It’s been a couple of weeks since our last blog post, and for me, that’s because these weeks were busy! We’ve had two concerts – Music in the Park on the 14th and Live! from Lewisburg on the 21st – both of which were excellent. We’ve had lots of movement on other projects we’re working on here at the Zone, which we’ll probably be focusing on in a post within a week or two! And in my personal life, I’ve had plenty to keep me busy, too, including a family visit and helping my dad move furniture.
With all that going on, I didn’t have time for a post last week, and I’ve been struggling to think of what to focus on for this one. But it’s something during that last event I touched on that’s ended up my inspiration here.
The furniture I went to help my dad move was at a house out in State College, so we made the drive in a rented U-Haul that only had an AM/FM radio: no CD, no auxiliary connection for a phone, not even an old cassette tape deck.
Now, as someone who’s always loved music, I have to admit: our area doesn’t exactly always fit my needs when it comes to the radio stations. There’s a few too many pop-country stations and not quite enough variety in rock for my personal taste, if I’m being honest. And anyone who’s made the drive from Williamsport to State College probably knows that there are a few places along the way where the radio selection is even more limited than that.
My dad and I joked about how there are some spots where you only have the choice of a few very specific brands of station, including one that he’d heard on a previous trip playing some of the old, overwrought radio dramas intended to teach children the lessons their writers thought were most important.
I’m sure some of the readers might know the type I mean. I’ve heard them here and there throughout my life, almost always on radio stations during long drives, and usually in rural areas. They’re artifacts of a bygone age. Nobody these days talks the way characters do in the old shows; it’s hard to believe anyone ever did, with how dramatic and saccharine some of them are. Their messages are often as overblown and humorously forward as the writing and acting. After all, for anyone who didn’t live through the Red Scare of the 1950s, it’s tough to listen to an episode of I Was a Communist for the FBI without thinking about how ironic and silly it sounds now.
But by that same token: Radio dramas are a fantastic and fascinating time capsule of culture. The good ones – the ones that are built on good writing and effective use of sound, instead of just oversimplified ideology – the really good ones really work. They can wrap around a listener in the way that a good book does, in an experience that’s much more primal and visceral and real than even the best movies can accomplish.
At their heart, those old radio dramas are the oldest and most powerful form of fiction that we have: oral storytelling. A well-timed revelation; a bit of manipulation to make a sheet of metal sound like thunder, or air through a pipe sound like a banshee’s wail; a bit of music to set the tone and draw the audience in. Without the distraction of pictures on a screen, your imagination gets to run wild, and with a little help from the production, it creates a more vivid image than anything Hollywood can cook up even today.
It’s that sort of storytelling, that sort of radio show, that I connect to. When I was very young, my father was still in the Navy; he wasn’t always there to tuck me in at night and read me a story. So he recorded himself reading my favorite stories on a cassette tape, and I’d get to drift off to his voice and the sound of the turning pages over the clicking of the deck. When I was older, I still loved to have stories to fall asleep to; one of my favorites was a collection of Greek myths on audio tape, complete with musical interludes. I still listen to a CD collection of a 1980 NPR production of The Hobbit, performed with a full voice cast, music, and sound effects.
And it’s not as though the radio show is some archaic, forgotten medium that has lost any relevance or importance. I’m sure nearly everyone reading this would have at least some familiarity with A Prairie Home Companion, the great American radio program that ran for over forty years on NPR. I spent a great many Saturday nights listening to that show, and other hours listening to its segments on tape or CD.
Today, the podcast has by and large replaced the radio show, but it’s that same idea, just in the new digital format. That same notion carries through: the power and presence of audio, the ability of words and sound to capture a listener’s heart and soul. A good performance can whisk you away, make you believe in whatever story is being told, make you laugh at every comedy and weep with every tragedy, make you clap and dance and sing along to the music.
It may be true that, thanks to the ever-onward march of technology, the heyday of radio has come and gone. It may be the case that we mostly look back on the old dramas with a wry grin at how things used to be. But it’s worthwhile to remember their power. After all, it was a radio drama that convinced people the War of the Worlds was really happening in their own towns.
And who knows? Maybe, in that moment where you have only the words and the music, and your whole conscious thought is filled with the story, the show – Maybe, in that moment, it really is real.
Surprise! This blog post links to one of our upcoming projects: the Live from Lewisburg Variety Show, slated to have its first running on November 19th. The goal of the show is to capture the resonance and sensationalism of radio shows of old, brought up to the modern day. If you’re interested in taking part or learning more, make sure to visit the show’s website: https://www.livefromlewisburg.com/
When I’m not working at the CommUnity Zone as the Social Media and Technology Assistant, one of my main hobbies is playing video games, most frequently online games with friends. It’s a pastime I’ve had since high school: When we weren’t in a position to spend time together in person, several of my friends and I would spend afternoons or evenings together in the digital space, competing or cooperating on a wide variety of games.
