''Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,'' ''Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes'' and the compositions of Stephen Foster. The younger people preferred the current operetta and show tunes by Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, Rudolph Friml, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.

Patriotism was not politically incorrect, and patriotic songs were in vogue, too. Everyone knew them because they were taught in the schools. ''America (My Country Tis of Thee)'' was a national favorite. So was ''America, the Beautiful.''

The hardy, old Civil War-horses -- ''When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,'' ''Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,'' ''Dixie'' and ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' -- were popular as well. The daunting ''Star-Spangled Banner'' was dutifully sung by all, but it lacked the simple and appealing grandeur of ''America'' and was less popular.

Why did America stop singing? The national addiction to television immediately comes to mind. Yes, that may be one reason, but simplistic. Perhaps the soul-wrenching and searing events of the '40s, '50s and '60s, the wars and genocide, placed a blight on America's habitual cheeriness and optimism.

The cultural and social revolutions -- generational, sexual, racial and feminist -- may also have been causative factors. There occurred also a revolt in musical taste, particularly among the young. Brain-numbing and ear-splitting dissonance replaced harmony and melody. The new music did not lend itself to singing in the shower, around the piano, or even humming or whistling.

How lovely it was in yesteryear to stroll by a school in spring and hear beautiful, childish voices floating from open windows in the strains of the Schubert Serenade, or ''Funiculi, Funicula.''

America is no longer singing. Is this an ominous portent of grim times ahead? What would Walt Whitman say?

Before his retirement, Albert J. Silverman was head of the history department at Poly and taught part-time at Hopkins.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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