FFM event for the League of Women Voters Johnson County, Oct. 25, 7 p.m.

Join us in cyberspace this Sunday evening to sing along in celebration of women’s suffrage! Members of the Family Folk Machine have created recordings of five suffrage songs, and at this event you can sing them along with us. Three of the songs were used in the struggle for women’s suffrage 100+ years ago, and the other two are more recent songs with new texts that honor the struggle for Black women’s suffrage over the last hundred years.

The event begins at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 25. You can join using this Zoom link:
Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 924 2931 3394
Passcode: 216189

The program will probably run about 40 minutes. Hope to see you there!

First video released for One Planet: Virtual Edition!

We’re so pleased to be able to share a sneak peek at our virtual choir project! The first project video is complete:

Images and animation by Susan Stamnes. “That Cause” is a Danish hymn set to a Danish folk tune, and the writer of the text immigrated to Iowa. You can learn more about the background of this song in this short informational video by Associate Director Jon Ranard:


One Planet goes virtual

The Family Folk Machine was putting together a great concert that was to take place this past May. We decided in March to pick up with the “One Planet” songs this fall, after a pandemic-induced delay. But now we have learned that singing in large groups is a very efficient way to spread viruses, and it’s unclear when we can safely meet again to rehearse.

So we have begun to create a virtual One Planet concert that we hope to release sometime this fall. Our singers and band members are recording their parts from home, and our directors are editing them together. We have a stellar crew of board members pulling together beautiful nature photography and other visual images to create videos for the songs. The project is giving us a way of keeping the choir in touch and encouraging people to sing at home. And we’re really excited to share the results when the time is right!

If you’d like to get involved, you can! Contact Jean at jean@familyfolkmachine.org .

Family Folk Machine Earth Day Celebration

Press Citizen: Family Folk Machine Plans Earth Day Celebration

Family Folk Machine, Iowa City’s multi-generational, non-auditioned choir, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in our spring session. “One Planet” will celebrate the Earth and its precious resources and humanity’s role in honoring and preserving it.

Though small on a global scale, Family Folk Machine will experience some changes this spring. Artistic and Executive Director Jean Littlejohn is out of the country with her family for the first part of 2020, but she has left the program in capable hands. Jean worked with Family Folk Machine’s associate directors to plan this spring’s musical selections and arrangements and to assure continuity. Associate Director Jon Ranard is filling the position of interim vocal director. Returning members know Jon from his previous work with Family Folk Machine, including his roles as vocal music coach and accompanist. His prior experience includes several decades as a choral and musical theater director, vocal coach, clinician, and adjudicator for groups from preschool through the collegiate level and beyond. Family Folk Machine is fortunate to have someone as experienced as Jon to lead the singers. Jean plans to resume vocal direction next fall.

Also returning are Associate Directors Gayla Drake, providing band direction and songwriting instruction, and Nicole Upchurch, leading youth programming. In collaboration with Eulenspiegel Puppet Theater, Nicole and the Family Folk Machine kids will be developing an original shadow puppetry presentation. An original musical composition by one of our youth members will accompany the puppetry for a new level of artistic expression for the kids.

This spring’s program includes a variety of music, coming from favorites such as Electric Light Orchestra, Dolly Parton, REM, and Pete Seeger, as well as newer and lesser-known works. The “One Planet” concert will be held on Saturday, May 9, at 2:00 p.m. at the Englert Theatre.

Our spring session began on January 12, but new members of any age and level of experience are still welcome to join. Jon notes that “the mission and focus of the group and all that it can provide for participants, audiences, and the community-at-large speaks to the heart of what music can and should be all about for people of all ages, backgrounds, musical experience, and ability levels. Groups like the Family Folk Machine can provide so much more than just a musical outlet. There is a true atmosphere of family, inclusiveness, caring, fun, learning, laughter, safety, creativity, and support that can be felt and experienced just by participating. With some wonderful singers of all ages, and an instrumental ensemble ranging from guitar, bass, and drums to cellos and ukuleles, and a great organizational structure and attention to detail, Family Folk Machine is a great example of what community involvement through music and the arts can mean.”

