On Monday night I attended a program of storytelling at the Westport Library called “Naughty or Nice: In Literature and Life,” presented by the groups Write Yourself Free and the Storytelling Circle. I enjoyed the stories, and one in particular struck me not just for the story but the audience’s response to part of it.
Steve White, a photographer from Norwalk, Conn., talked about attending a private boarding school in the 1960s. He linked his miserable experiences to the movie Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman had a problem with authority. The boys at the school similarly rebelled. Once, at the dreary daily chapel session, they were instructed to sing “God Bless America.” White revved up the singing to a boisterous yet sincere level — not the low-wattage rendition the school administration wanted and demanded.
The audience of 75 at the library responded — when White sang part of the song — by singing along, and, when he forgot a line, providing the next words. One woman upfront even kept singing when he wanted to continue the story.
The moment struck me, as I looked over the audience, mostly middle-aged and older. We all knew the song. Forget about our politics, our TV habits, our economic situation. Everybody in the room shared a common connection around a patriotic song. Had the song been the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, I’d like to think the reaction would have been the same. We would have instantly sang the words, arising from childhood memories of devotion to ideals and instruction of teachers who cared about passing on a common national identity through song.
Is this still the case in the United States? Do schoolchildren learn these songs and still sing them with an open heart and conviction? Simple devotion does not last, I’m not going to kid myself about that. I know how kids are, grumbling and parodying such music, and as a parent I did my own rewrite of “God Bless America” as “God Bless Jigglypuff”, to amuse my adolescent son with what I called the “Pokemon National Anthem.” However, I would hope some primal American feeling would remain even if the attitudes grew tired and weary of the daily jolts in this country. The seed of national knowingness, to coin a phrase, could remain there for the right moment.
Still, can anything now serve as a shared national cultural experience in the United States, or are we so completed fractured by groups, media and political intensity that no single cultural factor can serve to unite us? On September, 11, 2001, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang, yes, God Bless America. At that moment of national danger and uncertainty, the power of collective song brought us together. Could that happen today? I don’t know.
But I did see the power of a shared identity on Monday night in a New England library.