In college, I did the same, both maintaining connection to friends from back home – regardless of where they might be at that time – and as a way of spending time with new friends I made at Susquehanna. At the university, it was most often a combined physical and digital affair. We might play a game all together on one console and television, sometimes using the large-screen televisions in the dorms’ public rooms or even “renting” a classroom or lecture hall for an event on the weekends. We’d also often bring our own individual TVs and systems into a shared space and play online games with an in-person presence, joking and talking with each other as we played.
Now, I’m something of an introvert. I’m perfectly capable of putting myself in public situations and performances; I acted in high school and college, and most of my jobs have involved public speaking or social interaction on some level. But I’ve always preferred having a small circle of friends to large gatherings, and I’ve never really been the sort to just go out and try to meet new people on my own, especially in person and in social settings with crowds.
As you might imagine, this means I haven’t made a large number of friends outside of regular interactions like school and work, and in fact most of my friends today are still people I met in high school and college. But the beauty of the interactions I do have, and the pastimes that hold them together, means that I’ve kept in close and regular contact with those friends since we departed from our shared physical spaces.
I’ve also, over the years, met new people through that digital space, and encountered one of the huge advantages it has. Because the interaction is taking place online, through the Internet, anyone anywhere in the world can be part of it. The interaction – the connection – the community – isn’t at all limited by physical proximity. I’m in north-central Pennsylvania, but I have friends from across the country: Alabama, Texas, California, Oregon. I have friends abroad: England, Germany, Romania, even someone who used to live in China.
We are friends in much the same way as any friends who might live down the street from each other would be. We’ve told our stories to each other, moments from our childhood and schooling and everyday lives. We share in our ups and downs, laugh at jokes and discuss more serious topics. We look forward to spending time with each other when we can, and we do plan meeting in person when we’re able; one couple is getting married and has invited us to their wedding, which for some will be our first time seeing each other face to face.
That’s the wonder of the Internet: its ability to allow people to have those connections across hundreds of thousands of miles…
Until it doesn’t.
Last Tuesday night – by that I mean the 29th of June, not the 6th of July – at about 11 PM, I was online with my friends playing a particular game that can take many hours to play to completion. We weren’t necessarily planning to play it all the way through in one sitting, but we’d been playing for a few hours and had no intentions of stopping right away.
Amid the storm that had picked up outside my house, I stepped away while we were taking a break to get a drink and something to eat. When I sat back down at my computer, I was met with silence instead of the sounds of laughing and good-natured ribbing about the game so far. After a minute, my computer finally alerted me of what I already suspected: my home Internet was out.
Thankfully, our modern world supports many avenues for communication, and I used my phone’s data connection to send a brief message to the group that I’d lost my Internet and wouldn’t be back on that night. I encouraged them to continue without me, and said I’d hopefully be able to join them again by the next evening.
Little did I know, that wouldn’t be the case. Instead, my Internet was just restored last night, the 8th, a little after 6 PM. The connection had been down for over a week: over 200 hours of relative silence and inactivity from my home. (I say relative: thanks to the aforementioned data on my phone, I was able to vent my frustration about things in text form.)
The point of this blog post isn’t for me to just talk about my hobby and complain about that incident, of course. During that time – a few days of which were also spent at a family church camp I’ve attended most summers since I was 13 – I became really aware of, and thought a great deal about, the nature of that online connection with friends. It feels almost cliché to talk about how often we take things for granted until they’re gone, but ideas become cliché for a reason, and the reason is usually their universal resonance.
I don’t think we have to imagine what it’s like to suddenly lose your usual connection and communication with others. Since early 2020, we’ve all witnessed that impact firsthand in some way. I think what my recent experience really shows is how important the secondary connections have become, how powerful the Internet can be in allowing for that sense of community and friendship and belonging, and how difficult it can be to lose that.
We live in a world that’s more interconnected than it ever has been, but those connections can be more tenuous than we realize. When we do lose them, if only temporarily, it can be a great opportunity to rediscover just how important relationships and community truly are for our lives.
Hold that feeling, the way I am now, the way I hope to hold it as long as I can. Hold onto how vital connection is. Maintain that connectivity, support those friendships and the community you have, whatever form they might take or whatever medium they might use.
And the next time a storm rolls through, make sure to let your friends know you’ll be back as soon as you can.
Online connections are a huge part of our modern, digital age, and we take no exception to that! Make sure to join us on Facebook by going to facebook.com/lewisburgzone, and you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/CommUnityZonePA. We’re always looking for new faces and friends in-person, too, so feel free to contact us if you’re interested in stopping by our office on Market; we’d love to say hello!
They say that trends and fads are cyclical in history: What’s popular today might be out of fashion tomorrow, but give it enough time and it’ll come back. There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon. Leather jackets, high-waisted jeans, peasant blouses, and more types of clothing have gone in and out of trending styles since their introductions. Words and phrases seem to come and go from the public dialogue, rising and falling on the ever-changing tides of popularity. Some trends move quickly, others slowly.
