Village Fire pic of Annie Zylstra teaching. photo by Yushi Zhang

Village Fires and Singing Rabbits

by Alyson Ewald

“You went where?” My brother’s voice on the phone sounds confused.

“Village Fire. It’s a kind of song camp. We’re hosting one at Dancing Rabbit, too, in September.”

“What’s a song camp?”

I pause. What is a song camp?

Annie Zylstra teaches original songs at Village Fire, with Christina and Alyson (center left in black and pink) under her spell. Photo credit: Yushi Zhang

It’s waking up gently at sunrise to a few people singing a morning round as they walk through the campground.

It’s drifting to sleep in my tent with the sound of faraway voices melding and lifting.

It’s leaning closer to the person next to me during a song, to hear exactly how our different parts create something tangy and new.

It’s watching kids run across a field making giant bubbles and singing our praise to the teenagers as they return from a rain-drenched hike.

It’s learning powerful new protest songs, sweet lullabies, and songs that celebrate and mourn, raise me from sadness, and name what I’m going through. Songs that accompany life.

It’s falling in love with everyone, because what we are is so poignant and brief.

I’m smiling a little now, remembering, but I’m still not sure what to tell my brother. “Song camp is … what kept me alive this summer,” I finally answer.

“Good thing there’s another one this fall,” he says.

    * * * * * * *

I’ve never called myself a singer. I don’t have any training, and I don’t perform except for fun. I have always liked singing along with music on the radio while washing dishes or riding in the car. And I love myself a good karaoke night.

But in the past decade or so, our community has begun to learn how song can amplify what’s most important in life, and strengthen our connections no matter what’s going on. Gradually, singing together has become an integral part of our culture. We do it not only on birthdays, but also when people are dying, getting married, sharing a meal, or starting a meeting.

Along the way we’ve learned a new way of singing together: with our voices as the only instruments, and with no books, devices, or lyric sheets. Our heads are up and we’re listening with our eyes and ears wide open, the same way we learned to talk. Listening this way, we have collected an astonishing number of songs—a song for every aspect of life, with new ones being made up all the time.

Songs about the ocean, the mountains, work, play, love, pain. Songs for shouting with the kids and songs to sing slowly over and over until we forget we’re even singing. Songs with simple lyrics that anyone can remember. Songs where we all sing in unison and songs where we call and echo each other. Songs with blazing harmonies that make our hearts hum.

It turns out there’s this whole movement called community singing, with song groups forming in communities across the world. People come together to teach and learn songs, and they bring those songs back home to weave into their lives and their culture.

You know that old saying, “If you can talk you can sing?” These events are not just for “special” people who are “real singers.” They’re for everyone. Kids, elders, teens, all genders, the whole human race. When the song leader takes time teaching each part until it’s really solid and then brings us in at the perfect moment, some kind of grace happens: all the voices carry each other. It doesn’t matter if I fumble the words or even lose the tune—someone nearby is holding it, and before I even have time to feel embarrassed we’re carrying it together again.

Village Fire lasted less than a week in June, but every time we sing those songs I smell the summer rain and feel the warmth of the evening bonfire again.

Yes, it’s a good thing that Singing Rabbit, our very own song camp, is coming up soon. Too bad my brother won’t be there.

Will you?


Alyson Ewald has spent over twenty-five years leading environmental and educational programs. She serves as a village baker, a facilitator of the social dimension of a global course in sustainable design, and a consultant and trainer for communities strengthening their governance and justice systems. In 2005 she co-founded Red Earth Farms, a homesteading community in northeast Missouri, U.S., where she lives with her partner, young daughter, and other creatures.


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