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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Don Firth 40 years of Seattle Folklore Society (21) RE: 40 years of Seattle Folklore Society 10 Mar 06


The Seattle Song Circle instantly congealed one afternoon at the 1977 Northwest Folklife Festival. I recall my wife Barbara and me getting to a workshop conducted by Vancouver folk singer Jon Bartlett (on sea chanteys, I think) just as the workshop was ending. It one of those days when you want to take in three different events at the same time. There were just a few people left in the room, gathered around and talking with Jon. I can't remember who all was there, but John Dwyer definitely was, and I think Stan James and possible Bob Nelson were there too.

Jon was explaining the Vancouver song circle, and describing a good way to go about it if we wanted to organize a song circle in Seattle. He recommended sitting in a literal circle, deciding on whether to go clockwise or counter-clockwise, with each person taking a turn. That way, no one person can take over and dominate a session. When your turn comes up, you have three options:   you can sing something, possibly a solo, or something everyone can join in on, or teach a song to the group; you can request a song from someone else; or you can pass. He also suggested that for group singing, sea chanteys are a good place to start because they're easy to lead, easy for others to pick up, and group singing usually starts sounding good right away. Also, he made the practical recommendation of putting a time limit on the meetings—say, two hours—because sometimes they can stretch out and go all night. Not good if you need to work the following day.

Jon had to take off for another event, so we stood around, highly energized by his comments and enthusiasm, and said "Let's do it!"

Stan James got the use of an empty store front on upper University Way, we spread the word, and the Seattle Song Circle met for the first time the following Sunday evening. Once again, I can't recall off-hand who all was there, but a couple dozen people showed up, including John and Sally Ashford, John Dwyer, Stan James, Merritt Herring, Mary Wilson, Barbara and me of course, and I think Mary Garvey was also there. If not, then soon after. As I recall, we met every Sunday evening throughout the summer. As the word spread, the group quickly expanded.

A whole variety of songs were sung, group and solo. Jon was right about the sea chanteys. We started sounding pretty good right off, but still sufficiently rough around the edges that we didn't sound like a church choir—just as it should be. There were usually several small cassette recorders at the meetings and we learned a lot of songs from each other. Sally Ashford gathered enough material to put together a Seattle Song Circle song book (". . . as sung by. . . ."), not necessarily to be used like a hymnal, but just for everybody's enlightenment and enjoyment. Tunes transcribed and hand-written on manuscript paper by Sally, who also typed out the words, made umpteen photocopies, bound them in notebook folders, and distributed them. Good collection. Bless you, Sally! I still have a copy of it around here somewhere.

Nothing succeeds like success. I don't know how it came about—I think I detect the fine Machiavellian hand of Stan James somewhere in here—but somehow a Sail and Chantey Festival got organize. There were three historical ships docked in Moss Bay over in Kirkland. One of the vessels was the Wawona, (currently located at the south end of Lake Union). If I have this right, the Coast Guard raised the sails on the Wawona from time to time to make sure the tackle still worked—and sadly, the Coast Guardsmen didn't seem to know a sea chantey from a tap dance. Someone had the brilliant idea bringing in a bunch of chantey singings and turning this event into a festival. I'm not sure who organized this or how it was organized, but maybe someone who does know can fill this in.

In any case, a bunch of singers came down from B. C., including Paddy Graber, Paddy Hernon, and battalion of others, and some folks came up form Portland (Oregon). There was one monumental songfest at the storefront where the Seattle Song Circle met the night before the festival, and the following day on the deck of the Wawona, we all stood around bellowing chanteys as the Coast Guardsmen did the actual work of raising the sails. Some rainwater had accumulated in the folds of the sails, not to mention a whole zoological garden full of bugs, so as the sails unfurled above us, there was quite a collection of weird stuff raining down on us!

As the festival proceeded, there were songfest everywhere, one of which was in the Wawona's fo'c'sle, so we got a chance to sing a bunch of sea ballads and fo'c'sle chanteys in a real fo'c'sle! The festival culminated in concert in, I believe, a large church in Kirkland. Big crowd. There was a lot of individual singing by locals and visiting firemen, and I had a chance to trot out several nautical songs I had recently stolen from Gordon Bok's recordings. This was where I first met and heard George Austin who lives in Kirkland, one of the finest finger-pickers I've ever heard in person. He started coming regularly to Song Circle meetings. Naturally, the concert was followed by a big party—with lots of singing. What a crazy bunch! Never enough!

The following summer (1978), lots of people were out of town, so the Seattle Song Circle almost fizzled out, but about a half-dozen of us kept meeting at various places (the real estate company sold the storefront out from under us, but then they were letting us use it as a freebie anyway, bless their hearts!). John Dwyer, Mary Wilson, Mary Garvey, Rob Stitt, Barbara and I, and a fellow who went by the name of "Bulk" (I never heard what his real name was) held the fort until folks started turning up again in fall.

Barbara and I went almost every Sunday evening for a few years, but between other things intruding from time to time and fluctuations in the nature of the meetings themselves, we sort of drifted off. We returned for the John Dwyer Memorial Song Circle meeting at Camp Long in West Seattle in January of 1998. About 125 people there, including some of the same folks from B. C. who had come to the Sail and Chantey festival over twenty years before.

Barbara and I really should go again and see what's going on.

More later.

Don Firth


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