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Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer

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Joe Offer 24 Nov 14 - 01:55 AM
Stewart 24 Nov 14 - 12:17 PM
Deckman 24 Nov 14 - 12:22 PM
Stilly River Sage 24 Nov 14 - 06:25 PM
Phil Cooper 24 Nov 14 - 11:46 PM
GUEST 25 Nov 14 - 11:17 PM
Don Firth 26 Nov 14 - 09:36 PM
Stilly River Sage 28 Apr 18 - 11:34 PM
Deckman 29 Apr 18 - 02:03 PM
Deckman 30 Apr 18 - 07:55 PM
Bruce Baker 30 Apr 18 - 08:23 PM
Stilly River Sage 30 Apr 18 - 09:32 PM
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Subject: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Joe Offer
Date: 24 Nov 14 - 01:55 AM

Here's an article by Mudcatter Bob Nelson (Deckman), published in The NW Hoot, online magazine of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society.


JOHN DWYER (1921-1997)
By Bob Nelson

In these articles titled “Those Who Led The Way” I want to bring to you the stories of folksingers who were very influential in the Seattle folk music scene of the 1950’s and 60’s. The first two articles presented Walt Robertson and Don Firth. Here I present John Dwyer as I knew him.

I met John Dwyer in 1962 when he was a librarian in the Highline School District. My wife was doing her student teaching at his school and soon she began bringing home stories about this marvelous man she’d met who, like me, loved traditional folk songs. Soon we were invited to his home where we met his family for dinner. It was just after we had finished our meal when John abruptly excused himself, saying he had to sing the children to sleep. Sure enough, we could hear him singing songs to children upstairs. What was remarkable was that he sang his children to sleep for a very long time, at least an hour. That gave me a tantalizing introduction to this incredible man.

The stories of John’s enormous repertoire are legion. With the possible exception of Paddy Grabber, he had the most songs available in his memory bank of anyone I have ever known, He not only remembered every single verse of every song, but he also knew all the nuances of the songs’ histories and variants. You only had to glance at the back of his guitar to see the list of song titles that completely covered the instrument. I remember that for a while that the list was layered in overlapping pages.

John was a consummate punster. During any conversation, if he sensed a possible word game in the offing, his eyes would twinkle and a special gleam would appear. It would be doubly so if he could concoct a double entendre. Often would be heard some of the most outrageous puns ever let loose in North America. To challenge him in the game of punning was to risk life and limb.

And beyond that, he loved to get into singing duels, especially with the fairer sex. And before those duels, he likely would give you an argument that the female of the species WAS the fairer sex! He and Linda Allen used to spar frequently, all in good fun. I remember when once John and I drove down to Olympia to perform a concert together. Linda was running “Apple Jam”, the popular folk house in the 1970’s. As usual, we had our concert well planned and rehearsed. But early into the second half, John started to change the program by singing songs with a devilish chauvinistic point of view. I was pretty flexible and open to program changes, but as soon as he started singing some of these very pointed songs, I sensed what was coming. It was going to be a contest! I watched as Linda rose to the bait. I knew I was outgunned, and simply handed my guitar to Linda and went off stage and sat in the audience. Sure enough, she matched him song for song … Oh it was great fun. When those two got going, it was best to just get out of the way.

I knew John for well over 40 years and of course he lived in many different homes over the years. But it was his last home on the beach at Priest Point that is best remembered as the house of so many hoots. And John was the perfect “hoot host”, serving his famous ‘beer bread’, smoked salmon and home smoked cheese. He also shared his appreciation of “villi”, which came from my own family’s Finnish heritage. John and I also shared a passion for salt-water fishing. We often would jump into his very nice bay boat and zoom out to Mission Bar, anchor and throw “buzz bombs” at the salmon. Sometimes the salmon were so plentiful that they would jump into the boat and clean themselves. As I still live in the area, I can’t drive anywhere north of Everett without seeing Priest Point and remember those many hours of fine song swapping and friendship. I also chuckle to remember the annual neighborhood work parties where friends and neighbors would drive backhoes and small bulldozers onto the beach. Then we would drag huge storm driven logs into piles and start our chainsaws. It was great fun and was always followed by food and songs.

In 1974, while John was being a librarian at Everett Community College, he approached me about teaching some guitar classes at the school. He had started a beginner’s guitar class and soon I joined him on the music faculty. These classes quickly became very popular and we soon had to bring in several more teachers. After four years, the total staff of guitar teachers included Dave and Flip Auer, Peter Schwimmer, Julie Sakahara and Bill Mitchell.

