The U.S. had entered into World War I in April the year before. By October 1918, the country was engaged in a battle against a pandemic that came to be known as the “Spanish Flu,” although it originated in Kansas. There was not much to sing about.
And yet, in Minneapolis, thousands raised their voices in song at local parks in the sultry summer nights. Started to bolster residents’ patriotic fervor, these “community sings” continued for nearly a half-century until 1956.
The first community sing was held in 1913, put together by Thaddeus Philander Giddings, supervisor of music for the Minneapolis Public Schools. An Anoka native, he had devised his own method of teaching elementary classroom music that was used nationwide until at least the 1940s. The concert was held at Logan Park; 250 school children kicked off the event by singing “America.” The June 16, 1913 Minneapolis Daily News gushed, “Minneapolis has taken to the park song concerts like wildfire. … The crowd that attended the Logan Park festival last night was estimated at 15,000 people. They joined in the spirit of the concert with a will after they began to realize its purpose.”
The community sings grew in number and attendance. The Minneapolis Tribune partnered with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to organize the concerts and offer prizes to parks that attracted the largest crowds, sang the loudest or behaved themselves (“deportment”). By the 1920s, when Harry Anderson, Sr. took over as concertmaster, concerts were held every weeknight in various parks throughout the city for six weeks throughout the summer.
According to the April 13, 1946 issue of Billboard, Anderson was paid $10 per sing. He discovered the Andrews Sisters through a community sing.
Kirsten Delegard of the Historyapolis Project wrote, “During the 1920s and 1930s, the ‘sings’ became enormous community happenings. Before air-conditioning or television, Minneapolitans lived in the parks on warm summer evenings, sometimes sleeping outside overnight when the heat in their homes became unbearable.”
The 1921 Park Board annual report listed the parks that hosted community sings and their attendance records for the summer: Columbia Park, 5,000; Maple Hill (Beltrami), 3,600; Bottineau, 8,700; Logan Park, 16,300; Windom Park, 10,990. The report calculated the cost of presenting all the concerts at all the parks at $19,383.53. At 600,000 people, it averaged out to 3 cents apiece.
Competition between Logan and Windom was especially fierce, with each neighborhood trying to out-attend and out-sing the other.
In an article he submitted to The American City in 1922, J.A. Ridgway, Park Board secretary wrote, “Nothing that Minneapolis has ever done for the pleasure of its people has seemed to reach their hearts more than the concerts and sings. The community sing feature is something in which they can all have a part.”
In his book, City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks, David C. Smith noted the park board had to eliminate music from its budget during the Great Depression from 1932-1936. “Local utility companies and Holt Motor Company stepped in to keep community sings going, but the singing was accompanied only by an amplified piano instead of a band,” he wrote.
The sings continued through World War II. Audubon Park resident Iris Lueck lived with her sister near Logan Park at that time. She recalled, “There was a little store on the corner where you could get an ice cream cone. A band would play for a while, and then they’d start the singing.”
The concerts began with “America” and ended with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Sandwiched in between were old chestnuts such as “Bicycle Built for Two” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” with some hymns thrown in to fill out the program. People were encouraged to sing, whether they had a singing voice or not. With thousands around you, you probably couldn’t hear yourself sing anyway.
In 2013, Harry Anderson, Jr., recalled, “thousands of people singing, some of them maybe not the best, but you never knew it because it sounded wonderful. When you have several thousand people singing, you can’t hear any bad ones, they’re all good.”
Sings were not held in 1946, when the U.S. was in the midst of a polio epidemic.
In City of Parks, Smith wrote, “Community sings finally passed from the park scene in 1957 when they were replaced with teen dances at several parks. In 1956, community sings were held at only three parks as attendance dwindled. The teen dances were poorly attended, too. Most park board entertainment could no longer compete with the newest form of amusement: television.”
Betty Tisel, one of the founders of Minnesota Community Sings, a group that is trying to revive community sings, has said, “Community singing feeds us so that we can go out and keep on trying to make the world a better place. . . Singing in a group also raises your level of oxytocin, which makes you feel good and trust others.”
J.A. Ridgway concluded his 1922 essay with these words: “In these trying times of political and class strife, this seems to be a pleasure in which all classes in a community can participate with enjoyment.”
In this age of coronavirus and political strife, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to sing about. Perhaps we need to bring community sings back to our parks. With social distancing, of course.
Sources: The Playground, published monthly for the Playground and Recreation Association of America, Cooperstown, NY; Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners of the City of Minneapolis, Volume 40, 1922; “Community Singing in Minneapolis,” MPR News, May 17, 2013; Musical America, Volume 28, p. 103, 1918; The Historyapolis Project, lakewoodcemetery.org.
Special thanks to MPRB Archivist Katelyn Morken.
Below: Community Sing at Logan Park, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Reflections, mndigital.org) 1921 Logan Park Award. The park also received a congratulatory letter from President Warren Harding. (Photo courtesy MPRB archives)