I’m not sure how it started, or when. But at least since I was a young’n, and probably a good many moons before that… each year, several hundred high school students would gather at the Hyatt Regency in Louisville for Kentucky All State Choir. (Yeah, that’s how we rolled, y’all. A glimpse of my wild and crazy youth right here).
That hotel is about 20 stories high, with a large open-air atrium for a lobby. You can look up from the ground floor and literally see the door to every guest room, surrounding you on every side. And UP. So far up. When you are a kid from the holler—even if you’re a relatively well-travelled kid from the holler—that’s an impressive structure.
On that first night, every year, we would all stream out of our rooms… Still giddy from the long bus ride, the first glimpse of a city skyline, and the prospect of 3 days in a hotel with NO PARENTS… We would all come out and stand along the balcony railing. A dozen at first, then a hundred, then five hundred. And somebody, somewhere, would start singing.
There was a standard fair, you know, to the high school choir routine. My Old Kentucky Home. The Star-Spangled Banner. 16 Tons. The Lion Sleeps Tonight. And whatever the audition piece was to get to All-State that year… These were all songs that every high school music nerd in the state knew, in 4-part harmony. It’s fun in the classroom. It’s cool on the bus. But singing into an open air atrium in surround sound… Astounding and marvelous.
Now, the sad news was that the All-State Choir event took up the whole dang hotel and even spilled over to other places down the street. Which means that nearly every person in the building, at the time of this miraculous performance, was taking part in it. Occasionally, the new front desk employee, the hapless downtown tourist, or the first time parent chaperone would look up in startled delight. But for the most part—we were singing to the choir. (Which is much like preaching to the choir, only more musical).
Fast forward 20 (yikes) years. There are cell phones. With video recorders. There’s youtube. Vimeo. Facebook, Twitter, and a planet full of people who are desperate for small glimpses of inspiration, joy, and spontaneous community. Add to this scenario the confluence of this year’s All State Choir gathering with the first night of the Olympics. And suddenly, this decades-old belting of the national anthem becomes a ‘patriotic tribute,’ an ‘internet sensation,’ and a ‘viral high school flash mob.’
A flash mob?! Is that what that was? 20-some years ago, we didn’t know that term. We didn’t have cell phones with cameras. We were just kids on a trip. We were just singing into the void.
Thing is, I watched it anyway. Last week, I watched that same anthem trickle down from 20 stories high, 20 years later. And it sounded just the same. Two decades removed, however many thousands of voices later, the song itself has not changed. Maybe seeing something from your youth, played out live when you are just this side of 35, lends significance to a memory you’d long filed away. Or maybe the real shift comes when you view it from a more global perspective, with about a million other people. This is the power of public witness: the added weight of meaning that an event takes on when processed by a larger audience.
But to tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought about our ‘flash mob’ performances in years, cool as they were at the time. No, what I remember most about those kinds of trips are, like I said, the bus ride. The journey from our home holler to a far (to us) removed city, and a glimpse of who we might be some day. I remember how the cheerleader/church kid/pageant queen/skateboard punk lines diminished as we moved out of town, and as we sang together. I remember the complex love triangles that seemed to play around the edges of that freedom, but never really amounted to much. I remember years when somebody’s parents were splitting up, or somebody was in any other manner of crisis. I remember the homework that we promised to do on the bus, forgotten the minute we rolled past exit 41. I remember having my wallet stolen one year but somehow being sustained by friends, in the form of late night pizza and vending machine runs. (Luckily, we were not sophisticated enough to sneak beer into these things. That would’ve been expensive).
And I remember how singing in this suddenly much larger circle of strangers was powerful, significant, possibly even transformative…but somehow, not nearly as important as the people who would ride the bus home with us. Maybe sometimes, you need the distance from home–and the space of about 20 years– to realize that.
I’m grateful for the recent public witness to something that was so formative and meaningful for so many of us. The truth is, the epic viral nature of the ‘flash mob sensation’ did not make it a shared experience. This is a song we’ve been singing forever.
In fact, I like to think we are all still singing into the void. Still singing for our lives.