A view from the seats

The snow turned to sleet and back to snow again as I headed for East Lansing. Why would anybody in her right mind go out on such a miserable Friday winter's night just to sing with a bunch of strangers?

As I turned into the Hannah Community Center parking lot, I realized the answer. The place was packed. Presenting my ticket at the door, I was hit by a wall of sound: bluesman Robert Jones and a full theater belting out "No Matter How She Done It" together. I had my answer.

I was late, but I had made it to the first annual Mid-Winter Singing Festival! My shoulders started to unclench from the stressful drive as I settled into my dream of an evening's entertainment: not listening to a favorite performer at a concert, but singing along, full-throttle, making up my own harmonies without irritated stares from my neighbors because they were all doing the same.

Mike Agranoff's recent "Fanning the Flames" column in the magazine Sing Out! promoted community singing, and I hope many readers were moved to invite some friends over for an evening's singing in front of the fire. I had in fact started a song circle in my own home only four months before, and with a typical monthly attendance of a dozen, I was satisfied with its progress…but this was forty times as good! Where did such an enormous event come from?

A clue to the answer to that question appeared on the first page of the program.. Toshi Seeger's Circle of Song tent at the 1994 Hudson River Clearwater Revival Festival, which promoted group singing instead of performance, had made a deep impression on the mind of Sally Potter, then one-third of the female trio Second Opinion. When Second Opinion took its turn in the song tent ("Harmony all over the place," she noted. "The tent was packed. The sound was overwhelming."), she'd noticed five women sitting on the ground, right in front of the stage. When she stopped by two days later, those same women were still there. With six other stages and dozens of big-name performers all over the Clearwater grounds, that handful of women had never left the singing tent. Asked, one replied, "We read a flyer about this folk festival. When we got here, we found this tent. I guess we have been here every day. We love to sing." She paused. "Isn't that what you're supposed to do at a folk festival?"

Her answer stuck with Potter. "Why not a festival where every person sings every song?" she imagined. 

The audience sings during the 2003 festival.

Seven years later, when Second Opinion held its farewell concert, the woman's words came back to Sally Potter. The trio had rented a huge auditorium for one last fling with their fans, and the fans responded with lusty singalongs on every song they'd ever recorded. The house was full of music, not three amplified voices, but 850. It was plain to Potter that the audience didn't just love Second Opinion and its renditions of those songs; it loved the songs so much it had adopted them for its own. She knew she wanted to recreate that experience one day.

The opportunity to turn that memory into reality turned up in Potter's backyard in 2002. The City of East Lansing had renovated an aging middle school into a community center, complete with a magnificent 514-seat theater. She called a couple of singers to test the waters, and when they said they'd love to lead songs at such an event, she called the city and booked the whole building a year in advance for January 31 and February 1, 2003.

The first Mid-Winter Singing Festival featured two evenings of songs led by major folk performers from the Great Lakes region - people already known for their singalong savvy: Mark Dvorak from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music and the group Weavermania!; Potter's former bandmate Pat Madden-Roth; versatile folk veteran Joel Mabus; and two Detroit-area artists, bluesman Robert Jones and Matt Watroba, who calls himself a community singer. After each submitted a list of songs they'd like to lead, Potter and Madden-Roth compared, compiled, and constructed two different sets of songs, one for each evening sing. Professionals all, they actually rehearsed all those "songs everybody knows" and discovered that they knew many of them differently; compromises were struck, and the "official" lyrics went to press for the programs.

The leaders agreed that there should be a theme song, and the old hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing?" seemed a natural choice. Joel Mabus wrote a new third verse that captured people's thoughts as the United States approached war with Iraq. (Click here to read Joel's verse)

Besides the two evenings of singing, 1200 Festival participants spent Saturday in a range of free workshops led by the song leaders and other folk artists. There were lyric sheets for every workshop, and every participant got to sing every song.
Poets Bob Rentschler and Ruelaine Stokes presented "Finding Your Voice." Wanda Degen and Kitty Donohoe did "Songs of Michigan." Americana singers Jim Hall & Cindy Morgan taught "Old Time and Bluegrass Favorites," while Dvorak did a children's concert and led "The Spontaneous Folk Ensemble."

Madden-Roth touched a nerve with her "Songs of Peace and Justice" and joined former bandmates Potter and Betsy Clinton for a harmony singing workshop. Jones, who is also a clergyman, led "Songs of Work and Worship in the African-American Tradition" and linked up with Watroba to explore the roots of American folk music in Africa and Europe. Watroba also took on "Contemporary Folk Favorites," while Mabus expounded on "Rudiments of Harmony" and "Singing Southern."