And late last year, into the beginning of this year, a very strange and long-cycled trend came to pass. In an unusual turn of events, the most modern of systems – the ability of the Internet and video-sharing apps, in this case TikTok, to create viral phenomena that spread like wildfire across the public conscious – was used to resurrect and make popular again a music genre that had by and large faded into obscurity and obsolescence.
Amid a global pandemic and political unrest, in the waning days of 2020, the sea shanty (or, more accurately, sea song) suddenly had an outburst of popularity.
It started with one song, “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” being sung by one voice and offered into the public sphere. But just like the shanties themselves that filled the air of sailing vessels centuries ago, this simple rendition was soon joined by other voices. More and more people across the world joined in with singing that song, and soon other shanties as well. Thousands or even millions of new renditions and duets and choruses have been created as people all across the globe discovered the wonder and fun of this centuries-old musical genre.
I’m no stranger to it myself. I didn’t get immediately involved in the first wave of the sea songs’ new popularity, but I’ve been familiar with them for a long time. Growing up in Massachusetts and having plenty of interest in history and heritage, it’s impossible to think I’d have even reached 10 years old without knowing something about New England’s long history with sailing and whaling. Add to that family who served in the Navy, and a grandfather who makes annual trips with the windjammers that still sail the coast the way they did 300 years ago, and I’ve had at least a little relation to sailing and sea songs for most of my life.
Now, more recently, I’ve had some of my own personal projects related to that era of history, and that culture of sailing in the Ages of Exploration and Colonization. And it really is impossible to divorce that culture from the songs that were such a huge part of it. In an age where oral storytelling was the most common kind, and a setting where a sailor’s voice was the only instrument they might reliably have at hand, those songs were everything.
I’ve been adding songs to playlists for music while I work or drive or just want to relax. I’ve learned and rewritten lyrics, and even recorded myself singing for one of my projects. I’ve shared these songs with family and friends, and caught them humming or whistling or singing along after even a single verse or chorus.
But it’s been a long time since the Age of Sail. Relatively few men and women still ply a trade on board ships at all, let alone on ships driven solely by wind and sail, adrift on the ocean for weeks at a time with no other options for entertainment or respite. So what is it about these songs that can reach across the years and call out to something in our modern, landlocked hearts?
It seems to me that the answer is in the purpose and meaning of the songs: the sensations and experiences they capture, the emotions they spark, the stories they tell. In a blog post from a couple weeks ago, I touched on the importance of music, but I think it’s worth realizing just how much of a cultural touchstone and centerpiece music can be. The oldest instrument we’ve found is a flute dated to be 60,000 years old, likely carved by a Neanderthal in an age we can only imagine. Music has been a part of human history for a long time, and always it has served to inspire us, to fill our hearts and minds with memories not our own.
The shanties and sea songs were no different in that regard, but they were also grounded in the experiences of the men and women who sang them. They likely grew directly from popular folk songs of the day and the oral storytelling traditions of the lands from which those sailors came.
Shanties in particular were work songs. Their simple melodies would have been familiar to many sailors, drawn from popular folk songs, and easy to learn and remember. They were constructed around straightforward verses that often had lyrics that were either plainly descriptive or more or less without any meaning, followed by refrains where all hands would join in both the singing and the work. The rhythm of the shanty was formed entirely around the work to be done, with refrains having obvious places for hauling lines, heaving weights, or pumping water.
The broader category of sea songs – sometimes called forecastle songs or forebitters – saw more use for entertainment and relaxation, and were more largely used for storytelling. And it’s that aspect that I think is what makes them still so relatable and popular, especially in the uncertain world of today. The songs of sailors long at sea were focused on the experiences those sailors knew: the joy of returning to port; the sorrowful resignation of returning to sea; the danger of the ocean, and the rewards it could bring.
Considered in those terms, we can’t relate. But broaden the view and the connection becomes clear. Are our lives so different after all? Don’t we know the perils of an uncertain existence, a world where day-to-day life seems fraught with unknown dangers and where chaos seems to be the rule? Can’t we understand the simple and overwhelming comfort of returning to home, to safety and the familiar? Are we so distanced from the mixed blessings of a life where risk and reward too often meet?
We are all of us sailors and whalers still, forging our own way through a world we rarely understand. We are all of us beset on all sides by waves of uncertainty, with no choice but to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. We don’t always know what will be on the other side of those dark thunderheads. We don’t always have the comforts of home. But we have one another, our fellow passengers and crewmates and family on this voyage of life. We have the songs we sing together, our voices raised in triumph and sorrow and defiance and remembrance and passion and community.
We have our songs, our shanties, our stories. May they ever be raised to the wind and rain, regardless of the years that pass or the lives we lead.
If you, too, would like to join in the community of storytelling and song, then please attend the free concerts offered by the LIVE! from Lewisburg and Music in the Park series. Make sure to also keep an eye out for updates on the LIVE! from Lewisburg Variety Show, which will be our own effort to capture the elation and fun of community entertainment in a format from yester-year.