America Needs To Sing Together Again

Among of the most emotionally resonant and thrilling moments in movies are when a large group spontaneously expresses unity of mind, loyalty, sentiment, or just the joy of living by lifting up their voices in song, as one. A healthy society should engender such moments and nourish the shared values and emotions that create them.

What today could prompt a large group to sing together today? The National Anthem once provided such moments, but the NFL has aided race-separatists by forcing the so-called “Black National Anthem” to compete with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” making it, despicably, a “white national anthem.” Today’s preeminent musical form, hip-hop, doesn’t lend itself to mass singalongs.

Here are six memorable examples from the Hollywood archives of movies celebrating the human instinct to burst into shared intense feeling, expressed in song. Incredibly, I found none of these classics in various on-line lists of “greatest movie crowd singing scenes.” The people who put together those lists don’t get it (and also don’t know classic films.) No, the “Wayne’s World’ lip-syncing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t qualify, great as it is. It’s not a crowd scene, and Queen is doing all the singing anyway.

The Ethics Alarms top six, in random order:

1. From “The Sound of Music”: “Edelweiss”

This is the only entry from a musical, but the context is entirely dramatic, and the scene could have easily been in a straight drama. The Nazis have taken over Austria. Captain Von Trapp (Christoper Plummer), ordered to take his place in the Nazi navy, mourns the end of the Austria he knew, and knows that his fellow Austrians watching his family perform in a music festival as the uniformed Nazis loom over them, share his sentiments. He sings a simple Austrian folk tune, manages to give the audience an opportunity to express their sadness and defiance.

2. From “San Francisco”: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

This isn’t even the best crowd singing moment in the great 1936 Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy/Jeanette McDonald movie that climaxes with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. At the end of the film, Gable, a cynical rogue whose romance with opera singer McDonald has foundered on his rejection of religion, has searched for her in the ravaged city. He finds her alive and helping survivors, and is so moved that he thanks God for the first time in his life. Then the news comes that the fire is out, and the people of San Francisco resolve to rebuild their city bigger and better than ever, as Jeanette leads them in song…


3. From “Ferris Buhler’s Day Off”: “Twist and Shout.”

Charming Ferris (Matthew Broderick), playing hooky with his admiring friends, manages to commandeer a parade float and leads paraders and spectator alike in a spontaneous expression of fun, innocence, and freedom.

4. From “Casablanca”: “The Marseillaise”

Another “stick it to the Nazis” moment, one of many classic scenes from what might be the greatest movie of them all. A leader of the French resistance hears the Nazi officers and soldiers in “Ric’s Cafe” break into a German nationalist anthem, so he tells the club band to play “The Marseillaise,” the most stirring of all national anthems. The supposedly apolitical Ric (Humphrey Bogart, of course) gives the OK, and the Nazis never knew what hit them…

5. From “Animal House”: “Shout!”

The second Isley Brothers number on this list, “Shout” is the climax of the famous “Animal House” toga party. The movie revitalized the song (Is there a more viscerally exciting number in all popular music?) and the Isley Brothers, who deserved to be celebrated, and it instantly became a favorite at wedding receptions and all other parties where sufficient numbers of attendees are smashed.

6.  From “San Francisco”: “San Francisco”

Right before the earthquake hits (and what a terrific set of special effects for 1936!), Jeanette gets on stage and sings her character’s signature song from her saloon days, before the opera called. The crowd goes wild, and McDonald, who was best known for her rather staid operetta movies with Nelson Eddy, showed American that she could do more than warble. She leads the people of San Francisco in a rousing love song to their much-maligned (then as now) city. I may love this clip the best of all.

And there you have it. May the United States again reach a point in our culture where the idea of large groups of Americans joining in song to express a common feeling doesn’t seem like science fiction, or absurd nostalgia.

20 thoughts on “America Needs To Sing Together Again

  1. “Auld Lang Sine” from “It’s a Wonderful Life” caps that whole scene of community in which everyone rallied around George Bailey.

  2. One of my most poignant memories from scouts is the 2001 National Jamboree at Fort AP Hill. They set up a huge outdoor ampetheater for the 30,000 scouts for a show. I remember nothing about the show, but they played the song I’m Proud to Be an American (Where at Least I Know I’m Free).

    I thought it was the most irritating song of the Millennium when it came out. Still, when they played it for the penultimate act of the show, it was met with 30,000 teenage boys chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A”.

    As an aside
    “And I’ll gladly stand up, next to you, and defend her still today; ’cause their ain’t no doubt I love this land, God Bless the USA”

    It fills me with hope that the Ukrainians apparently feel the same way about their country.

      • Let’s not forget the scene in “Zulu” where the Welsh soldiers, outnumbered and surrounded by chanting Zulus, begin to sing “Men of Harlech” to keep their morale from collapsing.

        Honorable mention ; how about the real-life singing of “God Bless America” by the assembled Senate in the wake of 9/11? I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that since.

  3. Jack, your commitment to this blog is amazing. I’m a frequent reader but have commented only a couple of times in 10 years or so. I’ve learned a lot but still feel unqualified to offer an opinion. This reply is just to say “Thank You” for this post on singing. I love singing and I watched all the movie clips from beginning to end. In the first “San Francisco” clip, the crowd singing “Nearer My God to Thee” (before singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) almost brought me to tears. Thanks again.

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