Putting the pandemic to good use: Veteran folksinger Paul Kaplan gets digital contributions from many musicians on his new album 

  • Singer-songwriter Paul Kaplan used downtime during the pandemic to make a new album, and he received digital contribtions from many other musicians. Photo courtesy Paul Kaplan

  • Paul Kaplan received help from a Kickstarter campaign to fund his new album, “We Shall Stay Here.” Image courtesy Paul Kaplan

  • A poster, made from a New York Times article in 2006, that inspired Paul Kaplan’s song “Welcome Home.” It’s signed by George “Shotgun” Shuba, a Brooklyn Dodgers player who shook Jackie Robinson’s hand in Robinson’s first professional baseball game, in 1946. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Kaplan, seen at his home in Amherst, did what many musicians have done this past year: record a new album with digital contributions from other players. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A poster, made from a New York Times article in 2006, that became the inspiration for the Paul Kaplan’s song “Welcome Home.” It’s signed by George “Shotgun” Shuba, a Brooklyn Dodgers player who shook Jackie Robinson’s hand in Robinson’s first professional baseball game, in 1946.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Kaplan, seen here at his home in Amherst, did what many musicians have done this past year: record a new album with digital contribtions from other players.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/16/2021 2:05:16 PM

When the pandemic hit, Paul Kaplan, who teaches music in Springfield schools, suddenly found himself working remotely. Not ideal, exactly — but he also had more free time, given he didn’t have to commute to work from his Amherst home.

But Kaplan, a veteran singer-songwriter whose career in music stretches back to the late 1960s, was also isolated from fellow musicians, shut off in particular from live editions of a long-running open mic that he’s hosted for over 20 years in Amherst.

How might he navigate this strange time? Well, why not use the extra hours at home to make the record he’d been thinking about for a while, and bring in some musical contributions from friends via the internet?

That proved the genesis of “We Shall Stay Here,” a new album on which Kaplan has enlisted contributions from players from the Valley and a number of other places, including New York City and England. The 12-song disc also speaks to the strange era of COVID-19, with songs that examine life lived on Zoom and in blogs, while looking forward to a better tomorrow.

“A lot of these songs express a sense of hope and speak to our resiliency, and about building a better society,” Kaplan said during a recent phone call. “As odd as it might have seemed to be recording an album mostly in isolation, I was just thrilled with the way I was able to get contributions from all these other musicians.”

All told, some three dozen people, including many backup singers, added parts to the album. Some key contributors include fiddle and mandolin player Jay Ungar — he composed the instrumental “Ashokan Farewell” that became the theme music of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary — bassist Molly Mason (Ungar’s partner), and concertina player John Roberts.

And Kaplan, who’s 72 and grew up in Pennsylvania, says he couldn’t have made the album without the work of sound engineer Max Cohen, who recorded Kaplan’s guitar and vocals at Shoestring Studios in Belchertown and then stitched in dozens of digital tracks from other musicians. Cohen was also able to piece together two live recordings of one song — the tracks were recorded before the pandemic — into one cohesive piece.

“Max really performed magic on this album,” Kaplan says. He noted that he and Cohen wore masks during the sessions (except when Kaplan was singing in the recording booth) and maintained social distancing.

Kaplan’s been writing songs since the 1960s — several have been recorded by other players — and he’s made five previous albums. He also produced several Phil Ochs albums for Folkways Records in the 1970s, and folk legend Pete Seeger once said “I am a big fan of Paul Kaplan. I love his singing; I love his songs.”

He’s been a longtime performer, and for 21 years he’s hosted the Pioneer Valley Folk Music Society’s “Song & Story Swap,” a mostly monthly open mic in Amherst that always includes a featured performer; the series has been staged online since the pandemic arrived.

Through his career he’s made connections with many musicians, he said, and thus was able to draw on widespread support for his new project.

“So many people said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ I had to beg them to let me pay them,” Kaplan said with a laugh. “I think a lot of musicians are just happy to have any work these days.”

Pete Seeger and Jackie Robinson

On his new record, Kaplan has grouped his songs, one of which pays homage to Seeger, into three sections, “kind of how you might present a show, with three distinct parts,” he said.

For the first three, he’s devised new lyrics to other songs to look at the lighter side, such as it is, of COVID-19. For instance, he’s revamped “Little Boxes,” a 1962 satire of suburbia that Seeger made famous.

In Kaplan’s version, those little boxes — the identical homes of suburbia — are now the ones that frame people’s heads on Zoom and reveal a behind-the-scenes look at their messy homes: “And somebody’s dog is barking / And her husband is in his underwear / And don’t ask what she is wearing / Down below that missing frame.”

“We Shall Stay Here” also offers three songs from Kaplan’s debut album, 1982’s “Life on This Planet,” which he says he always wanted to digitize. And the new record’s final section, called “Rising,” speaks to what Kaplan calls “grace, struggle and hope.”

“The Voice of Pete,” for instance, includes new lyrics that Kaplan has set to the old union ballad “Joe Hill,” which was a staple of Seeger’s repertoire. Kaplan says he wrote the new lyrics to honor his old friend “because his songs and his voice still mean so much to me and to a lot of other people.”

There’s a nod to Black Lives Matter in “Survival,” on which Kaplan contributes just a vocal and other players back him with a Tibetan singing bowl, African drums and percussion, and, at the song’s conclusion, a saxophone.

“Welcome Home” also speaks to the issue of racial acceptance. It’s based on a famous photograph, dubbed “A Handshake for the Century,” taken in 1946 during Jackie Robinson’s first game as a minor leaguer with the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Robinson, the first African American player to break modern baseball’s color barrier, crossed home plate after hitting a home run, the next hitter, George “Shotgun” Shuba, grasped his hand to congratulate him.

Kaplan said he wrote and recorded the song some years back and sent a copy on cassette to George Shuba’s family in Youngstown, Ohio. He got back a signed copy of the photograph from George Shuba, who died in 2014, thanking him for the tune. And in July, he’s been invited to perform the song at the dedication of a statue in Youngstown that will commemorate the famous handshake.

Kaplan, a lifelong baseball fan who as a boy saw Jackie Robinson play in Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park, says he’s happy that “Welcome Home” has found a home on the new record: “I think that’s definitely a song about hope and acceptance and building a better society.”

Like many musicians, Kaplan hopes he’ll have some opportunities to play live again as 2021 progresses. In the meantime, he’ll host a virtual concert March 27 at 7:30 p.m. to launch the album. Admission is free though donations are appreciated. Registration is limited to 100, and you can register at pvfs.us/concerts/Paul-Kaplan/register-for-Mar27.

The event may also be viewed on YouTube at pvfs.us/concerts/Paul-Kaplan/livestream-Mar27.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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