Remembering Rose Danesi

My jr. high/high school friend Debbie Danesi (now Debra Marx but this is a time-travel post) sent me the sad news shortly before Christmas that her mother, Rose, had died. Because Facebook had put me back in touch with Debra, I did know that her mother had been having some health issues, but this was still a sad thing to hear.  Even though I hadn't seen Mrs. Danesi in decades, I remember her very fondly, for two important things.

It was Mrs. Danesi who inspired one of my grand food epiphanies. At one point towards the end of high school it came up that I had never eaten lasagna (a difficult thing to imagine, I know, but it was a different time). She immediately invited me to dinner, and what she served me was one of those sense-opening taste experiences that cause some people to become chefs. This dish was amazing. Now, it's not as if at that point I had ever even once cooked an actual dinner, but I asked for the recipe anyway, so overcome was I with the desire to taste this again. And here's where I learned some key lessons.

The very first thing Mrs. Danesi said, when I took out a notebook, was "You're lucky because the Valencia Pork Store just opened a branch in Middletown. Before that you would have had to go all the way to Long Branch to get Mozzarella stored in water." Because that was step one: If you're not going to get fresh Mozzarella cheese, there's no point in making the dish. You can now get Mozzarrella stored in water at most supermarkets, but the freshly-made product available at the time in delis that catered to Italian immigrants in New Jersey really was of a taste and quality I haven't seen reproduced commercially. It was, in fact, the key to the whole dish. It seems such an obvious point now, about primacy of ingredients and the difference between fresh smooth creamy cheese and the plastic-wrapped stuff in the dairy department, but seriously this was a big deal. When I later moved to Boston I would travel to the North End to find this cheese.

She also taught me about finding a good jarred tomato sauce (recommending some local small producers) and "doctoring" it with herbs and simmering it for a bit. She said that most people in this country add meat to the sauce, and I could do that if I wanted to, but she insisted that traditionally the meat was served as a separate dish on the side (sausage, also purchased at the Italian deli freshly made) and was not a part of the lasagna. Lesson noted and never violated. I even made the dish for my family not too long after, and my mother had me type the recipe up on an index card which she whimsically labeled "Lasagna a la Danesi".

This one amazing meal and this lesson in the importance of quality fresh ingredients is what started to open up a world for me, and I have often thought of Mrs. Danesi and privately thanked her.

And here's the second thing of importance, of greater importance really, for which I remember Mrs. Danesi. Mrs. Danesi -- from the time I met her when I was in 7th grade -- always treated me (and all of Debbie's friends) with absolute respect and affection, as full human beings in our own right. She showed genuine interest in us, asked after us, cared about us. This really wasn't all that common of a way for parents to treat their kids jr-high friends back then. She also told fun and vivid stories, she was something of a fireball of humor, and that's fun to remember. But at the core what I remember so strongly is not being treated as a child, but being treated as somebody who had something to offer. This means a lot to a 13-year-old. Hell, this means a lot to a 56-year-old. I suppose I looked to this in some way as a model, and this has served me well over the years as my own friends have had children.

So here's a fond farewell to a very nice lady who was a positive part of my teenage years. I'm fortunate enough that, through Debra, only a couple of years ago  I was able to tell her the very things that I've written about here, and of the lessons she taught me that I still hold.

Singing With Joan

Tonight will be the third Thursday evening that the local shapenote singers will head over to sing at our friend Joan's comfortable hippie house overlooking Powderhorn Park, where she is now in hospice care. I here forward the bulk of the note she wrote us all. This was written to a public list, so it doesn't seem a privacy violation, but mostly I want to quote directly so that you can see Joan's personality shining through. I couldn't otherwise do her justice.

The bad news is that the Parkinson's disease that I've been living with for 24 years has just now become a big problem.  I can't predict my mobility any more; I get frozen,twitchy, spastic, awkward in general, etc. ---as has been obvious to you on occasion, I'm sure.  I am extremely lucky to have had such a long run.  

