Old Chestnuts & Black Walnuts Newsletter

January 1996

Concerts Concerts Concerts Jack Cole

The New Year seems to have brought folk music back in full force! I have a bigger-than-ever listing of upcoming events at the end of this letter - hope to see some of you in attendance!

But what has me so excited I might burst is the very first Old Chestnuts House Concert, which will happen on April 27!! If you saw them at the Eaglewood Earth Festival, or heard their version of Northwest Passage (edited by the CBC!) on the Stan Rogers tribute program, or noticed their East Coast Music Awards nominations for album and group of the year, then you already know that you must not miss....Modabo in concert at 111 Chestnut Street!! This is a real scoop for us - these three guys from New Brunswick aren't famous in Ontario yet, but that will happen. Their mixture of voices, guitar, flute and percussion is heavenly, whether it's an original song (the CD is great) or a cover of Stan, or CSN or The Beatles. They're in Ontario to play Harbourfront the first weekend in April, then moving up to us for the last weekend. Imagine, being one of about 40 people to sit in the living room and be personally entertained and chat with them, or one among hundreds at Harbourfront! Tickets will be going on sale at the next OCSS (yes, members get first dibs!) for $14, which will include munchies, and probably a warm-up Song Circle or concert by some members.

I have a couple of other artists considering offers to play here. If this first concert is a success word will spread, and we will be able to have events like this a few times a year. Don't let this amazing opportunity be lost!

News Of The Woods Music and Dance Camp

Many of you will already know of The Woods, which was the inspiration for the Old Chestnuts Song Circle. Over a dozen ex-"campers" are members of the Circle. For those in the Circle who have not been to camp, I can only say that if you love music and a sense of community, going to The Woods will be like finding your real home. You will never want to leave.

The Winter Woods is none too far away. It happens the first weekend of March at the 5 Oaks site near Paris, beginning Friday evening and concluding Sunday afternoon. It is limited to about 40 people and is filling up fast. The staff for the weekend are Finest Kind (Ann Downey, Shelley Posen, Ian Robb) and dance caller Lanie Melamed. Cost is $175, which is all inclusive. Matthew Shuster very kindly brought a few registration forms to the last Circle; call me (519-578-6298) or Matthew (416-482-9920) to get one. The deadline (if it's not already full) is January 31. I have never been to a Winter Woods, but I'm sure it is a great time and a good way to sample the experience before hitting the summer camp.

I am delighted to have recently received info for The Woods '96, held the first weekend in August!! Here are the people that will be teaching the classes, leading the workshops, playing the concerts, chairing the song circles, working at the dances, amazing you with their talent, jokes and generosity (really folks; the music starts at breakfast and ends whenever - certainly well after midnight!).

I am assuming that Sue Goldberg, Eve Goldberg, Judith Laskin and Grit Laskin are once again the hosts and organizers. They put their hearts and souls into making sure everyone has a great time. They're always there behind the scenes (or in front) making things happen. Other staff (with an indication of their specialties, which may or may not be what they teach): Becky Hill (amazing dance caller, storyteller); Pierre Shryer (wonderful dance band fiddle); Nathan Curry (dance band guitar, fiddle); Cathy Miller (singer/songwriter); Ken Perlman ('hotshot' banjo, guitar); Tom Lewis (singer/songwriter, sea songs); Magpie (Terry & Greg, singer/songwriters, dulcimer, mandolin, mouth harp, guitar and Woods' favourites). Add to this some very talented campers, who participate in song circles, campfires, performance circles and concerts!

On Leading Songs Sue Goldberg

Last time, Jack outlined the guidelines for the song circle and made some suggestions for song leaders. I thought I would add some thoughts to his. I've been leading songs for over 25 years and have picked up some ideas along the way.

One of the most important things is to pick the right kind of songs. I've found that because I love group harmony singing so much, I'm always on the lookout for songs that will work for good group singing. When I look at the ones that are "keepers", the ones people ask for over and over, they share some features. They're simple songs with a lot of repetition and predictable melodies. This is one case where "less is more". An easy chorus or refrain (a single line that repeats at regular intervals, e.g. sea chanties) is always a plus. Other good forms are "echo songs (where the group repeats each line the leader sings); "zipper songs" (where the verse repeats with a new word or phrase each time) and songs where each verse consists of a single line that repeats several times. These are all forms in which anyone can participate after hearing a verse or chorus without having words or music to work from. In general, the more complex a song is, the harder it is to make it work as a singalong. Lots of great songs that "everyone knows" don't work for this reason.

Jack talked about the importance of knowing a song well in order to lead it. I find that the first time I try out any new song as a leader I have some anxiety and I may be shaky. Part of it is whether it will "work", part of it is lack of confidence about whether I know it well enough that my singing can "go on automatic" and I can pay attention to helping the group participate. For me, this has to do with making eye contact, giving cues for rhythm and phrasing, letting people know when I sing alone and when they come in, and generally having part of my brain free to process how it is going and make adjustments. If that sounds like a lot, it is! But after you've done it a few times, it becomes second nature. One way to pick up some of these tricks is to watch good song leaders and notice what they do. A trick I learned from Bob Walser is pointing at myself when I am singing alone and at the group when it's join-in time. Cueing words or phrases in advance is often tricky ( I only do it on one or two songs ) but can be a big help to the joiners.