Please contact president@familyfolkmachine.org for details about joining. Family Folk Machine is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Visit www.familyfolkmachine.org to learn more.

Originally published in the Press Citizen. Aprille Clarke is president of the Family Folk Machine Board of Directors.

Lyrics and Program Notes for “One Family”

The Family Folk Machine presents “One Family” on Sunday, November 17 at 3:00 p.m. at the Englert Theatre

Circle of the Sun

The FFM first performed this Sally Rogers song in 2014. Associate Director Gayla had a good idea about how we could spruce it up for this year’s performance. The song reassures us that all the stages of life—birth, childhood, adulthood, and death—are part of the circles of sun, clouds, wind, and rain.

Let Her Learn

The FFM performed this beautiful song by Nicole Upchurch in 2017 with the Awful Purdies. Today we present the song with our own band. Nicole’s lyrics reflect many of the themes of this concert: giving birth, aging, leaning on the example of our elders, and the gift of finding “family” in those linked to us “not by blood, but by unity.”

Walkin’ Daddy

I love hearing Greg Brown sing this song, a warm tribute to his dad and also to the power of finding your purpose in community. “Ain’t no road a good road ’til it’s free to everyone.” “Ain’t no sorrow can dim the love come shinin’ through.” “I know what I am here to do: to be of use, try to help the deal along.”

Hidden Youth

Songwriter and Folk Machinist Susan Stamnes writes:
When I was young, I used to sit at holiday dinners and listen to the older folks talk about their surgeries, and aches and pains, and latest prescriptions and thought, hmmm, I’m not doing that when I get older. Fast forward, and here I am doing the same thing.

Aging hit me rather suddenly after I had chemotherapy for breast cancer at 42. The treatment itself was no big deal (and I’m fine), but it started a cascade of aging-related things that I wasn’t quite ready for.

I recently saw a meme that encapsulates this song. It was an old man looking in the mirror at a young man with the caption “The sad part about growing older is that no one can still see you are young inside.” I love the intergenerational aspect of Family Folk Machine. But we know each other as we are now. Can the kids see beyond the wrinkles to imagine what we older adults might have been like in years gone past? There are so many hidden layers to a person that we may not know.

Time is falling. Age is pulling
Trying hard to keep up with the game.
Creaking, sagging, slowing, losing,
Yet inside I somehow feel the same.
Low and high times. Long time friendships.
Please forgive if I forget your name.

No going back. Nothing to be done.
Under the wrinkles, I feel young.
Can you see it? The inner truth?
Can you see it? The hidden youth.

Pills, appointments, support garments–
Dinner table talk involves them all.
Lists, reminders, lapsing memory–
Why was I just heading down the hall?
Biking, hiking. Fragile bones.
Alive means not afraid to fall.

Inside I still feel the same. Inside I still feel the same.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

The adults of the Folk Machine enjoy watching the kids of the Folk Machine grow in wisdom and stature through the years. We are fortunate to have a mighty group of junior-high kids in the FFM, and they present this song as a testimony to their readiness to face the problems of our time. And you need to get out of the way “if you can’t lend a hand.”

The Great Divide

When I first heard this beautiful and pointed song by Janis Ian, I already had Dylan’s “The Times” on my mind, so it seemed like a cosmic resonance that The Great Divide responds to the Dylan song in its images and rhetoric. “The Great Divide” takes Dylan’s “you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” runs with that watery image—”Step out of the water before you drown”—and indicts those who “turn a blind eye” or “follow like sheep.” “You whose silence cost your soul: learn to speak or dig your hole . . . The tide’s already risen, the deluge is at hand; don’t sit there by the ocean while it sucks away the sand, ’cause you’ll be left with nothin’ but the memory of land.”
The fact that Ian includes parent-child relationships in this song brings the activist side of the message into a real-life context. “Come, good people, and gather here, you who still hold freedom dear; step across the waters, bring your sons and daughters.”

