Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Songleading at Pinewoods: A 1000-Word Picture

My main apprehension about heading off to Morris Intensive at Pinewoods was that I would not be able to keep up, dancewise. I wasn't just worried about my physical stamina, but also about the fact that I know only one tradition and picking up new steps and new dances is not something I do quickly. There are other things besides that sort of dance skill that I bring to a dance and to a Morris team -- energy, background organization, songleading, sincere passion -- but I had strong doubts that any of this would matter in the context of the class and that I would feel clumsy and vaguely humiliated. As it turns out I did sometimes feel clumsy and vaguely humiliated, but as it also turns out all the things I do feel I bring to a team mattered a great deal even in the context of the class. There were some sweetly sentimental goodbyes at the end of the week, and some of the other dancers -- including the main instructor -- said these things explicitly to me, that they appreciated the sort of energy I brought to the week and that I added a lot to the class -- or if not to the class in particular, then to the week in general.

Despite being a Braggart I don't mean to say this with any sort of boasting subtext. I mean to say this with walking-on-air stupefaction, in part to explain why I'm still holding my time at Pinewoods so dear.

I had another advance apprehension as well, and this, maybe surprisingly, concerns an area in which I sometimes have a little more confidence: My songleading. I can't deny that I enjoy my role in the Midwest Morris communities of being one of the people who leads songs. Being one of the people who leads songs is a key part of my identity here; it's the piece I bring to the table. But I wasn't sure this would translate to a different folkie community. For one thing, different communities develop different repertoires, and while you can lead some songs that nobody has heard before it is usually a very good thing if there is a critical mass of people who can support and help you with choruses from the very first go-round and sometimes final lines of verses as well. To me, songleading means nothing if I can't somehow engage the people around me -- that's the whole point, to have a communal song experience (rather than a solo performance) -- and this is much easier to encourage when you are with your regular singing friends.

Add to this worry the fact that a significant percentage of my songleading repertoire comes from recordings made by some of the people who were on staff at Pinewoods -- Dave and Anni in particular. Also, songs that I brought to the midwest because I grew up with them in the northeast wouldn't carry the same punch, or so I feared. And besides, who am I to be leading songs among the Pinewoods staff, which included some of the most wonderful singers around. And then there's my lifelong issue, of which I have written before, of having a particular voice and style that is not always appreciated, but we've been around that discussion before.

So yeah, I'm as worried as the next person about how I'm coming across when I sing. My goal is to engage people. If I'm alienating them, the sense of failure is epic.

So this is what happened, at the very first group singing session on the very first night. Dave Weber managed the singing sessions by handing individuals a decorated top hat to invite them to lead the next song. He would then take the hat to the next person during the song itself. This definitely kept things moving and kept things fair. Early in that first session, Dave handed the hat to me and I led "The Rosabella" -- I lead the song with a bit of background rhythm that I picked up from a 1970s recording of some British singers that brings the song to a more vivid life than it often has. Plus it's a song that's mostly group singing rather than long verses. I started to sing and it seemed to me as if the entire roomful of people focused in on me, broke into big smiles, and joined in with gusto. From that moment, I was one of the week's songleaders. It was odd for me, but wonderful. Thus began a week of people coming up to me in the dining hall and saying embarrassingly nice things about my singing. It also began a week of me leading a lot of songs.

Am I making this up, out of a sense of need or self-aggrandizement? Well, on one of the last nights of the week a couple came up to me, one of the older regular lifetime Pinewoods Folk Music week couples. The wife said nice things about my singing. The husband said, "We've been coming to Pinewoods for many years, and we host many singers who come through Boston. When somebody we don't know comes to Pinewoods and they sing a song, we expect them to be a new singer. But then you opened your mouth and sang and we wondered who you were and why we didn't know you." There's some degree of implicit provincialism in that remark, of course, but it was made as a sincere and deep compliment and I took it as such.

And now a picture has emerged, taken by one of the other campers. This picture shows a very particular time of the Pinewoods day. Each day, at mid-morning, tea and snacks would be served outside the Camp House. Then two campers would sing a song each, and then there'd be a small concert by one of the staff members. To get people from outside to inside, Dave would ask somebody to start leading a song and walk into the Camp House while beginning the second verse. This requires a certain sort of songleader, one with a big strong voice, and a couple of times Dave called on me for this. Then, once people were inside, a quieter singer would lead the next song.

What this picture captures is one morning when Dave asked me to sing a song (thus I'm holding the top hat) and I began the Music Hall original version of "Henery the Eighth" -- because everybody knows the chorus, slightly differently than I sing it, so it's easy to pull everybody in. This is me trying to engage folks. I of course remember leading this song, but what I didn't even notice at the time is that behind me, out of my line of sight, the other members of my Morris team who were in attendance were right there -- right at verse 1, which is what I'm singing -- to help me out and support me and ensure that the song went well. That's Andy in blue and Michael in green, who I guess ran right over as soon as I began to sing. But also that's Ian -- one of the Morris Intensive kids (actually the oldest of the group I'm calling "kids" -- he's a year or so out of college) -- helping me out as well, just as if he were a member of my own team.

Here I am, Mr. Vaudeville:

Tears well up when I look at this picture and I'm trying to think why. It may be because what I'm seeing in this picture, on the outside, is not at all what I see from the inside. The outside is much nicer.
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