Why a Singing Festival?
By Elaine Yaw

When trying to explain why Sally Potter wanted to start a singing festival in the Lansing area, no one tells it better than Pat Madden-Roth, Potter’s band mate for 12 years in the trio, Second Opinion.

After all, Pat was with Sally when she got her first taste of Toshi Seeger’s Circle of Song tent at the 1994 Hudson River Clearwater Festival.

“It was a little like an oasis in the desert,” Madden-Roth said of the singing tent, recalling the extraordinarily hot weekend when people doused themselves at hoses, fully dressed, trying to get some relief.

“You would have thought that the last place anyone would want to be was crowded in a tent. But there they were. There was a surreal energy about it; the sound of the harmonies, the power of the volume created by all those voices. It was incredible. We all forgot about the heat.”

Potter didn’t want the experience to be just a memory. She wanted to re-create it, and make it something even bigger. She did just that with last February’s inaugural two-day Mid-Winter Singing Festival.

“If you think of the first time you ever tasted something, like a fabulous cheesecake or something completely delectable, then you might be able to understand why someone like Sally would want to reproduce that experience,” Madden-Roth said. “The experience of being with that many people singing wonderful songs was so good we could taste it. Some people ask for the cheesecake recipe, some people create a singing festival. In fact, she came up with something even better.”

Potter had talked to Bob Blackman about incorporating a singing tent at the National Folk Festival and then the Great Lakes Folk Festival. He took the idea to the Music Programming Committee but committee members didn’t believe a singing tent would fit within the definition of the festival.

She decided to produce her own event. Soon, the idea for a stand-alone singing festival began to take off.

“I thought it was a very exciting idea,” said Blackman, who has a weekly radio show, “The Folk Tradition,” on WKAR. “I have always loved folk concerts where the audience was encouraged to join in, but nowadays most ‘folk’ performers don't do that very much. In the early days of the Ten Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse (mid- to late-1970s), that venue had a national reputation as a great ‘singing club,’ where the audience was always eager to join in.”

The singing festival seemed like a perfect way to get people to make their own music for fun, Blackman said.

He and Potter began meeting and kicking around ideas. “Her excitement was contagious,” Blackman said. Madden-Roth echoed that: “Her energy and enthusiasm for the festival just swept the rest of us along.”

The original plan was to have one night of singing. But once Potter started planning it, the festival expanded to an afternoon of workshops sandwiched between two evening concerts where the audience would do the singing, led by song leaders Joel Mabus, Mark Dvorak, Madden-Roth, Matt Watroba and Robert Jones (each who has many fans in the area who would come out to hear them anytime they played). What made the festival special was that they wouldn’t be up on stage singing alone. They would be on stage to lead hundreds of people singing songs whose lyrics were printed in a program.

No one could predict the tremendous success the first festival had.

“I expected a good turnout for the evening concerts but even then, I would have guessed more like 50 percent or 75 percent capacity instead of one sell-out and one near-sell-out,” said Blackman, who was the emcee for the evening sing-alongs.

In fact, the evenings attracted houses of 540 and 400, and 1,200 people attended the 12 free Saturday afternoon workshops.

“By the time we met to rehearse for the first evening concert - there was no doubt,” Madden-Roth said. “It was magic.”

“The audience seemed excited to be there, relaxed, and very supportive of the whole idea,” Blackman said, recalling his observations from the stage. “I actually felt more of the energy, though, when I'd come out in the audience and sing along with everyone else.”

For the festival to be a success, Potter knew she would need the community to embrace the idea right away. “We needed them to come and sing,” she said, “and they did.”

It helps that the Lansing-area is a community that enthusiastically supports folk music, Blackman said.

“There's a large audience for folk concerts at the Ten Pound Fiddle, the Creole Gallery, the Great Lakes Folk Festival, the East Lansing Art Festival, etc.,” he said. “My radio show and the other folk shows on WKAR, WDBM and WLNZ have helped to develop a large and devoted audience over the last 20 years. Elderly Instruments has attracted a lot of people interested in making their own music. All of these organizations support each other in many ways, which strengthens the overall music scene to everyone's benefit. That creates an environment where a new folk music venture can start up and have a reasonable chance of finding an audience.”

The festival did find an audience, one that will likely come back year after year.

“I suspect that most of the hundreds of people who came last year will be back or will be regretting whatever circumstances might keep them away,” Madden-Roth said. “And those who know they missed something special last year will surely want to check it out this time. Personally, I can't wait. I've been on a diet for most of the year ... I’ve got to taste some more of that singing.”

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