Music: Listening for Community

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Feb 19, 2018 / 0 comments

Community. The people who live on the same street, in the same neighborhood. People you see every week at the market. Those you know through your work. Your family. Friends of the heart. Passing acquaintances. The many communities of shared interests and shared histories to which each person belongs, in physical, geographical life and in the wide variety the internet offers help share and define identity. If things go well, community is a source of strength and support in hard times. Life often presents challenges to building and maintaing respectful community, though. With those ideas in mind, here are several songs to encourage thinking about such matters.

Music: Listening for Community

Tommy Sands comes from Rostrevor in County Down, Northern Ireland. That is a county which has seen more than its share of division caused by the Troubles, the strife across communities in that part of the world. Sands has recorded an album of songs addressing that directly, called Arising from the Troubles. This song, however comes from a different recording, one he chose to call after the song itself, Let the Circle Be Wide. Let the circle be wide round the fireside, shake the hand of the man from the foreign land, listen to the girl who has stories to tell, there are no strangers here... indeed.

Community can sometimes be a passing moment, but no less vivid for that. That is an aspect Steve Goodman caught in his song The City of New Orleans. It's about a train journey, one that moves from Chicago in the American midwest all the way south to New Orleans. Flickering images of communities the train passes through form the heart of the song, which has been recorded by many artists, including Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash. Goodman, who wrote a number of songs about baseball and several country hits, had more success as a songwriter than as an artist. He passed on in the early 1980s, dying young of leukemia. This is his version of the song. One place you may find it is on the compilation album called Steve Goodman. The train route was on its way to being cancelled when he wrote the song, but Amtrak has since brought back the route and the name.

Ireland is a complicated country. Beautiful, yes, and with a complex history. Both those things are taken into account poetically in Song for Ireland, sung here by Mary Black. The video gives a nod to that too, opening with the first bit of the song as Black sang it for the arrival of President Clinton in Ireland as the peace process was being negotiated in 1995, before moving into concert video. Tommy Sands (the man you met above) at one point decided the negotiations needed a bit of positive input from music. Black was one of those he asked to sing outside the building where negotiations were taking place. Her father came from Northern Ireland and her mother from the Republic; Black understood the situation. "Any time you can get two people listening to and liking the same song, then for the space of that song they forget about their divisions," she said in a later conversation about that time. This is one of the songs she sang. You may find it on her album 25 Years 25 Songs.

Claire Lynch explores a time honored story of community in the song Go and Do the Same. The story of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament is given a bluegrass take and extended into the present day. Lynch is an award winning singer and songwriter -- you may find this on one of her earlier albums called Friends for a Lifetime. To listen to what she's been doing recently, you will also want to seek out her latest release, North by South.

Community begins one on one, really, and most often that is how it is made stronger, too. We come and go in each other's lives and communities, and yet, there is lasting connection, too. That is part of what Carrie Newcomer celebrates in her song The Gathering of Spirits. "We're never really all that far from those we love and miss... we'll take up where we left off when we all meet again," she sings. Newcomer has recorded the song on several albums, including one for which it is the title track. Most recently, she included it in a concert recording, Live at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

To read about ideas for building and rebuilding community, take a look at What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities, One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open Mike Night at a Time, by Dar Williams. Williams explores changes and challenges to community in Beacon, New York, Moab, Utah, Carrboro, North Carolina, and five other American towns. It's a thought provoking read.

Other stories in this series....

Music for a Winter's Day

Music for a Winter's Night

Three Feet or So: Music and Creating Positive Change in the World

Geography of Hope: Music of Immigrants and Refugees

Autumn: Music of Harvest and Home

Music for Reflection

Music for a Winter's Eve

Music for Winter's Changes


Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road.