It was about this same time that John began traveling to folk music sessions in Vancouver and Victoria, BC. It was there that he first participated in “song circles”. He quickly realized the potential and gathered his Seattle area friends to start the first Seattle Song Circle. John’s steadfast support of the regular Sunday evening “Song Circle” established a tradition that continues today. No mention of John and the Seattle song circle would be complete without recalling John’s reaction when the book “Rise Up Singing” first appeared at song circles and hoots. He felt that the use of the book during song swapping sessions violated everything that was Holy about folk music. He and many others have felt that the book’s use as a crutch has forever changed the complexion of Song Circles.

During this time, we also produced four annual folk festivals at Everett Community College. These became three-day events with many workshops and concerts. Some of the performers that appeared during these festivals included Stan James, Linda Allen, Maggie Savage, Mike Marker, Peter Ludwin, Don Firth, Sally and John Ashford, Julie Sakahara, Peter Schwimmer, Rag Daddy, John Weiss, Frank Ferrell, Phil and Vivian Williams. It was all great fun and helped to recognize and build an interest in traditional folk music in the Snohomish County that continues today.

One time we were called upon to perform on the Everett waterfront as a commemorative plaque was placed in dedication of the Everett Massacre. We sang some Wobbly songs, but that event was particularly moving as the last surviving Wobbly member of the event was present and told of the day the steamship Verona sailed into Everett Harbor carrying many Wobblys to their death.

During the bi-centennial year of 1976, John produced twelve monthly concerts for the Everett Public Library.

With John’s full knowledge of history, it was only natural that he should write some contemporary songs pertaining to the history of our region. Two songs stand out: “The San Juan Pig”, and “Notice To Mariners.” He also put the words of a poem by Emma Rounds to music: "The Ballad of the Merry Ferry." Linda Allen published these songs in her fine book “Washington Songs and Lore.”

John Dwyer passed away in his beachfront home in November of 1997. To his honor, a special song circle was held at “Camp Long” in West Seattle. To say that it was well attended would be an understatement. The spoken and sung tributes to John went on into the late hours. It was clear to me that his reach was deep and his impact was immense.

There were two highlights of that gathering that stick in my memory. One was when the dreaded “blue book” was ceremoniously ripped up and thrown in the fireplace. That was a statement from all of us to our friend of many songs. There was an even more moving event that still brings a tear. As the circle of songs went around the room, it finally came to one chair. That chair held John’s guitar. A long silence happened. It was a very moving tribute to a great folksinger that had just left us.

There was a quality about John’s voice that I really enjoyed. It was unpretentious, strong, and I felt was uniquely suited to the singing of folk songs. And whereas many of the folk musicians of that time had egos to match their self-importance, John was clearly a person who simply enjoyed the music for what it was. He delighted in each and every song he knew, and he knew so very many. I can still see the gleam in his eye and hear the chuckle in his voice when he was able to supply the missing verse to song that someone less prepared had attempted to sing.

Following are five song selections from my archives that will bring you his voice again. You should be aware that these recordings were not made in professional recording studios, but rather were recorded on cheap tape recorders of the period in less than perfect acoustic conditions.

The first three songs were recoded in 1976 at a live concert at “Apple Jam”. This was a popular folk house that Linda Allen managed in Olympia, Washington in the 1970’s.

“Eggs and Marrowbone”

“The Sow Took The Measles”

“Bow Down”

These last two pieces were recorded at a Seattle song circle in 1979. These two examples not only exhibit the power and strength of John Dwyer’s voice, but also reflect the enthusiastic participation of the early Seattle song circles before the “blue book” was allowed to dominate the gatherings.

“Ben Backstay”

”Paddy Lay Back”

More songs and stories about John Dwyer are on the Mudcat Forum here.

The telling of this rich and vital period of folk music in the Puget Sound region could not be complete with presenting John and Sally (AKA Pushkara) Ashford. I will close this series of articles with John and Sally in the next HOOT issue.

Bob Nelson


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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Stewart
Date: 24 Nov 14 - 12:17 PM

nice article Bob

I only knew John for about a year, but sang with him every week at song circle for most of that year. A curmudgeon, but gentle with a big heart. Two things he didn't like - the blue book (when used in the song circle) and songs by Bill Staines. I once sang a Bill Staines song, which didn't sound like his typical songs. When John asked me about the song and I told him who wrote it, he begrudgingly said "well, I guess he wrote one good song."

