The last great group of singers was the World War II generation. They kept the rickety pub pianos vibrating with song and laughter well into the 1980s. But since the pubs were renovated and those cranky pianos cast out along with the battered cigarette machines and charred lampshades we turn our heads only to discover that those old songsters are mostly gone. Some survive, but the ones that do are now into their nineties and unlikely to gather for a singsong at happy hour. As each one passes away so do more memories of that generation's great moments. It was an age when every event was marked with music.
Sure, there are still a few places where one can stand around the piano with like-minded veterans of song - perhaps to croon hits by the likes of Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby or Al Jolson - but they are rare now. One example is Vancouver's Billy Bishop Legion. Their regulars still drink pints and sing songs every Friday until midnight when they all link arms for the final medley. Their pianist, Bea Blackwell, has played an almost unbroken line of weekly singalongs and annual Remembrance Days for many decades.
One obstacle to the modern singalong is that even amongst those who can or would like to sing there is no common repertoire. Let's say we had an opportunity to get together and sing - what then? How would we choose the songs? I can imagine much vying over whether to sing Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Ragtime, Rockabilly, Reggae, Religious or Rap.
The demise of the family piano is also partly to blame for the decline in singalongs. Once it was the family's entertainment system but now the piano's place has been taken over by the large, black, rectangular void known as the big-screen TV.
Thoughts of all this came very strongly to me recently when I was booked to visit the family home of a prospective client. Her brother had mentioned me to her. She told me,
"My father is going to be ninety years old and he loves to sing and I can't think of a better birthday gift than a family singalong. I hear that you lead singalongs and even do house calls."
This was a misunderstanding and I could see how she had come to this conclusion. Yes, I have been known to entertain in people's homes and yes, I do lead a monthly ukulele get-together, essentially a singalong for strummers. However, a family singalong with people I'd never met was a new idea for me. But I liked the concept and went with it.
Right away I realized that with an age difference of eighty years between oldest and youngest, deciding what to sing would be the first puzzle to solve. My solution was to suggest to my client that she create a songbook especially for the occasion. I emailed to her a number of song suggestions from my own repertoire. Armed with these songs, plus additions of her own, she came up with a selection of ditties. Hopefully they'd cover the tastes of everyone at the party. The book she made was spiral bound and had a picture of her dad on the front. She sent a copy for me to work with.
Before too long I found myself, in the hour before dinner, standing on a fireplace rug leading a boisterous family singalong. It struck me what a rare privilege this was. The ukulele had taken the place of a piano but the unique feeling that comes from a group of voices singing happily together was still there. In unison we crooned, amongst others: Blue Moon, For Me and My Gal, With a Little Help from my Friends, Rubber Duckie and a song with particular meaning for me: Edelweiss.
As we sang of the alpine flower that greets us every morning and whose snow-white petals we urge to blossom and grow forever, I found myself thinking back to past singalongs in my life. Many of the participants are no longer around but I suddenly remembered them clearly. Along with an almost painful ache of nostalgia came a barely remembered sense of tender belonging; a nearly forgotten feeling of warm togetherness that I'm sure used to be more commonplace. My memory suddenly felt sharper and richer thanks to the words and melodies of the songsmiths whose strange powers have the ability to conjure up long neglected senses and recollections.
Every November 11 we are reminded of the phrase: "Lest we forget." As we remember the lost, the brave, and the good let us also spare a thought for the humble singalong whose very presence in our lives gives us something to live for.