March 27, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Silence, songs and solace: Music in the time of coronavirus
Almost two decades ago, Martin Döring and I did a project on ‘the social and cultural impacts of foot and mouth disease’. Foot and mouth disease is an infectious and sometimes fatal viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals, such as cattle, sheep, pigs and so on. In 2001 a major outbreak of this disease devastated farming and farmers in the UK and left visible scars on the countryside in the shape of burning pyres of animal carcasses, closed farms and much more. The impacts were huge in certain communities, but they were nothing compared to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic now and into the future. (If you want to read about these experiences of 2001, please consult this book)
One of the things we noted during the foot and mouth disease outbreak was that children, farmers, vets, anybody really, wrote poems about their experiences. Here is an example of such a poem, one of many we studied in the project, that will resonate to some extent with people in the current crisis:
Foot and Mouth
No children are playing
down in the lane.
No dog owners walking
their pets in the rain.
The parks have all closed
and the footpaths are blocked;
the farms are all shut
with their gates firmly locked.
All racing is cancelled,
the countryside’s still;
no cows in the pasture
on top of the hill.
The lambs have all vanished
the pigsties are bare.
The stench of burnt flesh
fills the damp morning air.
Now it’s spring 2020 and some people are, again, starting to write poems or circulate poems already written, together with dystopian fiction, about the novel coronavirus outbreak that directly affects humans, not ‘just’ animals’.
In the UK, the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, for example, has published a poem entitled ‘Lockdown’ in which he links the current pandemic back to the plague and the village of Eyam which chose to isolate itself after bubonic plague was discovered there, so as to prevent the infection spreading. In 2001 the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, also published a poem about the foot and mouth disease outbreak and farmers isolating their farms. It’s entitled “No Entry”….
Poems are not yet as conspicuous during this pandemic as they were during the foot and mouth crisis. Instead of witnessing an outbreak of poetry, we are rather witnessing an outbreak of music. It started in China, emerged also in Italy, then France and Germany and is spreading all over the world.
During the foot and mouth crisis the silence was maddening, as it is now with almost all the world in ‘lockdown’. In a collection of foot and mouth poems, one can read for example: “Dead and stunned, silence gnaws, At the very soul of the countryside, Like a hungry rat, Or a sleek raven on patrol.” (Crowden 2001). Perhaps the music that is emerging now is there to dispel that silence – to mask yet another ‘silent spring’ – but there is more to it, as we shall see.
An outbreak of music
We thought it would be a good idea to take a look at this music – but, oh dear, there is so much of it. So we can only scratch the surface of this social and cultural phenomenon. We also wondered how to sort our emerging collection. One could do it by countries, by genre, by purpose, by location (lots of balconies in Romance countries and also Germany), by composers, instruments, such as cello, piano and much much more, performers, flashmobs, audiences….and so on.
When Covid-19 was still very far away in China and didn’t even have a name yet, we noticed this ‘quaint’ use of song to keep up morale or keep the spirit up amongst quarantined people in Wuhan. When people in Italy broke into song and then in France, this felt much less ‘quaint’. Now this has become normalised and ‘ensocialised’ all over the world, together with quarantine, isolation, and social and physical distancing. There are even lists of the best songs being compiled.
What can people do to socially and emotionally connect when they can’t congregate, hug, kiss, exchange handshakes and talk face to face? They can of course go and phone each other and also use social media, such as ‘facetime’ and they are doing this in their millions. But they can also bridge physical distances by sound and music. The important thing is that they can sing together while being apart!!
They can, of course also engage with music, individually, where formerly they would have enjoyed it together. Music festivals and live music in all its forms are being replaced by streaming and so on to provide income for musicians – there are even “no concert tickets” currently on sale in Germany with the aim to help musicians cope financially with the corona outbreak. Orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra also make music available for free of course – in this case 600 of its concert recordings. We focus here on the spontaneous and community use of music, as for example in this apart together version of ‘Ode to Joy‘ played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. (HT @sophiacol – and it made both of us, Sophia and me, Brigitte, cry apart together!) (and, added on 26 April, this at-home gala of ‘Va, pensiero’, which made my sister and me cry apart together)
This use of sounds of music to bridge silence, physical distance, social distance, social isolation and desolation found expression in hashtags like #CovidSolidarity #togetherathome, #songsofcomfort, #youllneverwalkalone and many more.
We won’t sort all the material that one could potentially accumulate as systematically as one could. Instead we focus on what the singing was for.
Some songs were written and shared in order to raise awareness and educate people about the virus and the most effective ways to deal with it, namely hand-washing and keeping one’s distance, such as these rap songs and this song written by school children for other children. Here is a wonderful song about not shaking hands. This message has also been illustrated in dance. There is also a great Corona virus alert song by Ugandan musicians Bobi Wine and Nubian Li. H/T @CTimmermann.
Some songs address practicalities of following the new social rules beyond hand-washing, for example not to buy more than you need, to give family and houseplants attention and clean properly, like this wonderful (satirical) song by the Danish vocal group MAGT.
And here is a song from Brigitte’s hometown of Nottingham, where a Junior Doctor from the Queen’s Medical Centre, just across the road from the University, sings her advice about coronavirus!
