It has been exactly five years since I joined Rise Up Singing in Harmony. In the words of Roger Conant, its founder and coordinator, RUSH is “a group which meets monthly to sing together, largely using the Rise Up Singing book but not exclusively.” That’s a pretty accurate description; in fact, RUSH is not exclusive in any way. Anyone can show up at the local library at 7 pm for the group sing, or an hour earlier with something to contribute to a potluck meal. People stay as long as they can, taking it in turns to choose a song for the group to sing, and as someone bids the group goodnight, the others pull their chairs in to close the gap in the circle. Staying longer means that one’s turn to choose a song comes around faster, but funnily enough, if one thinks of a song but doesn’t have time to request it, it is often the case that other group members will spontaneously choose that very song. Oh, and there are musical instruments. Two or three people always bring guitars, and occasionally someone comes with a fiddle or a banjo. Eventually, after two or three hours of non-stop singing, one of us—usually Roger—says that he really has to go to bed now, and after helping to pack up, we disperse into the country night with a song on our lips. And in our hearts.
For those who aren’t familiar with Rise Up Singing, it’s a compilation of lyrics and chords to 1200 beloved songs, mostly from the United States and the British Isles but with a sprinkling from around Europe and Latin America. The contents are organized into a number of categories, such as Golden Oldies, Gospel, Home & Family, Rich & Poor, Hard Times & Blues, and Hope, and also indexed by first line, genre, and composer.
Most of the songs and most of the RUSH regulars are of the 1960’s and 1970’s-era folk revival and social movements, politically conscious and left of center. Annie Patterson and Peter Blood, the two compilers of Rise Up Singing, live just down the road from the library where we meet and were deeply inspired and influenced by Pete Seeger. (They are also Quakers, as are the founders of RUSH, but don’t wear their religious affiliation on their sleeves.) As such, Peter and Annie believe in singing as a collective activity, and travel the country and, indeed, the world helping to establish and encourage group sings in which there may be a coordinator, but every participant is equal and equally welcome. Our RUSH, one of many, is based on this model.
In the five years that I’ve been going to RUSH more or less every month, it has become something I count on. Contrary to the implications of its name, it is not an adrenaline-induced experience, but brings with it a quieter pleasure, thrilling nonetheless. There’s a certain calm and predictability about it that is deeply comforting. After a while one gets to know the tastes of each of the regulars, and to love them, even if they aren’t necessarily one’s own. (When they are, it’s a double delight.) One of us always requests Danny Boy or Loch Lomond, preferably both. Another loves Home on the Range, another the bleak Four Strong Winds, yet another anything by Phil Ochs. This Land is Your Land is a regular, along with anything by Woody Guthrie. Our fearless leader likes to bring us new songs he has picked up at the People’s Music Network or the Old Songs Festival, and another regular member likes to write new lyrics for old songs; for the most part, though, we sing a whole lot of Oldies. But when we really harmonize—now that‘s a rush.
Because most of us are of a certain age, people often request songs in memory of one of their parents or songs that evoke their own children’s childhoods. Waltzing with Bears is a favorite in this latter category (with a new verse by Joy written from Uncle Walter’s wife’s perspective), and Joni Mitchell’s nostalgic number, The Circle Game. Occasionally, very occasionally, some of our children or grandchildren come along, and the group is super-welcoming and deferential to their tastes. Still, despite the demographics of our group, the next generation is carrying on the tradition. There’s one young man, Matthew Vaughan, who has made it his personal mission to record and upload to YouTube a video of himself singing every single song from Rise Up Singing. You can find his playlist here.
For me, RUSH is a kind of homecoming. Even though I think I’m the only regular member who is an immigrant, I grew up with these songs, many of which I learned from my mother or from two books of American folksongs—one that I discovered in the summer of 1962 in Greece, another compiled by Peter Seeger and Alan Lomax that my mother gave me in 1969, the Christmas before we came to the United States. Then there were the songs I learned after coming to America, through the anti-war or anti-nuclear movements, or that were simply in the air while I was in high school, university, and in my twenties. There is always a part of me that wishes that we were more open to singing in different languages or that the selection was more international. Perversely, given that we are a group of folkies (of which I count myself one), I find myself wishing for more recent and raucous numbers, for more rock, punk, and Reggae. Some of the songs, like Oklahoma, date from an America before my time, and remind me that I am a bit of an outsider to this society. But in truth I find that I know and like more than 90 percent of all the songs we sing, and by now am as much of an insider as just about anyone in the group. Peter and Annie are now taking advance orders for a sequel, Rise Again, with 1200 new songs that do update and diversify the selection in Rise Up Singing. You can order it here.
Yesterday I took a solo trip to Maine and back to visit dear friends and family, driving nearly 500 miles in all (couldn’t resist rounding up so as to link to the song). I knew that it was a RUSH Saturday and was sorry to have to miss it, especially since I had missed last month’s RUSH as well, but some things can’t be helped. Besides, a road trip always brings a rush of its own, as one not only meets up with loved ones and drives through places that spark a rush of old memories, but encounters new people along the way. I find that even the tollbooth operators are a trip, and the workers and customers at the convenience stores where I stop for a quick cup of tea-to-go.
Last night, on my way back, when the Global Positioning System on my cell phone informed me that I would reach home by 9:23 pm, it occurred to me that I might be able to get back in time for the last round of songs at RUSH. If so, I would request Gordon Bok’s Isle au Haut Lullaby, doubly fitting because I would be Maine-returned and because people often choose lullabies as the evening draws to a close. But at the gas station in Leominster where I always stop to tank up on gasoline and caffeine, I was delayed because the kind store clerk refilled the milk dispenser for me (I can’t abide half-and-half in my tea) and because the young man ahead of me in the check-out line was in distress. His knee was all swollen up (he rolled up his sweatpants to show us) and he was awaiting the results of tests that would diagnose him with either Lyme Disease or rheumatoid arthritis. As I rushed out with my tea, I realized that my estimated time of arrival would now be closer to 10 pm and that I would most probably miss RUSH altogether. (To make matters worse, I found that the small amount of half-and-half I had already put in my tea before the clerk filled the dispenser must have been artificially flavored with hazelnut, and it tasted foul.) But I was determined not to speed, not least because I had had a closer encounter with a moose on the same road less than a month earlier. Besides, I wanted to stay in the peaceful mood of my visit to Maine and honor the leisurely pace of RUSH.
As I neared the library, I saw cars leaving and my heart sank. Still, there was a handful of cars in the parking lot, so I drove up anyway. As I walked in, a little breathless, half a dozen of the organizers and diehard members were standing in a loose circle saying their goodbyes. They greeted me with surprise and when I explained that I’d just this moment driven back from Maine, they offered to sing one last song of my choice. Of course I asked for “Isle au Haut Lullaby” and before we all dispersed into the country night, they sweetly obliged. They were in no rush.
Isle au Haut Lullaby (Hay Ledge Song)
by Gordon Bok
If I could give you three things,
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining seas
When you see old Isle au Haut
Rising in the dawn,
You will play in yellow fields
In the morning sun.
Sleep where the moon is warm
And the moon is high.
Give sadness to the stars,
Sorrow to the sea.
Do you hear what the sails are saying
In the wind’s dark song?
Give sadness to the wind,
Blown alee and gone.
Sleep now, the moon is high,
And the wind blows cold;
For you are sad and young
And the sea is old.
If I could give you three things
I would give you these:
Song and laughter and a wooden home
In the shining sea.
© Folk-Legacy Records, Inc.
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