Cheers, S. in Seattle

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Deckman
Date: 24 Nov 14 - 12:22 PM

Yes, John had his "snarly side", but even when that part of him showed he was still funny. I've heard from Linda Allen, whom I mention in the article,often sparred with John with musical putdowns. She said she's still laughing at some of those contests ... John didn't always win. CHEERS, bob(deckman)nelson

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 24 Nov 14 - 06:25 PM

Thanks for writing this, Bob, and for adding the links - it has been great to sit here and listen to the songs I grew up with. He used to kid us about being a captive audience - dad sat on the side of the bed and you were held in place by the blankets. He sang requests, but he also sang the songs he was learning, so of course we each learned the words to those songs. Later if he was singing and stumbled on the words, it was usually one of us kids who prompted the line he needed.

Maggie Dwyer

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Phil Cooper
Date: 24 Nov 14 - 11:46 PM

I met John twice, when we played in Seattle. He mailed us a copy of all the Long Harvest albums on tape.

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
Date: 25 Nov 14 - 11:17 PM


Gwynplaine (The Man who Laughs)

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Don Firth
Date: 26 Nov 14 - 09:36 PM

I learned how to teach folk guitar classes from Barry Olivier when Bob Nelson and I were barnstorming in the Bay Area in 1959. Barry had been teaching guitar classes for several years and he generously invited Bob and me to sit in on some of his classes (groups of ten) and gave us copies of the materials he used.

If I remember correctly, I first met John Dwyer in 1960. I had just started teaching folk guitar classes at the Folklore Center in Seattle's University District. We could pack seven people, plus me, in a small room in the back of the Folklore Center without their poking each other in the ear with their tuning heads. After a ten week course, they knew the basic chords and could sing over a dozen songs. The classes became so popular that about six months later I had to move them to larger quarters at the University YM/YWCA at Eagleson Hall.

John was one of the most enthusiastic students I ever had, and when the beginning and intermediate classes where over, he contacted me for private lessons where, again, he worked like a beaver, practicing new stuff on the guitar and learning songs right and left. He soon became one of the regulars at hoots and songfest and shortly settled into being one of the mainstays of the Seattle folk music scene—actually, considering the way his little red Geo Metro zipped up and down Interstate 5, taking in songfests wherever they happened to manifest themselves in Western Washington or Southern British Columbia, he was instrumental in making various groups acquainted with each other—all to the good!

I usually start private pupils with some basic classic guitar technique (easiest, fastest way to learn "finger-style" guitar), and although I don't think John continued working on classic technique beyond the basics, his accompaniments were always tasteful and unobtrusively supported whatever song he was singing. His voice was reminiscent of Ed McCurdy's and I believe McCurdy's records were one of his favorite sources for new songs, although he combed through every songbook he could get his hands on and delved into some pretty academic works on folk music and ballads. He wanted to know about the songs he sang.

Some of my favorite Sunday afternoons and evenings were spent at John's place on Priest Point Road near Marysville some thirty or forty miles north of Seattle. John would feed the gathering of singers and friends (occasional someone would bring a pot-luck dish) and if the weather was good, we'd often spend the afternoon loafing around on John's deck overlooking Puget Sound. Frequently, people were there from Bellingham, ninety miles north of Seattle, and from Vancouver, B.C. Casual warbling might begin in the afternoons, but by early evening, we were going strong.

John didn't smoke and he didn't want people smoking in the house, so if you wanted to cauterize your lungs, you had to go out on the deck. After some thirty years of smoking like a chimney, I had recently got married to a woman of infinite resource and sagacity (and who still looks mighty good in a pair of yoga pants!) who didn't smoke, and other people smoking in her vicinity bothered her, so I was determined (koff! koff!) to quit for a number of reasons. One Sunday afternoon at John's, we were all sitting on the deck, and I noticed that I only had three cigarettes left in the pack. I made up my mind. I casually smoked the three of them, gave my Bic lighter to a woman there who smoked, and never smoked again!   

Incidentally, John was best man at Barbara's and my wedding (before the ceremony, as the pastor was outlining the sequence of events, I remember his asking the pastor, "When does she put the ring in his nose?").   