The good news is that I do not have to face a "Home" even now.  Because---very black humor warning---the liver cancer I've been dealing with for two years is getting out of control at the same time as is the Parkinson's disease and will finish me off before I am truly helpless.

At any rate, I am neither physically nor otherwise devastated.  I'm on hospice care, I have a great deal of support of all kinds, and I want you all to know that our singing has been one of the best things in an already rich life.  I wouldn't have believed I would ever enjoy such a community.

Joan has asked us over to sing once a week, for as long as she is up to it, and boy is she up to it. I'm not sure whether she saves up all the energy she has in anticipation of Thursday evenings, or whether she allocates whatever drugs she has, but she is so fully herself -- direct and warm and bawdy -- that the singings are fun and lovely and moving. Two weeks ago she told us that whenever we sing "Akin" (Awake, asleep, at home, abroad; I am surrounded still with G-d) she hears "abroad" as two words, and identifies with it, since she is "at home a broad". We told her this will be her legacy -- none of us will ever be able to sing this again without thinking of her, at home a broad.

In her note providing the details of the first singing she wrote "Denson plus a request to Levine for the Sultan's harem song."  I thought, "Which Sultan's harem song?" (I know a few) but when I arrived she said "the one with the knives" -- meaning the Cole Porter song Solomon from "Nymph Errant" (1934) which I usually only sing in very limited company (it has some culturally questionable aspects) but sure enough we took a break from religious songs and I did my best.

A couple of years ago, when our group lost our gracious friend Cindy, her husband Charlie organized small (4-6 people) singings in their home during her final weeks, and that's when I learned that getting together and singing like this for an hour is not mournful or maudlin or sad. It is energizing. It is a gift. It is using music to express the inexpressible.

But oh, Charlie really got Joan last week. During Cindy's time Charlie wrote a beautiful piece in the shapenote tradition, so beautiful that it will be in the next Cooper book revision. After singing for Joan two weeks ago Charlie said a song came to him and he wrote it down (like Coleridge with Xanadu, I suppose). It's lovely, and deceptively simple. He distributed it last week, dedicated to Joan, and we sang all three verses. By the end Joan had covered her face with her copy of the music and when the last chord died out said, "Please sing that third verse again".

Individuals come and go, but in general the group of people who come to Joan's has been singing together and traveling together and eating together for a couple of decades now, give or take. The magic is not specifically the words and the notes, but the history and the affection and the shared humanity. We sing for an hour, but it is an hour out of time.

The prognosis is that we won't be doing this much longer -- we don't know until Tuesday or Wednesday whether there's a singing on Thursday. Two weeks ago Joan said that her doctor told her that day that she's still too snarky to die within the next two weeks. Last week I asked if the doctor still considered this to be the case but in her very Joanlike way she said, definitively, "He's not the one making those decisions any more."

It will be a blissful hour again tonight, with sunlight streaming in from the park and big open chords filling the living room.


The Dilettante's Downfall

At the Midwest Morris Ale, on most nights the pickup dancing goes on until the very wee hours of the morning. Dancers from different teams accompanied by some versatile musicians get together and dance any dance in any tradition for which you can muster a side. Sometimes a dance will get taught. Sometimes a specific team will get up and dance for the others. But it's mostly just dancing for the joy of it, you just jump in and follow, and after enough years people get pretty good about faking all manner of traditions and dance. It is one of those pleasures that deepens with time and experience.

There are a few traditions surrounding late-night pickup dancing, and one is that when the sad realization hits the last weary dancers that the dancing has wound down for the evening it is then time to dance "Saturday Night" in the Bucknell tradition (technically we dance a variant processional that allows for an infinite number of dancers rather than 4 or 6). This is a dance that starts with two dancers for the first iteration, then two more join them, then two more and so forth. The first two turn around when they come to the end of the room and dance back, facing the dancers who are approaching, turning the dance into a partnering figure. When the very last pair of dancers has danced up and down the whole room, the dancers move  into a big circle and dance the whole figure one last time as "rounds".

