In the early 1900s, a group of women with the idea of gathering large groups of people to sing in unison grew into a national community singing movement. Dr. Esther Morgan-Ellis, an assistant professor of music history and world music at the University of North Georgia (UNG) who has studied the movement, said the women were dissatisfied with some of the popular music of the time – a refrain that has continued throughout the ages.
"They thought people were listening to bad music," Morgan-Ellis said. "They were reformists, so they also wanted people to sing music that was approved as morally upstanding. Additionally, some people had a pretty out-there idea that when people came together and sang together, their souls would fuse and they would feel and experience things that an individual would not feel."
|Community members sing along during Dr. Esther Morgan-
Ellis's recent re-creation of the first community singing event.
Morgan-Ellis spent the summer digging for the roots of the community singing movement, a project funded by a Presidential Summer Scholars Award from UNG. Presidential Summer Scholar Awards sponsor six projects up to $10,000 each and are granted to tenured or tenure-track faculty members conducting meaningful research and scholarly and creative activities. Morgan-Ellis recently presented the findings of her research as a community sing-along.
During research on her dissertation, "Unearthing the Roots of Community Singing: May Garrettson Evans and the Peabody Preparatory Division in Baltimore (1915-1916)," Morgan-Ellis uncovered the first community singing event – March 5, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Evans helped start the preparatory division of the prestigious Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and she and her fellow teachers developed the idea, chose several songs and began teaching their students. They wanted to increase their students' appreciation for music and also that of the community. The idea was popular; a second event was held by Evans in April, and the Peabody Institute held similar sessions in Baltimore's parks throughout the summer. By the following year, it had spread into the local community surrounding Baltimore and beyond.
Recently, Morgan-Ellis, UNG voice students, the UNG orchestra and community members re-created the first singing event, and used 10 songs from the original booklet printed for Peabody Prep's first event. In a departure from the original event, Morgan-Ellis presented her dissertation between songs.
"It was fun and entertaining and enjoyable to participate, but the repertoire of songs popular 100 years ago is also very interesting," she said. "We also sang a couple of difficult songs that contain words we now view as offensive. We changed the offending words, but we also talked about the context and how composers like Stephen Foster used the language of the times."
Morgan-Ellis holds a doctorate in music history from Yale University, where she wrote a dissertation on community singing in the motion picture palaces of the 1920s and '30s, which also is the subject of her forthcoming book.
Over the past two years, UNG has invested a half-million dollars through the presidential incentive awards program designed to provide increased opportunities for faculty and staff development and innovation. A recent Presidential Semester Scholar Award, worth up to $25,000, funded Dr. Yong Wei's research in para-spinal muscle segmentation in images used by surgeons. Additionally, 20 Presidential Innovation projects, worth up to $5,000, have funded the development of peer mentoring programs, efforts to improve sustainability of Lake Lanier, new ways to embed content in eBooks, and a multi-campus Women's Leadership Initiative.