It would be hard to over-estimate John Dwyer's impact on furthering interest in folk music in the Pacific Northwest. Not only did he sing (and occasionally write) interesting songs—and sing them well—his enthusiasm for the music was highly contagious.

Thank you, John!

Don Firth

P. S. More as it occurs to me.

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 28 Apr 18 - 11:34 PM

I had a text from my daughter this evening; she is at a RenFaire at which this evening apparently songs are shared according to topics. Sounds to me like the way hoots work - someone sings a song and it reminds someone else of another song - anyway, a friend of hers had a topic of "the unexpected strength of women."

She thought of "The Outlandish Knight" in response to the topic, because when she was a child she heard me sing it many times. When we were reading the poetry collection Rainbow in the Sky I was physically unable to simply read that poem. I had to sing the song because my father (John Dwyer) had that book and sang that version to us.

If he were here now (he died 20 years ago) he'd be so pleased to hear how his granddaughter spoke of this song as a family favorite, then sang it for the assembled audience. She was young when he died, so I'm glad some of the Dwyer love of storytelling-through-song got through to her. (Offered up for Dad's friends who helped him celebrate the arrival of his first grandchild nearly 30 years ago.)

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Deckman
Date: 29 Apr 18 - 02:03 PM

Maggie ... thank you for bringing this long ago thread up. I've enjoyed re-reading comments, especially Don Firth's, and even shed a tear or two.



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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Deckman
Date: 30 Apr 18 - 07:55 PM

I sent this thread to several old folkies who were John's friends. They might post comments, that's why I refreshed it. bob(deckman)nelson

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Bruce Baker
Date: 30 Apr 18 - 08:23 PM

A bit of nostalgia that I brought up - originally published in the SFS Flyer some time ago.

It is with sadness that we report the passing of John Dwyer last December just at publication deadline. John was one of the first SFS members and a tireless volunteer as well. John is best known for collecting and singing ballads and songs of the Northwest.

John was never shy to help whenever needed. If this meant driving an hour from his home in Marysville to Seattle for a mailing party (the first ones at Monroe Center when SFS had its offices there), then he did. And he did as recently as last October -- donating a bread sack to carry the proper accompaniment of scissors, good staplers, a paper cutter for the mailings -- all neatly dymolabeled "SFS" of course.

John was organized almost to a fault. His collection of recordings and music spanned forty years, and he could find most anything with relative ease, with copies made for those who asked. This from his years teaching library science at Everett Community College.

He spoke fondly of raising his four children in West Seattle. Of the "hoots" they would have and how he knew that they were listening through the furnace registers.    Of these, he was closest to Maggie, for she shared his love of music and puns. He finally joined the internet in the 90's , frequently corresponding with friends, family and the folk community. But it was merely a tool. He didn't have time for tinkering with it as I knew.

John was quick with a pun -- usually a full-blown groaner. He secretly enjoyed other's puns, though the outward scowl to fool the uninitiated.

Musically, he was a sponge -- but more organized. He would take notes each circle to look up old material, or polish something. He often knew several versions of a song, including the history behind each. He was given more to century old ballads than the singer songwriter material from current times. He espoused singing from memory rather than burying a nose in a book --(you communicate better with everyone that way). He wrote quite a number of songs, many of which he sung as duets with friends at Song Circle. No one else has as profoundly affected the folk community as far as song circles go, and John Dywer did -- from Vancouver to Portland and in between.

I know that his absence will be felt, and that his music will live on in the same tradition that he brought it. More than that, I feel privileged to have known him and called him friend for the past decade and a half.

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Subject: RE: Article - Seattle Folksinger John Dwyer
From: Stilly River Sage
Date: 30 Apr 18 - 09:32 PM

Thanks, Bruce! One of Dad's and my longest streams of puns was as we drove north from Everett to Marysville and slough each other with puns (if you've been there, you know why, and you'll see one here.)

Dad also loved classical music, and when I got to his house after being called about his death I realized I could have wheels - that tiny Geo Metro of his. The car had a couple hundred thousand miles on it, was worth about as much as a cup of coffee, but there was a high-end radio and cassette/CD player in it. We used to play "drop the needle" and I realized that if I turned the radio on it would probably be on KING-FM (a Seattle all-classical station). I turned it on and a symphony was just ending - literally about the last five bars of something. "Brahms!" I exclaimed. And nailed it! He'd have announced which symphony, but I figured I was as spot on as I could get for that brief amount of music.

It has been nice to revisit this.

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