With 12 or 16 or 20 or 30 dancers, this can take a very, very long time indeed, to get all the dancers up and back across the room. There are legendary accounts of 20 and 30 minutes worth of this dance some years (or longer?). Which might seem extremely tedious, and I suppose from the outside it must be, but the dance (in this context) is about dancing *with* each other, partnering up and down the room. It's the Minnesota long goodbye made manifest in dance.

Last Saturday was the second "Morris On Dance 'Til Dawn" we have held in the Twin Cities, holding a session of Ale-inspired Morris pickup dancing for all who will in conjunction with and following the weekly contra dance. Unlike at an Ale, we start dancing at 7:30 or so (the building has two dance rooms, so this doesn't interfere with the contra dance). So we don't actually dance until dawn, or at least we haven't so far. About 2 am it seemed time to wind down, with Saturday Night. (As a side point I should say that *after* we finished dancing Saturday Night we danced Flowers of Edinburgh which is another end-of-pickup tradition but we had forgotten to dance it earlier.)

I, myself, did not join in Saturday Night (I was having some back issues by that point, although I got some great dancing in throughout the evening so weep not for me). Instead, I stood to the side and marvelled at the amazing notion that there is this particular dance that we reserve for this particular sort of moment. It's just "known" that we do this dance to end pickup dancing. It's what we do. I love this.

I often find myself trying to answer the question of "What is this Morris dancing that you do". And I can give a good accounting of its origins, of what it means to have a "tradition", of what my team in particular does in a dance season. I can talk to some extent about the different steps and styles. But how, in such an explanation, do you weave in an explanation of the tradition of dancing "Saturday Night" at the end of latenight pickup dancing?  There's pickup dancing to explain, there's the Ale to explain, there's the idea that with some Morris experience you can probably learn a dance like this if you wait and watch the first 10 or more times through the dance. There is, at the core, trying to explain what it means to dance *with* the other dancers, from all the represented teams.

Now and again I will hear somebody say something like, "Oh yes, I've danced Morris. I took a class at Pinewoods". That's a great thing, that there are places that give some exposure to the dance form and the dance feel. But, to my mind, there are so many other things that define what it means to dance Morris. There is, at the core, what it means to have a team in and for a specific geographic community, that adds to the texture of life. There is being part of a team that practices together, that travels together, that goes out for beer and song after practice. And there is the occasional rare but specific tradition, that you just know and you just do.

And this makes you happy for a long time afterwards.

My New Year's Eve

I've mostly been off on FaceBook, but I wanted to get this link here. This is me at a sort of private club-party in my neighborhood, performing for friends, a song I didn't quite know as well as I would have liked (I didn't have much time to prepare), but I think this captures the fun.

The song is "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty", written by Arthur LeClerk in 1934.


Photo Story: Brags at the Ale

This new digital era provides an overwhelming amount of photographic documentation of the world as it spins. I've been sifting through the many albums of the Midwest Morris Ale that have been appearing on Facebook and reminiscing in general. I've also seen some nice photos of my own team that I want to comment on here, mostly because my parents aren't on Facebook and this way I can show them a bit of my Memorial Day weekend.

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Three Dances for the Ages

So I gotta' tell you about three amazing dances I was part of at last weekend's Midwest Morris Ale, dances in circumstances so specific to the Ale that they will remain unique. My challenge will be to translate the humor and fun expressed as movement into words, which at best provide only a second-order glimpse into that fun. Interestingly, two of these fine times involved dancing with Smack Young Walser, the just-turned-13 lad who is in his third year dancing with Ramsey's Braggarts.