But most of the songs and music were there to create a feeling of solidarity and social proximity, such as these Germans singing the Italian revolutionary song ‘Bella Ciao’ to express solidarity with Italians, which are so badly affected by the pandemic. (More info here) Bono wrote a song “Let Your Love Be Known” for Italians under lockdown which was sung across rooftops. And much more, for example the Spanish police driving into streets and playing popular songs on their guitars!
Some songs were sung even across nations such as the football hymn “You’ll never walk alone”, which was played on over 150 radio stations across Europe and all over the social media. In Denmark – Pernille’s home country -, the most popular national football anthem Re-Sepp-Ten was performed by the satirical vocal group ‘MAGT’ with a new text that cheers on all the healthcare workers.
Many songs were of course patriotic songs, such as this ballad sung in Siena, but often music was used to counter racism and stigma. Music, like science, knows no boundaries and goes beyond meaning including emotion and affect.
There is also music encouraging people to rally round, to play their part in the pandemic, such as this performance by the New Zealand National Orchestra (the players are all at home).
Much of this music was there to bring comfort to those trying to deal with the pandemic. This aspect of the spread of music was exemplified in particular by a Yo-Yo Ma who “has been posting videos of himself performing short pieces and encouraging other musicians — of all levels — around the world to join him in offering ‘Songs of Comfort.’” (PBS) In an interview he spoke of the virus knowing no boundaries, much like music, and the healing and soothing power of music in a time of global fear.
Others bring musical comfort to people who can’t celebrate their birthdays (and there are many more videos out there). Other people made pandemic playlists to cheer people up. And others still brought ‘balm’ to the soul by composing songs on their instrument of choice, such as Steve Martin’s ‘Banjo Balm’.
Ralph McTell, who wrote the legendary 1969 song Streets of London, has added a new verse to the song and asks people for kindness, especially towards homeless people. Listen to it and be kind! Here is the new verse:
“In shop doorways, under bridges, in all our towns and cities
You can glimpse the makeshift bedding from the corner of your eye
Remember what you’re seeing barely hides a human being
We’re all in this together, brother, sister, you and I.”
And finally, all over the world, people are saying or rather singing ‘Thank You’ to all those who keep us safe, alive, healthy, fed, clean and so on and put their own lives at risk, even die. Here, for example, German people sing a hymn out of their windows, while in the city of Hamburg – where Martin lives – each evening at 9pm people are clapping on their balconies as a big thank you to those working in hospitals, driving busses or keeping supplies up in supermarkets. Last night the whole of the UK did this to thank the NHS and there are thousands more examples across the world. Here is one from the secluded island of Veligandu!
And here we have Italians playing the Chinese national anthem to thank China for providing aid to Italy!
In many countries songs are gradually being replaced by silence, either because normality is gradually and precariously returning, as in Wuhan, or else because the horror of the situation, as in Italy, is just too great. However, music also encourages us to look forward to better times.
This one is a Norwegian song called “we will meet” written by Hans-Olav Mørk and composer Hilde Trætteberg Serkland. It is about meeting in a café and a church when this is over. The second verse is about promising each other to share what we learned when this is over, and the third one says that we already know the answer: that to love each other is to carry burdens when someone else has too much to carry and lift somebody up when they have fallen.
To end this potentially endless blog post, we come back to poems and children, our hope for the future. This one, by Louise Gribbons, ends on a hopeful note that we will take better care of the world after we have given it a ‘spring clean’.
The Time We Spring-Cleaned the World
(Poem for children)
The world it got so busy,
There were people all around.
They left their germs behind them;
In the air and on the ground.
These germs grew bigger and stronger.
They wanted to come and stay.
They didn’t want to hurt anyone –
They just really wanted to play.
Sometimes they tried to hold your hand,
Or tickled your throat or your nose.
They could make you cough and sneeze
And make your face as red as a rose.
And so these germs took over.
They started to make people ill,
And with every cough we coughed
More and more germs would spill.
All the queens and kings had a meeting.
“It’s time to clean the world up!” they said.
And so they had to close lots of fun stuff,
Just so these germs couldn’t spread.
We couldn’t go to cinemas
Or restaurants for our tea.
There was no football or parties,
The world got as quiet as can be.
The kids stopped going to school,
The mums and dads went to work less.
Then a great, big, giant scrubbing brush
Cleaned the sky and the sea and the mess!
Dads started teaching the sums,
Big brothers played with us more,
Mums were in charge of homework
And we read and played jigsaws galore!
The whole world was washing their hands
And building super toilet roll forts!
Outside was quiet and peaceful,
Now home was the place for all sports.
So we played in the world that was home
And our days filled up with fun and love,
And the germs they grew smaller and smaller
And the sun watched from up above.
Then one morning the sun woke up early,
She smiled and stretched her beams wide.
The world had been fully spring cleaned,
It was time to go back outside!
We opened our doors oh so slowly
And breathed in the clean and fresh air.
We promised that forever and always
Of this beautiful world we’d take care!
Let’s all look forward to that day when we can open our doors again to the world and to each other and remember what we learned during the days of the pandemic: Be kind to each other and the world out there.