All Together Now: Forbes Library ‘community sing’ will welcome autumn and celebrate community

  • A community sing at Forbes Library in Northampton in June 1918 reportedly drew 5,000-6,000 people to the library lawn and nearby grounds; it was one of several singalongs held that summer to support U.S. troops during World War One. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • Above and below, a community sing at Forbes Library in Northampton in June 1918. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • A community sing at Forbes Library in Northampton in June 1918 reportedly drew 5,000-6,000 people to the library lawn and nearby grounds; it was one of several singalongs held that summer to support U.S. troops during World War One. Photos courtesy of Forbes Library

  • F. Alex Johnson, of the rock band Colorway, with his wife, Jodi L. Nicholas, leads a practice session in June at Forbes Library for the Sept. 23 community sing. Photo courtesy of Forbes Library

  • Forbes Library Director Lisa Downing, seen here on the front lawn of the Northampton library, says the community sing scheduled there Sept. 23 will be the first on the library grounds since the end of World War One in November 1918. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 9/5/2018 3:37:36 PM

The last time Forbes Library held a Community Sing, it was November, 1918 and World War I had just ended. Just a day earlier, in fact.

“This was a big moment for our country,” said Lisa Downing, the library’s director. “They claimed this was going to be ‘The war to end all wars.’ That was it. It wasn’t even World War I — it was just the Great War, and there would be no more wars like that.

“Well,” Downing added, “of course that hasn’t panned out.”

All through the summer of 1918, in fact, there were community sings on the library lawn and nearby sidewalks — as many as 5,000-6,000 people showed up for one in June, the Gazette reported at the time — with residents determined to show solidarity with U.S. troops fighting in France. Those group sings were designed to “unite and inspire patriotism … as a means of supporting ‘our boys,’ ” Elise Bernier-Feeley, a local history librarian at Forbes, said in an email.

But since the end of the WWI, there hasn’t been anything comparable at Forbes — until now.

On the evening of Sunday, September 23, the library, in conjunction with local musicians, volunteers and organizations including the Northampton Senior Center, Historic Northampton and the Northampton Community Music Center, will host a group singalong. It’s the kickoff event for Forbes’ 125th anniversary as well as a renewed call for finding something that binds people together, especially in an era marked by strident political partisanship.

Downing notes that the library has hosted any number of music-related events over the years, from concerts to songwriting workshops, but that this time “we're embarking on really trying to embrace the spirit of a participatory [event]. The people in the audience are actually the performers.”

The Sept. 23 singalong, which will include four songs, marks the start of autumn as well the library’s big anniversary celebration, a yearlong series of events that will run through October 2019 under the tagline “Working for the Common Good.”

Northampton resident Roy Faudree, a theater enthusiast and one of the volunteers helping organize the community sing, says the event is also about reclaiming the idea that music is something anyone can participate in — a notion certainly more prevalent in 1918, before the advent of radio, TV, the internet and a professional music industry offering studio-perfected albums and downloads.

“Nearly everyone loves music in some way, but we’ve become receivers of music,” said Faudree. “I think we’re kind of intimidated by the fact that we get to hear really incredible, professional musicians and singers. And we think of ourselves as non-singers, which is weird … we don’t think of ourselves as ‘we can’t dance’ — we participate in dancing.”

What’s important about a group singalong, he said, is not how good the singing is “but all the other things that come from it — feeling part of a group, the physical exercise and exuberance.”

And never fear, several local music pros this summer have been helping potential singers learn the songs — “Shine on Harvest Moon,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Harvest Moon” and “City of Immigrants”— in different practice sessions, including Jim Armenti (Lonesome Brothers), F. Alex Johnson (Colorway) and Joe Blumenthal ((A-E-I-O-Ukes). Those players will also be on hand to lead the Sept. 23 event.

“Part of the battle has been to make people understand that it’s not a performance,” Faudree said. “We’re asking them to join in, but to join in on a participatory singalong.”

‘Let’s do it now’

Downing says she and other library staff had been talking for some time about staging a community sing and how they might actually get people to participate. She shared those thoughts at one point with Marie Westburg, director of the Northampton Senior Center, who in turn connected her and Faudree, as Faudree leads small group sings out of the senior center.

When Faudree heard of the library’s idea, says Downing, he “fell in love with the history. We said ‘We have these anniversaries coming up — let’s do it now.’ ”

Faudree, who is originally from Oklahoma, came to Northampton for graduate school — he earned an MFA in acting from Smith College in 1974 — and stayed in the region after marrying. His wife, Sheena See, received her undergraduate degree in botany from Smith in 1973.

“I thought of Northampton as being this very small community, at that time,” said Faudree. But learning about the group sings that took place at Forbes in 1918 gave him a sense of a larger dynamic at work in the town.

“There were thousands of people that showed up, so I just thought, ‘Wow, what a great thing,’ ” he said. “Probably a large percentage of the community came.”

Faudree teamed up with the local musicians to help arrange practice sessions and to choose the songs for the big event. The theme of coming together around shared values, and America’s history as a nation of newcomers, guided some of those choices, such as “City of Immigrants” by Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie’s Depression-era folk standard “This Land is Your Land.”

Since September 23 will also feature a Harvest Moon, the notion of lunar light factored into the other song choices, like Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” Faudree, Downing and other planners also wanted to choose tunes that are easy enough for a large group to handle, and which represent the passage of time (“Shine On Harvest Moon” dates from the early 1900s and “City of Immigrants” from the early 2000s).

“The theme is community,” said Faudree. “I think in 1918, it was probably a fairly homogeneous, European, third-or-fourth-generation group of white people that lived here…. [But today] there’s such diversity … we are from everywhere. To be American is not a race, it’s a gathering of all races.”

Downing said that if the 1918 community sings drew thousands of people to Forbes, “I’ll be happy if we have hundreds. I’m really excited to see what kind of magic can happen out here on the lawn.”

The Sept. 23 Community Sing at Forbes Library will begin at 6 p.m., when people are invited to bring chairs or blankets and picnic on the lawn. Songs will begin at moonrise; lyric sheets will be available. The rain date is Monday, Sept. 24. A final rehearsal of the music takes place Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. at Memorial Hall and will be led by Tom Manhken (of Trailer Park) and Mary Witt (of The O-Tones).

 




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