Finding a good key is really important, not just for yourself, but for everyone else. One reason people may not join in is that the melody is too high or too low. (This can be a perfect time for harmonies if you're a harmony type, but we need voices on melody too.) Of course it is important for the leader to be comfortable in the chosen range. If your voice is naturally very high or very low this can be a problem. As someone who grew up singing soprano, I find that in order to lead songs, I have to stick to the bottom of my range. In general, male and female voices want to sing about half an octave apart and if you have both in the group, which most song circles do, you have to compromise somewhere in between! When you do find a good key for a song, make sure you find out what it is so you can pick it next time...or ask if you're not playing an instrument yourself.

Which brings me to instruments...a strong rhythm from an accompanying guitar, banjo etc. can help to keep the group together, but instruments can also get in the way. If you're leading the song, having to concentrate on your instrumental work can detract from the vocal music or the process of leading. If the instrumental work is too busy or ornate, other people too begin to lose their concentration on singing. You may want to have some "official" instrumental breaks in a song, but during the singing time, the instrumental work needs to be simple, simple, simple (the "less is more" principle again) to support but not detract from the main activity. This is one of the reasons I love a capella singing so much...it frees you from having to think about this kind of balancing act. It also frees you harmonically. If an instrument is playing chords, it establishes the harmonic structure of the song. This can be good for helping new harmony singers develop a sense to find their notes, but it also limits the choices that the experienced harmony singers can make.

One of the things that has kept the Toronto Song Circle going so long is a dedicated core of people who continually keep their ears open for good songs, make it their business to learn them and are prepared to lead them. I hope the Old Chestnuts are well on their way to developing a similar core. It isn't always an easy task, but it IS a rewarding one!

About this newsletter......

In the boring details section....you may recall that last month I made a plea to those who receive this letter by mail, for help paying the postage. I am happy to report that the following showed appreciation by contributing:


Yep, that's it. Thanks, Chuck (and to be perfectly fair, Germaine too, who mailed out the second newsletter). I am sorry to say that for many of you this will be the last issue that will arrive in your mailbox. You can still change that! 519-578-6298.

January And Future Song Circles

The January Song Circle was attended by twenty, including, yet again, some new members. The continual growth is really encouraging. The hilights for me were Merrick leading us in singing an Australian lullaby to an almost asleep Amanda, and Amanda again, singing Bicycle Built For Two....and soloing brightly on the "I'll be damned" line! The adults did okay too. I was a bit in awe having Merrick, Sue and Beverlie all there at once; they carry among them so much of the folk tradition. It was a huge complement to us all when Merrick said that this Circle is among the best in his 50 years experience as part of the folk scene.

The February 24th Circle will be at 111 Chestnut Street. In response to underwhelming demand there will be no topic for February, but if there was to be a topic, I suppose that love songs would be appropriate. Either that, or songs about leaping ("Buffalo Jump"?). Just a reminder of the house rules - no smoking, no perfume and no corn products please. This will be the first night with no conflict with Ernie's, so I'm expecting a few more people; come at 7:30 for choice seats! Rumour has it that a banjo or two will be turning up in February ("What do you call a banjo player with a pager? An optimist."). I would like to encourage the mandolin and fiddle players out there (you know who you are!) to make it to OCSS in February, and we'll maybe get some picking in after the sing alongs are done. "Slow jam", anyone? March and beyond Circles will be the 4th Saturday of the month.


The Steve Goodman Anthology: No Big Surprise Steve Goodman Rating: $42 (2 discs)

It's been over 10 years since we lost Steve to leukemia. I recently dug out some vinyl and made a tape because I missed his music so much. Then I was given this disc and booklet package. Now I know just how much I missed. Yes, City of New Orleans is there, and The Dutchman and Chicken Cordon Blues, but there's so much more. Reading the book and listening to the Live disc (there's also a Studio disc) shows the character of the man. He was funny, gracious, a peerless entertainer and terrific songwriter. And he loved baseball; there are 3 baseball songs, including A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request. Living music lovers should request this album - it's inspirational, diverse and damn fine.

Upcoming Events (please let me know about any that you feel are appropriate for next time!)

Jan 20/96 Black Walnut Folk Club, Victoria Park (also Feb 17, Mar 16). 8:00, $3.

Jan 26/96 OCSS member Beverlie Robertson and husband Charlie at UW Grad Club for a night of blues. 9:00, no cover.

Jan 27/96 Penny Lang, Theatre on the Grand, Fergus

Jan 27/96 Cate Friesen and Katherine Wheatley, Zion United Church, Kitchener (tickets at Readers Ink)

Feb 2/96 Ashley MacIsaac, Lulu's. With The Mahones. Feb 3/96 Irish Descendants, University of Guelph, War Mem. Hall

Feb 3/96 Garnet Rogers, Zion United Church, Kitchener (Readers Ink) Feb 24/96 Old Chestnut's Song Circle. Also March 23.

Mar 2/96 Ani DeFranco, University of Guelph, Peter Clark Hall Mar 9/96 Judy Small, Zion United Church, Kitchener

Apr 13/96 The Whitely Brothers, Theatre on the Grand, Fergus Apr 20/96 Heather Bishop, Zion United Church, Kitchener

Apr 27/96 Modabo, Old Chestnut's House Concert Series (number 1 of 1, so far!)