The sun was setting over sloping streets in Decorah, Iowa as familiar faces clustered around the yard of a big yellow house at the top of Grove Street. Inside, the beloved mother of a community member rested in her bed surrounded by family and hospice workers. Having just ended a long road of cancer treatments, no one knew whether she had hours or days left in this world. There was a sense of reverence in the air amongst those who had gathered around the house, as if all could feel the weight of what it meant to come together as a community to care for one another in such times of transition. In fifteen minutes, nearly eighty people had arrived and assembled outside the far room of the house, waiting to offer the gift they had come to give. A moon-eyed woman whom everybody knew stepped forward out of the crowd and began to sing a simple melody:
“Lay back in the arms of love, lay back in the arms of love…”
Most joined in right away, having sung the tune many times before. The rest entered in shortly, guided by the woman as she skillfully repeated each line in a way that made the song easily accessible to all. After a few short turns, harmonies began to emerge and a mountain of sound wrapped itself around the room where the dying mother and family weepily received the healing wash of song. Three more songs began and ended in this graceful way —each stretching easefully into several minutes of resonant sound before the group held a final moment of stillness together and then dispersed back into their individual lives’ busyness, all carrying with them a renewed understanding of what it means to be a part of life in a connected and committed community.
For thousands of years, humans have sung together; sung for joy, for creating and preserving culture, to mark important stories, to enliven social movements, to grieve, to praise, to share. Something inexplicable happens when people open and blend their voices into a single lake of sound. To me, it’s one of the most basic and radical means for making, seeing, and feeling the truth of our connection with others. Permaculturist Adam Campbell said that “song is one of the primary pattern languages of nature.” Indeed, if you’ve ever spent a quiet moment in the woods, you know that song is as fully integrated into any forest or pond as the beings who live there. And just like frogs and wrens, when people sing together, a pattern is spun out into the world and written into the collective memory of all it has reached. Are you ever amazed when you hear an old song and you find yourself singing along, even though you haven’t heard it for 15 years? What would happen if a whole family, community, or bioregion of people were connected by dozens or even hundreds of the same song patterns? What if the songs were made up of words and rhythms that enlivened the people and beings of a particular place and time? And what if they were shared in daily life as part of the delicious food necessary for growing resilient community? These questions are seeing the inklings of answers in many parts of this country and world today as people remember the joy and importance of singing together.
Just as there are many ways that people are re-inventing local food systems, energy systems, and more whole hearted ways of living together in community, there are many ways that song is being re-enlivened as an integral aspect of life in place. In the small town of Decorah, where a wide circle of people now know enough of the same songs that there is often spontaneous singing in the streets for some excitement or another, one particularly fearless and effervescent individual has been pursuing her calling by spreading songs and building local culture for nearly 35 years. Her name is Liz Rog, and she is a relentless lover of her place and its people. From the first moment she set foot in the Upper Iowa River Valley in 1978, Liz knew that it was where she would spend her life making the world she wanted to live in. And after three decades of tireless commitment to Decorah and its people, that world has come to look like a richly interconnected, intergenerational community, held together in a complex web of songs, traditions, gifts, and relationships. From her family’s handmade off-grid homestead, where she and her partner home schooled their children in her great-great-great grandparent’s original log cabin, to the front lobby of the Oneota Food Co-op, where she has folded people into the community-oriented landscape of radical Decorah for 27 years, Liz has spent her days tending this vision, building bridges between people and place in service to beauty and connection.
Woven through her many endeavors of community building in Decorah has been the gift of song —the essential underpinning of her work — as disparate strands of daily life are stitched together and revered in a small rural town. With Liz, there are songs to praise food before meals, songs at the neighborhood potluck, songs while processing tomatoes or weeding the asparagus patch, song for new life, and songs for letting go, songs to begin and end the day —songs for anything! Liz truly wakes up and falls asleep singing.
As a child in Roseville Minnesota, she spent her free hours putting together books full of sing-along songs and enlisting her friends and family to sing them with her. Now, she has hundreds of songbooks, thousands of songs stored away in her pin-sharp mind, has created dozens of community gatherings related to singing around Decorah, and has successfully integrated singing into all kinds of gatherings and cultural events throughout the years. The songs that Liz leads are easy to learn, taught in the moment, and no one ever sings alone, and as any true old-timer knows, if a person sticks around a place long enough, whatever gifts they bring with them will eventually be woven into the fabric of ‘normal.’ Indeed, after nearly three decades of Liz inviting her curious, excited, and sometimes terrified neighbors and friends to sing with her in both public and private venues, “We sing together here” has become part of a collective understanding.
Of course, arriving at this point did not happen overnight, and you would be guessing correctly to assume that not everyone in Decorah bursts into four-part harmony when they see a friend in the grocery store. Understandably, Liz has come up against some significant resistance to singing throughout her life as a song sharer. In a predominant culture that tends to shut down our voices, learning to share one’s voice is a terribly vulnerable act. Many of us carry the deep and visceral feeling that our voices are not strong and do not deserve to be heard. If your spine prickles and throat closes in terror when you imagine singing with other people, you are certainly not alone. Cynicism, too, tends to be a strong force against group singing —a loose disguise for unmoored grief and the loss of genuine beauty in our life of dominant cultural narratives.
At the core, all these things speak into a larger story of our time, a story in which the cultural richness that was once a birthright of all people has been stolen by the ruthless monetization of all things. But as we learn to use our voices again, be it through singing or simply speaking our truth, we begin to take back pieces of the more beautiful and just world that still belongs to all.
In these uncertain times, it is vitally important to find the points of connection in our lives and our work. For Liz, blending our voices into a single sound is one of the most profound ways to help us feel our connection and know it to be true. And that collective sound is growing! After hardly leaving the Driftless bioregion for three decades, Liz has in the last five years begun to connect with community singing movements that are emerging in various regions of the country and world. Many people working to seed song cultures in the places they live are uniting in something called the ‘Ubuntu Choirs Network’ —named after the Zulu word that means ‘I am because we are’ — sharing resources and building a network of song communities. Week-long regional gatherings — dedicated to group singing — are popping up all over the world, including Village Fire, Liz’s very own 3-year-old song gathering in which 250 people gather together in the ancient bluffs of the Driftless region every June.
As a young song spreader myself, I am constantly astonished at the way song is awakening in the places I wind up while on the road. It seems that wherever I go people are singing together, delightedly realizing that they know dozens of the same songs, and integrating those songs into the broader landscape of their lives in community. Sometimes the struggle to reclaim a meaningful, healthy way of living on this planet seems endlessly impossible. Other times, a shared song can turn a distantly imagined picture of cultural wholeness appear in its fullest form — making any darkened dream seem possible, precisely because it is shared.
In his book “The Gift,” author Lewis Hyde says that ‘the gift is something that comes to you unbidden, transforms you, and then leaves.’ While songs, movements, and even people come and go, those things which are truly paradigm-shifting are more apt to be born when a gift comes and decides to stay put, continuing to transform that which came before it. The vibrancy of life, held together by song in Decorah, is a prime example of what can happen when the gift stays; when ordinary people like Liz and so many others commit to loving the place they live and say a full resounding “yes!” to living into their highest callings. It is clear to me that something is in the air in these wild times. Some lovely melody is floating from branch to branch, from root to burrowing root, lifting each new seedling heart it finds toward the sky. Let’s catch that melody and store it while we can, use it for the uplifting of all beings; for the making of a world worth living in.
For more information on Village Fire, click here