Some Coffeehouse History
From 1976 to 1989 I helped run a coffeehouse featuring first local, then regional, national and international folk musicians. It took place in a meeting room of the First Parish Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It was started by my friend Ed Visco. He got the idea to have a one-time coffeehouse. I wanted to be there, but I was also involved in what turned out to be my one and only play at Stratton Players, the local community theater. I had maybe three lines. I did help out with preparing for the coffeehouse, but couldn't be there while it was going on.
It went well enough that Ed thought it would be worth trying again in a couple of weeks. Since the play would be over by then, I could be more involved and volunteered to be the emcee. I had no idea I'd still be doing that nearly thirteen years later.
For the first few years, we found local performers willing to play for free to get a little exposure, then after Ed suggested we call it the Northern Lights Coffeehouse, we took it a step further and formed the Northern Lights Folk Arts Society. The main focus was the coffeehouse and we also started a contra dance once a month with New Hampshire caller Mary DesRosiers, Alan Block on fiddle and Peter Barnes on piano.
With a new focus on professional musicians in the coffeehouse, I also took on booking musicians. I got some advice from Gene Petit, the station manager of WICN-FM, the Worcester, MA National Public Radio affiliate. He provided me with a number of contacts. One of my first calls was to Sally Rogers, a midwestern singer/songwriter who had recently relocated from Michigan to Connecticut. My friend Joanna and I had seen her at what turned out to be the last Fox Hollow Folk Festival and she'd bought Sally's album. When I let Sally know we were just getting started with hiring professionals, she was extremely helpful.
Northern Lights and Nowell Sing We Clear
Ed was involved with the local Community Concerts association, something my parents had been interested in some years earlier. Things were winding down with that group. They had some money left over, and Ed, who had heard of English performers John Roberts and Tony Barrand and their show Nowell Sing We Clear, suggested presenting the show as a joint venture of Community Concerts and the Northern Lights Coffeehouse. The CC group approved the idea and so did the folks of Northern Lights, so the first of several presentations of Nowell Sing We Clear at the coffeehouse, using the church sanctuary, was set up. I don't recall exactly what year it took place, but it was in the early 1980s. We got the word out through local radio stations, including some in the Boston area and WICN, of course. We also used a very nice small poster and flier illustration by Joanna - and I certainly wish I had a copy, but if there's still one around, it's 3,000 miles away.
So what is Nowell Sing We Clear? Glad you asked. It's billed as "A Pageant of Midwinter Carols" drawn from English traditional music. The performers in the Northern Lights days were John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig and Steve Woodruff. John and Tony, both from England, had met as graduate students at Cornell University and began performing sea ballad, drinking songs, and songs of the working people. When the idea for Nowell Sing We Clear was conceived, they got together with New England performers Fred and Steve. The first Nowell Sing We Clear performance was in 1975. By the time they came to Northern Lights, the performance was already becoming a tradition in several communities. It's a presentation of old songs and tunes as played and sung in English villages for generations and handed down. Fortunately some of the music was preserved in written form by folklorists, so John and Tony had a lot of material to draw on. Even today, after more than 30 years of performing the show, they're still finding "new" material.
A Lens Is Born
On Monday morning, while I was updating my Loreena McKennitt and Celtic Music: Christmas pages because Loreena's latest album was now available, I played the video of Loreena doing "The Seven Rejoices of Mary," in which she uses the melody of the Irish traditional song "Star of the County Down." That got me thinking of the versions I was previously familiar with, one done by the Silly Sisters, Maddy Prior and June Tabor, and I also recalled it was part of the Nowell Sing We Clear show. That got me wondering if the show was still around, and when I found out it was, I spent the rest of the day alternating creating a lens about it with other things I found to do, including cutting back on some of the politically oriented forums on Delphi now that the election is over.
Usually my first criteria for creating a lens about performers is whether they have CDs available at Amazon.com, but this time I was more interested in creating the lens to let folks know about Nowell Sing We Clear. It includes the performance schedule for the shows they'll be doing in December. They're all in the Northeast, ranging from New Hampshire down to just outside Washington, DC. I was pretty pleased to see a couple of folklore societies, a coffeehouse and the Old Songs group presenting the show. Old Songs, of course, puts on the annual Old Songs Folk Festival in late June west of Albany, New York. That was started by Bill and Andy Spence who used to run Front Hall Records, a label John and Tony recorded on and home to the first three Nowell Sing We Clear albums.