Last week I mentioned the radio programme Singing Together, and in the BBC Archive I discovered a feature Jarvis Cocker made about it. With apologies to Jarvis, much of this post is stolen directly from his broadcast.
Singing Together started in 1939. It was put together as the evacuation of schoolchildren started on the 1st of September and the first programme aired on the 25th of September. I found the wartime accounts very touching.
Here’s a quote from Brenda Jenkins, a young teacher from Ilford who was sent to teach evacuees in Mansfield.
“Some of them, I’m afraid, were very sad. They had contagious diseases, I would have to take them to the doctors, and they were very little to be away from their parents… Singing Always Helps… It didn’t matter if you sang well or not, nobody cared, nobody noticed, because you were singing together. Boys could sing as loudly as they liked.”
The selection of songs followed simple rules: each programme should have a song with a beautiful melody, a song with a rousing chorus, and a nonsense song. I love this precise definition of songs that are fun to sing.
The first presenter was Herbert Wiseman, a Scot.
“From 1939-1946 I was privileged to teach new songs, not just to children but to mothers. Mothers, I’m afraid, deserted their Monday morning washtubs to join us. I’m still touched to meet, from Caithness to the Isle of Wight, from Newcastle to Ballymena, some of these mothers who remember singing with us.”
The war disrupted social groups and families. Schools would suddenly have people missing, or new people arriving. You can feel alone in a group, but even when you don’t know the other people, singing together creates a team spirit. Ask any football crowd.
The programmes were very popular but the BBC top brass were snooty about them:
“A very jolly social occasion but can hardly be considered musical training”. They were even described as “an obstacle to more extensive musical training”.
The aims of the programme were not to learn formal musical terminology (which is often what people mean by musical education) but to encourage children to sing together and increase their repertory of songs. Musical instructions were very simple (try not to shout).
Teachers noted that “children developed rapidly in the art of picking up a tune.” What is that if it’s not musical education? The more you listen and sing along, the better you get at remembering the shape of a tune, and the faster you will learn new tunes. Generations of children learned songs they remembered for the rest of their lives.
Singing together is a powerful shared experience and we are missing it greatly at the moment. We are all isolated in our own houses. We are fortunate to have access to a huge variety of recorded music on our different devices. It’s very easy to sing along to music as an individual in 2021, but it’s nothing like singing with other people.
Projects like our own Indoorus Chorus and Opera North’s Couch to Chorus offer the nearest thing we can to singing together. It’s a live event. We are all singing the same songs at the same time, joining in with recorded voices. Perhaps it’s not that different from those little evacuees sitting in a school hall far away from home, with dozens of strangers. Or their mothers, back in the city, neglecting their Monday wash to sing along with their faraway child.
Singing Always Helps.