Homeward Bound

Gayla Drake co-wrote this song with FFMer Jerry Partridge as part of last spring’s Family Folk Machine Shop, a songwriting workshop that continued the work of a songwriting class Gayla taught in the fall of 2018. “Homeward Bound” expands our perspective to consider the human family and the way we can bring that feeling of family into our interactions with friends and with strangers.

In our humanity we all seek freedom
To make a start, broken hearts need healing
We cannot be blind to the ties that bind
That create one family in the great Divine
As the world turns ‘round, as the rains pour down
As the sunlight warms us, wherever we’re found
In this dimming light, grant us sacred sight
Bring us through the mystery, lead us through the night
Back to hallowed ground, lead us homeward bound

Every man I see, my father, my brother
Every woman I meet, my sister, my mother
Every precious child, my son, my daughter
And every elder, grandmother, grandfather
We’re blossoms and leaves on one old tree
More alike than different, despite what we see
We all have minds and hearts and eyes
Our hearts are the rhythm that gives us life
So let the drum beat pound, lead us homeward bound.

We’re blossoms and leaves on one old tree
Ancient and sacred, rooted in mystery
My father, my brother, my sister, my mother
My son, my daughter, grandmother, grandfather
All those lost are found, and we’re homeward bound

On Children

Ysaÿe Barnwell set this familiar poem by Kahlil Gibran as a four-part a cappella song, recorded by her group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Our small group of a cappella singers had a great time learning this one, and its message is one that our children would like us to keep in mind.

Little Disasters

Songwriter and Folk Machinist Aprille Clarke writes:

“Little Disasters” is a celebration and critique of our Midwestern “deal with it” attitude toward the daily onslaught of challenges and heartbreaks large and small. It started as a ballad in the Family Folk Machine Shop, and with feedback from fellow workshop participants, it evolved into something brighter and livelier. With lots of help from Jean’s and Gayla’s arrangement and orchestration, and the talents of the FFM singers and instrumentalists, it became even more exciting. I’m especially happy to have so many FFM kids involved as soloists and instrumentalists, as sharing music with my own children has been one of the best parts of our FFM experience. Big thanks to Denny, who sang the ABC song to future-Miles every day through my belly and who calmed that screaming baby down by singing it to him during the scary early minutes of Miles’s life mentioned in the first verse of the song. It’s a family effort, and it will be okay.

The mother smiled as the baby screamed
And clamped his eyes shut against the light and
Gravity crushed him from all directions
And everyone said “congratulations.”

Okay, okay.

He bored a hole in the wall
And stuffed it full of marbles and ball bearings and peas.
And when they smashed that house down,
The wrecking ball kissed its little sisters.

Okay, okay, okay, okay.
That’s what they say, it’ll be okay.
Okay, okay, okay, okay.
Little disasters happen every day.

A man told a woman that all points in time
Exist simultaneously, and thus,
Our actions have no consequence.
And when she left him, she hoped he found solace in that.

Okay, okay.

Poorly considered decisions
Pie crust promises flake away at dawn.
She didn’t mean to chew him up.
She must be part velociraptor.

Stop being so sensitive.
These open wounds just court infection.
Stop begging for attention.
Best to let it scab on over.

Process is greater than product,
And what burns now will soon just be an ache.
Chin up, buckle up, grow up and throw up.
And hold the wheel tightly while you pump the brakes.


We know this story-song because of Pete Seeger. In the words of the liner notes to the Smithsonian’s Pete Seeger box set, “While Pete was researching songs from South Africa, he found a melody in the Xhosa language called ‘Abiyoyo.’ Pete learned the melody from a book that told how the song came from a story about a monster that could be vanquished if parents could cause the monster to dance and fall down. Pete used this to create a story for his own children.
“The song became not only one of Pete’s most frequently performed pieces, but also an award-winning children’s book. In many ways, it is a metaphor for the battles he himself fought: ‘Even though the townspeople scoffed at the boy’s music, it helped solve their troubles.’” Beloved Folk Machinist Ed Flaherty becomes “Grandpa Ed” in reading this story to the FFM kids, who respond with their ukuleles and voices.