Mrs. Widgery's Lodger at the Quay Street Brewing Company
At our Saturday afternoon pub stop in Port Huron, we cleared aside the chairs and bought a few pitchers of beer and sang for a while. Then the Braggarts formed up for Mrs. Widgery's Lodger, one of our few dances that we can do indoors. It's a column dance: The two dancers at the top of the set dance a particular step and then walk to the back, then the middle two, then the final two. I wanted to partner Smack because once at a practice I was across from Smack when he got a little bored and added some extra small fun steps that I joined him on and this was a hoot.

When the first two dancers did their foot up, I looked over at Smack and started pantomiming that this was something we could do better. Somebody caught a photo of us looking conspiratorial just at this point:

After the first pair did their step, we danced the same step with exaggerated snootiness, then strutted our way back to our spots before the chorus figure of the dance. This set a pattern, and for each new figure we would point at the first couple and make fun of their dancing (during the right-toe-backs Smack stuck out his butt in exaggerated mockery of what the step looks like from the rear) and then we would haughtily dance the figure -- which gave us the goofy energy to dance really well, I think.

So it was a total goofball dance for us, with continual interaction and improvisational pantomime and some real good stepping to back up the silliness. At a bar in Port Huron Michigan on a warm afternoon, surrounded by dancers we know from around the country. It was street theater, really. Afterwards I said that I had just danced in one really great dance, and that alone makes the Ale worthwhile for me.

Vandals of Hammerwich at the Sunday Night Pickup
Smack and I have a game we have played once or twice, when we are both not part of a set for a stick dance. We stand on the side and dance the dance with air sticks and then, at stick clashes, we pantomime whacking each other hard and responding accordingly. Or we just pantomime punches and kicks. Why is this fun? I don't know. But it is.

Just a little bit into the pickup dancing at the Ale on Sunday night, at perhaps midnight, they called Vandals, which had been one of the weekend's mass dances so everybody knew it. Smack had been out of the room with 16-year-old Anna Bean and when they heard the dance start they came running over to dance it, but of course since they didn't hear it until the dance had started all of the sets were already formed and dancing. Seeing this, I ran over because Vandals is the perfect stick-whack dance: Some of the chorus sticking is a two-beat slow stick, which provides lots of time to lift a threatening imaginary stick in a big windup. I got a good fake whack onto Smack just as the chorus started, then he responded in kind.

Anna Bean, as we all learned last weekend, is very good at thinking on her feet during a dance, so she picked up on this immediately and by the end of the chorus we had our pattern down: I whacked at Smack, he whacked at Anna, Anna whacked at me. Or we'd reverse it. Each time we did everything slightly differently, but always perfectly with the music, echoing the entire packed floor of dancers.

Ah, but the chorus of this dance, after the sticking, goes into a step where the dancers step brightly to each side with their sticks held at an angle -- a happy, peppy figure. This figure can look messy if the dancers are not focusing on moving in tandem with each other, or not keeping up the bounciness, but when there is good partnering this is a fun figure. Needless to say, Smack and Anna are very skilled at partnering. Which meant that the chorus of the song was wild fake whacking to the music, and then suddenly, turning on a dime, the three of us were standing erect with big happy smiles and a jauntiness to our stepping. Then we'd repeat the sequence.

Ok, that's just the chorus. For each figure to the 8-person dance we improvised a 3-person version on the spot, which is always fun. The Ilmington Hey for 3 in particular was a blast -- Anna and Smack have known this dance since they were young children, so working off of it is, er, child's play to them. But whatever we did, each figure ends with three big capers, so we would suddenly all be together in synchronized capers (both Smack and Anna are famous for their capers), which is like resolving the chord at the end of a line of music. Then the chorus.

This is art: Wild abandon, contrasted with elegant perfection and unity, different each time, over and over, with nothing coursing through our minds but joy. Plus we did a lot of stage fighting. Best. Mass. Dance. Ever.