Unitarian Church Music Director Rachel Alexander spent her workshop time preparing a Festival Choir that drew over 70 participants and sang two songs, "Peace Is" (Fred Small) and "Would You Harbor Me" (Ysaye Barnwell), at the Saturday sing. Bill Henson, who has directed children's choirs and the Greater Lansing Gay Men's Chorus, prepared a Community Youth Ensemble which sang "Take It from Dr. King," by Pete Seeger.

Lunch was available from Lou and Harry's Deli for those who hadn't brought their own. The artists' CDs were on sale for those who wanted an audio souvenir of the occasion.

Involving younger people has been an issue for the aging folk music community, but the Mid-Winter Singing Festival drew a fair proportion of youthful participants. Joel Mabus reported, "I met a teenage boy after the show who was just beaming. He said he had never had an experience like that before in his life." Even in the "folk world," Mabus continued, "there's been a disconnect between entertainer and audience in too much of even our better music." But here, he noted, "The audience was not an 'audience,' but truly 'in concert' with those on stage Sales of tickets for the evening sings funded the whole event. The afternoon workshops were free to encourage people to come and sing, regardless of their income. (And, notes Potter, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for next year's Festival and earn free admission!)

How were the workshops? Pat Madden-Roth offered a handout of lyrics ranging from spirituals and an Irish miners' strike song to '60s civil rights protests and Malvina Reynolds's "God Bless the Grass." The room was packed, and a pre-teen boy's request for "Blowin' in the Wind" proved that the Festival was meeting an urgent need. There were spontaneous new verses, too; singing "peace… between Mohammed and young Sam" kept us in the moment.

The Rev. Robert Jones took the time to make sure we understood the call-and-response format and why "Berta" - Roberta, Alberta - turns up in so many African-American songs. It was especially appealing to watch the youngest members of this workshop's crowd discover their own musical roots.

By far the largest workshop I attended was the Spontaneous Folk Ensemble. Mark Dvorak asked if anybody else had brought an instrument, which garnered two guitars and a flute to supplement his banjo. That gave him a chance to promote face-to-face tuning: "Take the time to listen to one another, and then go from there." Songs proposed by this crowd quickly got off the prepared pages, starting with "Jimmy Crack Corn" and never looking back. I think not having the words in front of us made us listen more closely to each other. Like most of the workshops, the music never stopped.

How good was it? We generated so much heat we had to open the windows - and this was February in Michigan!

The Festival gave people an opportunity to sing songs they love, but it also presented the chance to learn and sing songs in less familiar genres. People who love contemporary folk songs had a wonderful time with Matt Watroba, while others had a lot of fun "Singin' Southern" with Joel Mabus. Looking back, I could have learned more about bluegrass, or picked up some songs about Michigan. But I ran out of hours in the day. With the workshop offerings doubled for next year, I'm tempted to invest in a self-cloning device so I can attend more.

Asked what they liked best about the Festival, people in the audience gave the same answers as the song leaders: The fact that we were all singing together. Mabus and Madden-Roth both reported the same highlight. "Toward the end of night one," said Mabus, "Robert Jones began leading 'We Shall Overcome' simply and with dignity. A moment later the whole room was on its feet, and the rafters ringing." Added Madden-Roth, "He drew us into that song in a way that seemed to illuminate our collective yearning for justice and peace. As we sang, we knew that we would overcome someday. He had us sing the words 'Christian, Jew and Muslim' as the last verse." "Tears flowed," concluded Mabus. Perhaps they couldn't see through their tears that most of us in the hall had linked hands as we sang.

Will there be a second annual Mid-Winter Singing Festival? You bet: February 6 and 7, 2004. Expanded plans include twenty free workshops, adding topics like rounds, songs in Spanish, jazz and shape-note singing, as well as a Youth Choir which will perform at a Saturday afternoon Community Sing with Sally Rogers. Evening sing tickets will be $15, $12 for folksong society members, and $10 for students and children under 12.

Three producers coordinated their efforts to put the first Mid-Winter Singing Festival together. The Ten Pound Fiddle Coffehouse, concert arm of the Lansing Area Folk Song Society, was responsible for sound in each workshop room and production of the evening sings: selling tickets, promotion, and providing an army of volunteers. The City of East Lansing hosted the event and funded the free children's show as part of its children's concert series. Sally Potter and friends, including her business RePlay Sports, assembled the workshops and ironed out the details.

But Potter doesn't want this to end in East Lansing. "It would be great if every community had its own festival of singing! People love the idea, and they came to this first festival in droves." She's eager to share what she learned producing the 2002 Festival so the idea can spread. "If I can be of help to any person or organization thinking about producing a singing festival, please call me (517.267.0410)!"

As Watroba noted, "This festival was an absolute highlight of my career as a community singer." Dvorak said, "The experience deepened my belief in the power of music." All of us in the crowd felt the same way. How can we keep from singing?

Mary Postellon learned to sing at Girl Scout camp. To join her song circle or find out about starting your own, email mpostellon@hotmail.com.

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