Who is The Ultimate Super Songleader?

Photo courtesy URJ Camp George
Photo courtesy URJ Camp George

By B. Herst

If you’re like me and you spent years at camp you might still tell time in the summer by your unit’s daily schedule. Wake up at seven, T’fillot at seven thirty followed by breakfast and then nikayon. The rest of the day just flows naturally from there.

If you were a songleader you have that first song session of the day after breakfast before cabin cleanup. If you’re a retired (or just an old) songleader you smile when the campers go crazy over the most popular new young guys and girls standing at the front of the dining hall with a shiny guitar. What do they have you didn’t, or don’t, still have? Why are all those new songs so popular? What was wrong with Sim Shalom in A minor and elastic capo’s? What brand is that shiny new guitar of choice everyone is playing?

Bottom line: nothing is like it was.

Having lived through the revolution, I was there for the big bang when Danny and Jeff came on the scene with the clever name Kol B’seder and the great melodies and harmonies. I was there when Debbie A”H made magic happen right in front of your eyes. I can say with conviction, those were the days my friend. Today it seems hand motions dominate song sessions and the musicality is secondary. The song session seems to be a lesson in choreographed movement and the focus on the music, the lyrics and of course the prayers are MIA.

I saw President Obama sing Amazing Grace at the funeral in Charleston. I noticed some beautiful comments on his rendition as it was for many reasons indeed moving to watch and to hear. The President of the United States threw all caution to the wind and dared to sing, in front of the entire world, his own acapella rendition of a great spiritual. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. All the stars lined up for that moment. He didn’t sound like a professionally trained singer but he sounded like a man singing from his heart. Isn’t that what song leaders often do? He seemed to have a sincere feeling for the lyrics. That’s an important trait for a songleader to have. He started in a key which worked for the group and it seems he did it without any musical reference. Nobody played an introduction or even a note for him before he began. No group can sing comfortably or beautifully when the notes are too high, or worse too low. Then there was a talented keyboardist in the background who easily found the right key and offered instrumental support just at the right time, without ever taking away from the group singing experience. As song leaders we know it’s not about our prowess on the guitar that counts. That’s why, the closest thing to an instrumental solo in a song session is a quick tune up and today with those electric gizmo’s everyone clips to the headstock of their guitars it happens on the fly.

President Obama chose a song, effectively led everyone in the song together and created a moving spiritual experience for every person present. Isn’t that what we want to do as song leaders? Someone in the Facebook Community of Song leaders named him the Ultimate Super Songleader. Not a bad observation.

So while I laud the President’s performance, earlier the same week, I actually saw the real Ultimate, Super Songleader.

Two days before I heard the President sing Amazing Grace in Charleston, I found myself in Milwaukee to see the Rolling Stones. I’m not a Deadhead when it comes to the Stones, but I am an admirer and appreciate their place in American and rock and roll history. Seeing them in person was something I always wanted to do. Now let’s talk about who’s really the Super Songleader.

After tapping my feet to Buddy Guy for an hour I was ready to see Mick and the guys come out on stage. There’s a break which must deliberately be longer than necessary. Nobody goes too far from their seats; just far enough to buy more beer, and being we were in Milwaukee, beer was for sale within 20 yards of every seat! Maybe that’s the plan or maybe the long break is to peak anticipation in the audience. People talk to strangers who turn out to be stranger than you could imagine. Older people are looking for folks older than they are and feeling vindicated when they find them. You hear a few hits on a snare and kick drum then wait 20 more minutes while nothing else happens. Finally the announcer introduces the band and we’re instantly off and running. The excitement doesn’t build, it blasts off and you find yourself standing for the next 2 hours.

I expected to analyze some chord progressions, I anticipated envying guitars and other equipment on stage and I knew for sure I’d be in awe of the band. I didn’t expect to watch the show as a songleader. No, I didn’t lead anyone in song, but the Rolling Stones did. How is it thousands of people paid thousands of dollars to come see a band they love, to hear them sing the music they love, and spend the night together singing along to every song? I thought I paid money to hear the Rolling Stones sing the Rolling Stones? I guess not. There was a unity in the audience. Everyone was excited. It was, l’havdil, the Friday night song session of the year. (It was Tuesday) Everyone knew the words, and the melodies. Everyone sang together, fast songs and slow songs. Everyone moved in unison in their seats and sang with unified voices, and with harmony, and with spirit, and everyone was part of an intense spiritual experience. Our leader carefully chose his song list and his co-song leader’s played and sang right along on cue. Everyone left, maybe temporarily a bit hearing impaired, but certainly better from the experience. It was uplifting, it was spiritual, and most of all, it was great. With all of my own expectations for the evening aside, I didn’t expect to see the Rolling Stones from the perspective of a songleader, but as a song leader in the audience, it was fantastic.

So I’m sorry Mr. Obama but I have to nominate Mick as the Super Ultimate Songleader. But what works for him won’t work for us. We don’t need electronics and loads of equipment on our “stage” to lead songs. We don’t need dazzling lights and fog machines. We need to choose songs that have history and meaning and make those words meaningful to our campers. We need to focus on the music and not the choreography because music is the pen of the soul*.

When it comes to the Rolling Stones, it’s all about the Rolling Stones. However that’s not our way. When we’re leading songs, it’s not about us. It’s about the group and how we’re going to make each song session a memorable experience, which works along with, and adds to, the collective memory of the camp experience.

There were 23,000 fans, strangers, singing about a lack of satisfaction that night but they seemed to leave very satisfied. It still doesn’t compare to a beautiful three part Yedid Nefesh or a rousing L’cha Dodi sung with 23,000 or even just 50 campers, or a few of my closest friends.

* “If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “then song is the pen of the soul.”

Benyamin (Bruce) Herst was a song leader on the staff at OSRUI from 1974-1982. He is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and is an active musician, music teacher, performer and song leader in the community. Among his many musical endeavors he provides music therapy to children and adults with disabilities at KESHET in Chicago. Contact him at benyaminherst@gmail.com.

Copyright 2015 Benyamin Herst