Orbitals vs. the Red Baron at 4am
Our local Border team does a few Molly dances, including one called "Orbitals" that is danced to the song "Tide Flows In", usually with me as the singer. This past season I got to thinking that "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" might work as well, and it was a nice fine joke to try this once or twice at practice. It does, in fact, work, but it changes the feel of the dance. It was also great fun to do, so after the first try we would bring it out now and then as a little treat of a dance.

Lo about 3:30 am on Saturday night at the Ale, maybe a little later, sitting around the fire where the singing was taking place, I noticed that a few of the folks who know this dance were present. I got to thinking it would be funny to dance this then and there. I consulted with Matt about this and he liked the idea, but we weren't sure we had the dancers. Shortly afterwards the pickup dancing started to break up, with folks dropping by the singing on their way home to bed, and it was clear we had the full quorum of dancers and then some. I got things organized so that as soon as a particular song ended there were six dancers standing off to the side all ready to go and I started singing the dance and we were off.

We not only were off, but the dancers danced this difficult dance as well as they ever have. Rick Nagler came and joined me in the song. Usually I don't like anybody singing with me for a Molly dance, but with Rick it was different and I enjoyed having him there. All the singers stood up and gathered to get a better view. Some of the women from Rock Creek began some doo-wop dance moves in the background. It was a great dance moment, and when we finished the singing resumed.

Now here's the thing: I expected the reaction to be a response to the joke of dancing a Molly to this particular song, but that wasn't the response at all. Nobody thought there was anything at all amiss to setting a Molly dance to a novelty tune; in fact, that's the norm with some of the newer Molly sides. Instead, the response was to the quality of the dancing, and the glory of the moment. Which is good, very good indeed, it just was not what I thought it would be.

The greater resonance here for me is not just that the assembled Ale attendees took it completely in stride that we would dance a Molly to Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, but that at 4am without prearrangement or practice or planning there were six dancers and a singer who could get up and do this dance, the way you might start up a round of Happy Birthday. It is the very fact that this was unnotable that, to me, is so very notable. This is the Ale world to me in a nutshell, where these things just happen. Of course there's a Molly. Of course Steven can sing for the Molly. But wow, what a strange assemblage of people and circumstance it takes for that to be an "of course". It is stunning, really.

And I loved being part of that dance.

And a Lump of Fatty Bacon

It's hard enough to explain Morris dancing in general -- not to explain what it looks like, or its ethnographic history, but what it feels like from the inside and, therefore, why anybody would do it. But explaining Morris in general is easy compared to explaining the Midwest Morris Ale, because every aspect of the description requires some further explanatory overlays, each of which leads farther and farther out from the specific event you are trying to describe.

I think at the core it comes down to something a member of the Adderbury Morris Men (who were visiting us from England) said to me on Sunday night, about an hour into the third straight late night of pickup dancing. The Adderbury Morris Men are a primo traditional team, with very strong ideas about the Morris. I thanked one of their members for coming, and expressed my hope that the differences between Morris in England and Morris here at this Ale were not too much for their comfort. He said that it's mostly very much what you see in the UK, but more importantly his team was happy to see so many people who clearly loved the Morris so much. Yes, nearly 300 people gave up their holiday weekend to travel great distances to stay in less than luxurious accommodations for no other reason than their love of the Morris.

And that, my friends, brings us straightaway to the pickup dancing, which is the reason many people give for why they come to the Ale and is the very definition of Morris-love. There is a major evening event every night of the Ale: On Friday the "mass dances" for the weekend are taught, on Saturday there is a contra-dance (with the best partnering you will ever find, meaning every person up and down the set is wholly with you at every move, as if every contra figure were a variant of a gypsy), and on Sunday there is skit night. But towards the end of each of these events we are all chomping at the bit to get on with it, to clear the floor, to call up the musicians, and to dance anything at all with whoever wants to. The newer dancers (and by that I mean dancers who have been dancing for less then 10 or 15 years) get pulled into dances and traditions they don't know. Sometimes dances are taught. Sometimes an individual team will get up and dance as hard as they ever have. Through all of this there is nothing but happiness on the faces of the dancers. Nobody is dancing close to the ground. All corner dances are done with a sense of glorious challenge. You keep saying, "I should go to bed" but 2am or 3am or dawn comes and you can't pull yourself away because there's another dance and when will you have this opportunity again.

