This piece was written by Andrew Johnson

My mom texts me Monday morning to let me know that Tom Petty had been hospitalized after a cardiac arrest. I follow the news off and on the rest of the day, seeing conflicting reports over whether or not he had died. This confusion over Petty’s death, especially following Sunday’s news of 59 people killed in Las Vegas, leaves me feeling particularly helpless and disillusioned with how quickly we as a nation can share bits of information but somehow fail to find shared meaning.

So I leave work a bit early, walk half a mile home, sit down on the living room couch with my acoustic guitar, and strum D-G—G-D-A, the three chord strum for “Free Falling.” My wife is at the dining room table, and my 11-month-old daughter crawls toward me and begins bouncing her legs as she often does when I play the guitar. I sing the verses while looking at her—“She’s a good girl, loves her momma. Loves Jesus and America too”—but when I reach the chorus, I take a deep breath and belt out the words “Now I’m freeeeee…” coming nowhere near hitting the high note.

I’ve never had a pretty voice. Singing alone in my living room with only a baby for company, I’m particularly aware of my insufficient singing. I realize what I really want is to be somewhere singing with others.

When I was twelve, my father’s low-end Martin guitar sat in its case in the basement next to an overhead projector and a box full of song lyrics printed on transparencies. Every Wednesday night a couple dozen high school kids would pack into my parents’ basement for a weekly Young Life club meeting, and I would help out by changing the transparencies on the projector as they sang their way through half a dozen songs. A few of the songs would count as “Christian worship” tunes, but mostly we sang secular and popular music—anything that we all knew well enough to sing out loud together.

I knew every word to “Free Falling” by the time I was eight, and now that I was old enough to hold the large Martin guitar, I began teaching myself chords, always asking my dad for help when I couldn’t figure it out. The A chord is simple: just three fingers straight in a row, holding the strings on the same fret. The G chord isn’t much harder because the hand opens naturally into the chord’s shape. But I struggled with the D chord. “Free Falling” depended on the D, so I was determined to twist and bend my small fingers until it would ring clear when I strummed.

By the time I was in high school, I was the one in front of the club, playing guitar and leading songs. We had moved on to larger basements to accommodate the 100 teenagers that now came weekly. This wasn’t a church youth group, and even though adult leaders gave short talks about Jesus after a few songs, the group was made up mostly of teenagers who had little interest in organized religion but wanted something fun to do on a Wednesday night with their friends. At the time, I was a firm believer, a good evangelical, a borderline fundamentalist, so of course I wanted my friends to convert. But most Wednesdays, I was just happy for all of us to show up, be part of something for a while, and sing our hearts out.

What did we sing? Among other things, a whole lot of Tom Petty. “Learning to Fly,” “ I Won’t Back Down,” “Walls,” honestly probably half of Petty’s catalog (omitting “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” or “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”). But my favorite Petty song to lead was always “Free Falling.” I knew my voice didn’t sound great and I didn’t care. I’d belt out the chorus and see 100 of my friends and peers belting it right back. I never felt confident enough as a performer to start a band or pursue a life in rock-and-roll. But these weekly clubs were something different: gathering a group of people to sing songs that we knew and came to love.

That seems to be part of what made Tom Petty such a powerful force in American music. The songs were simple, the lyrics are straightforward and easy to understand. There was little pomp or complication. This was just American rock-and-roll, plain and simple. Given the decline in American churches, civic groups, and other institutions, it seems there are few communal spaces remaining in American life where people come together for a shared purpose. That’s one of the reasons why the mass shooting at the concert in Las Vegas is so chilling—concerts have remained one of the last public spaces where communal singing takes place. Americans have exited communal life over the past half-century for many reasons, but something still happens when we come together and sing. What a new era of tragedy this is if even our communal singing begins to vanish as a result of increasing fear of public violence.

My daughter is still bouncing on the living room rug. I’ve sung the last off-key chorus of the song and strummed the last chord. She crawls over to the couch, pulls herself up on the cushion, and starts bouncing again. I take it as her call for an encore, so I start strumming the song I’ve been singing to her since she was born: “You’ve got a heart so big, it could crush this town.” From the other room, my wife joins me on the chorus. My daughter squeals. My fingers find the chords almost on their own.