Not just to dance, really, but to dance with these people. Who love this as much as you do.

This is not Morris dance, per se, which in my mind means a team that develops into a unit through working hard over the course of many months and years to develop a sense of being a team and a dance style and a repertoire. And then, through public dance and music, a Morris team provides a sense of community to its home area. If you're out on a summer's evening, you just might run into the Morris dancers, you never know, and that will bring a smile to your face and, just maybe at the smallest subconscious level, an appreciation that there is music and dance and song that exists wholly outside the world of the "music industry" (talk about an oxymoron).

But that's not what the pickup dancing is. At the pickup dancing, all of the skills you have developed that you didn't even realize you were developing and you didn't even realize were skills - the sense of dance patterns, and hanky coordination, and providing bell percussion with your own legs -- all of these things become the tools, the mechanisms, the doorways that allow you to be with the other people who are dancing with you in the room. As a way of connecting with other people, it is a thousand times better than smalltalk at a cocktail party and a million times better than Facebook.

And there's the singing, here and there throughout the weekend. And the inside jokes, or perhaps what I mean is the private community references (there are many people who read the title of this journal entry and knew immediately what it would be about, by finishing the musical line). And the history you develop with the other dancers. And the workshops. And the tours, when you separate off and board the buses and dance around the towns near the Ale location, stopping midway at a pub, of course, where you sing and dance inside. This can be a time to get to know the other teams on your tour, a smaller subset of the intimidatingly large number of Morris dancers at the Ale in general. And there are countless moments in specific dances, or in specific songs, or in a small fine conversation on the porch of a lodge overlooking a lake, that you would gladly pay all of your discretionary income for except that these are things that cannot be bought at any price.

That's the Ale: Priceless moments and the joy of Morris.

Finding Your Voice

If you want to get a sense of the self-involved arrogance of some practitioners of European classical vocal tradition, go browsing through YouTube for the various lessons on vocal technique people offer. I have no issue per se with anything that's being taught, and in fact most of it I'm finding useful and interesting (as somebody who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about singing), but the language that's used is so rife with assumptions that I want to reach through the monitor and shake these folks. What you find, again and again, are words such as "you don't want to sound like..." referring to perfectly natural musical expression of individual voices (and what my friend Keith calls "idiosyncratic vocal texture" which happens to be something I swoon over), or absolute assertions of what a "good" sound is, by which they don't mean "good" but a very particular highly-stylized and spectacularly unnatural sound, by any definition of "natural" that makes sense to me. Now, I'm not saying this is "bad" -- or that I don't understand and appreciate the skill and technique and even the musical tradition that classical singing techniques come from (I mean "spectacularly" here in quite a literal sense and I do love and worship spectacle) -- but what you see is a complete loss of that context, as expressed subconsciously through word choice. I get that these value-judgement comments are meant to be taken as value judgements only within the very specific context of the traditions -- but for the most part I do not believe that the people making these judgements get that at all, or -- particularly -- how specific their context is.

I recently saw Tim Eriksen give a workshop, during which -- in response to a question from a trained classical singer -- he pointed out (as observation, not criticism) that in the entire world there are only three cultures where "singing" is completely stylized: throat singing, Japanese opera, and European classical tradition (everywhere else it's just singing). Those are highly-skilled techniques (even high art, I think it's fair to say), but you'd think that the practitioners would at least understand this, rather than hold themselves up as *the* standard of what "good" singing is in a universal sense. As if everybody else would want to sing and sound just like this, if they only had the skill and training (which gets back to what I'm seeing as the assumptions and even the arrogance).

I was thinking about some of these issues recently as I've been listening to a CD by the Bay Area group Oak, Ash, and Thorn, much of whose repertoire comes from the folk/traditional world I know. It's unfortunate that I've just spoken critically of what I see as a purviewed arrogance before bringing this CD up, because I don't mean to imply this at all for this extremely skilled group of nice guys (one of whom I met and sang with at last year's Midwest Morris Ale). I just mean to point to what I'm hearing here as an example of what I mean by differing traditions in approaching songs and approaching singing as a whole. I mean, these guys are really really good (and I could write several paragraphs on what specifically they are doing vocally that is so good) -- but what I think about is why what they do is so different from what interests me in singing these very same songs.

So let's start with the differing purposes here. To me, the chorus/traditional song culture is about pulling people in for a collective experience -- so that my definition of "good" singing and "good" arrangements are those that work towards this goal. But a group that performs on a stage (and, I want to say, before an audience that has been taught to believe that "good" singing is "European classical tradition" singing) works towards something else. So, for example, a big thing that strikes me here is that the songs are nearly every one of them performed at what I think of as "Renaissance Festival" speed -- meaning twice as fast as you'd sing them in any other context. (If you search YouTube for "Bring Us a Barrel" you find a group at a RenFest singing it at the sort of breakneck speed I speak of here, since at a RenFest the goal is not really to have people join in.) The speed thing is not specifically about vocal technique, although it does show a flashiness and skill, but it's part of what I'm calling differing purposes.

What struck me most, though, was that these guys sure have pretty voices but they sound pretty much like every other very good classical small male ensemble. If you told me they were a subset of Chanticleer, say, I wouldn't hear the difference. Think of how much work and how many years they spent erasing idiosyncracy from their vocal sound (just like the YouTube instructors tell you to!). It's beautiful, yes, and something I'm pretty certain I could never do, but it's not what I would say should be a universal aspiration of "good singing". Now and then a small something comes through and I hear a recognizable voice and I think, "Yeah, that's really what I wish they would do more of" -- since these guys really do have strong musical voices and a sense of fun that I think is necessary here. I suppose that might reduce the goal of "blend", though. Do I have to bother saying that "blend" is not something I think of as a relevant goal to what I would be doing with these songs (and why I find The King's Singers -- supposedly the gold standard -- impossible to listen to)? The first few songs I heard on the CD, songs I know and sing, sounded like madrigals (rather than drinking songs). And then the next songs actually were madrigals. Ok. But boy, talk about mixed purposes.

And then there's this odd diction thing, what I think of as "choral ensemble diction". In some cases it's just weird -- they sing a setting of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and each time the word "pussycat" comes up they sing "pooh-see-kat". But mostly the diction thing comes with the letter "t", which they seem to be forming with their tongue at the front of the roof of their mouth rather than the middle. It distinguishes that from a "d", that's for sure. And I think that when you have a large vocal ensemble, you probably need to do things like this so that the words are understandable. (My solution would simply be never to have a large vocal ensemble perform on a stage, but that's just me.) So yes, you understand every word. A good thing, right? But it comes at the expense of natural speech.

Pretty tone, good support, clean intonation, vocal flexibility and musicality -- these are all things that I love in any singing context. Good things to work on. But folks: You have a voice. It's yours. Just sing with it. Use it to communicate. Use it to have fun. Use it to bring a roomful of people into your fun. To achieve this, it is not necessary to "place" your voice so it it not "nasal", or to sound like a Court musician. It's not easy and it takes practice and experience, but find your own way here and I for one will love you for it.

Putting a Song Together

I grow wilder all the time with the liberties I'll take with an existing song. I've been working on a new song for tonight's Pub sing at Merlin's, and in this case I'm doing some major reworking of actual published old poetry, in the service of a workable chorus.

I recently came across a musical setting of a poem by Cicely Fox Smith. This is the original poem:

I wish't I was in Lancashire huntin' o' the hare
All across the wide moorlands an' the hollows brown an' bare,
Hearkenin' to the good hounds' cry, hearkenin' to the horn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I wish't I was in Lancashire along o' folks I know,
Rangin' o'er the countryside in all the winds that blow
As they blew when I was yet a lad, in the place where I was born,
Far away in Lancashire on a good huntin' morn.

There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire as how they're bleak an' bare:
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, and that I tell you true,
An' I wish't I was in Lancashire all the day through!

The melody is simple and singable -- pretty, despite a six-note range. Maybe a little too simple, but with words that are difficult this is a good thing. But this is a poem, not written to be sung (as, say, the works of Robert Burns often were). So the metrical things that give this interest, that stretch and telescope meters and accents, work against the singability. That's in part why I'm ok with changing some things.

So step 1: That first verse works as a chorus. The second line will be hard for people to pick up, but it will be ok.

From there, I change something small in the second verse. You can't sing "on a windy morn" in the chorus and then, in the first verse to same melody, sing "on a good huntin' morn". That extra syllable (semi-syllable really) gives a nice twist in recitation, but (unless it's an art song setting) throws off the singability. But after singing this a few times I realized that if I just sang "on a windy morn" as the last line of that verse I've got a nice hook for people to sing at the end of the verse, that they already know and can join with. Plus when you go right from that verse back to the chorus you pick up the hunting theme so it doesn't get lost. The goal here is not to show how smoothly and passionately I can sing a sentimental song, but to find a way to draw people in. Changing that line I think will help.

Ah, but there's the key and the road to ruin: From there I realize that I wanted the last line of the second verse to be the same as well. So this is what I now sing:

There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire as how they're bleak an' bare:
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, on this I've always sworn
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

If there's an adjective you don't know, it's a Lancashire dialect word meaning "excellent". Or a topographical feature of the landscape, depending on context. I lost a little bit of the poetry in my change here, but I think in the song this is fine.

So now I have a two verse song. I could try writing a third verse -- it would certainly not be the first time I've tried to write in the diction and style of an existing poem/song. But I think aiming for quaint and charming archaic Lancashire wording is a little beyond me. So I went looking and found another poem by Cicely Fox Smith about nostalgic pining for Lancashire (although not hunting in particular) that includes this:

Still runs the brook, the trees stand up
By yonder cloughside still:
You can see your father's barn
Look over the windy hill.'

'There will I go, and there shall meet
Old ghosts of joy and pain,
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone
Shall greet me once again.

It's a slightly different, more melancholy feel, but the raw material is there like clay for me to rework. This is what I added as the third verse:

There will I go and there shall meet old ghosts of joy and pain
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone shall greet me once again.
Still runs the brook, the trees stand up, the cloughside to adorn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I don't like the word "pain" there -- it's just wrong for the tone of the rest of the piece to my sense of things. But I'm leaving it and hoping it will add a little twist that doesn't rattle things too badly. "Cloughside to adorn" may not be the smoothest line ever, but it gets boosted a bit by the melody there and by adding to the rhyming refrain-introducing structure. And cloughside? Remember the guideline about meaning? It's a local word for a topographical feature, in this case a ravine.

So this is what I'll sing, and if I hadn't told you this story you wouldn't know what hand I had in this -- oh, and I made a slight change to the gradely hills line, but actually I stole that from the place I originally heard the musical setting:

I wish I was in Lancashire a-hunting of the hare
All across the wide moorlands and the hollows brown and bare,
Hearkening to the good hounds' cry, hearkening to the horn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I wish I was in Lancashire along o' folks I know,
Ranging o'er the countryside in all the winds that blow
As they blew when I was yet a lad, in the place where I was born,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.


There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire, their summits bleak and bare
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, on this I've always sworn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.


There will I go and there shall meet old ghosts of joy and pain,
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone shall greet me once again;
Still runs the brook, the trees stand up, the cloughside to adorn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I sang this for Jim and Denise and Anna Bean last night and it seemed to work. We'll see how it goes tonight.