Flower of the Universe

This lovely, mystical song by Sade was written for the soundtrack of 2018’s film version of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Sweet Mama Angel

“Sweet Mama Angel” is an intensely beautiful song that FFMer Jeff Capps wrote in the year 2000, shortly after the death of his mother. Our arrangement pairs Jeff’s solo vocals with the full choir and Tara McGovern’s solo fiddle parts with a string quartet accompaniment in addition to the band.

You Are Not Alone

The emotionally direct lyrics and ambling groove of this song make it great, but I also love the fact that the commercial version is an intergenerational collaboration between songwriter Jeff Tweedy and singer Mavis Staples. The message of this song is a good one to carry into the holiday season, when many people feel loneliness resulting from societal pressure to have certain types of family formations or relationships. When you feel lonely, the song says, you’re not the only one: you’re not alone. “Every tear on every face tastes the same.” Thanks to the FFM cello choir for bringing out the beauty of the dark harmonies of this song.

Lovely Day

This Bill Withers song from the 1970s is a favorite of the choir. It’s such a happy song! Please sing along—I can almost guarantee it will improve your mood. “Then I look at you, and the world’s all right with me. Just one look at you, and I know it’s gonna be a lovely day.”

Community Music Column in the Press-Citizen about FFM fall concert

Community Music Column for the Iowa City Press-Citizen November 9, 2019
Family Folk Machine

by Jean Littlejohn

On Sunday, November 17, one hundred people will take the stage at the Englert Theatre for the extravaganza known as the Family Folk Machine’s fall concert, “One Family.” The show begins at 3:00 p.m. and will feature singers of all ages, our spectacular band, a cello choir, and a 10-piece wind band. We hope you can join us in the audience! The concert is free, although we will be very happy to accept donations to sustain our work.
We’ve had a fun and productive fall session, with musical growth popping out in all directions. The Folk Machine was honored to receive a grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County to fund our Youth Ukulele Project. With the grant, we were able to purchase ukuleles and accessories that Associate Director Nicole Upchurch has been using in our kids’ programming. We had already witnessed the way learning to play the ukulele can support kids in writing songs. With this new equipment, all the FFM kids can have access to an instrument.
Some of the kids will play ukulele in our November concert. Others have been playing during kids’ time at rehearsals, following their own interests by learning folk songs that appeal to them. Several kids sang and played ukuleles at our FFM Open Mic a few weeks ago. It’s a privilege to witness kids growing into their musical abilities and progressively taking more ownership of their music-making.
The November 17 FFM concert will sparkle due to five original songs in the program, plus another Iowa City song. The Folk Machine loves local legend Greg Brown, and we will perform his “Walkin’ Daddy” on this concert. In the August FFM Community Music column, I introduced Aprille Clarke’s “Little Disasters,” Susan Stamnes’s “Hidden Youth,” Nicole Upchurch’s “Let Her Learn,” and “Homeward Bound,” by Gayla Drake and Jerry Partridge. The fifth original song on our program is called “Sweet Mama Angel,” and it was written by Jeffrey C. Capps. Jeff has performed this song around Iowa City with his bandmate Tara McGovern, the wonderful fiddler whom the FFM band is lucky to claim as well. “Sweet Mama Angel” is an intensely beautiful song that Jeff wrote shortly after the death of his mother. Our arrangement pairs Jeff’s solo vocals with the full choir and Tara’s solo fiddle parts with a string quartet accompaniment in addition to the band.
More information will be coming soon about the Spring 2020 session of the Family Folk Machine: “One Planet,” a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day. Rehearsals will begin January 12. In the meantime, hope to see you at our November 17 concert!
If you’d like to learn more about the Family Folk Machine, please visit familyfolkmachine.org or send an e-mail to jean@familyfolkmachine.org.

The CFJC Great Give Day: November 13, 2019

Thinking about donating to the Family Folk Machine online? The Community Foundation of Johnson County is matching gifts on Wednesday, November 13 for their first-ever
Here’s how it works:
1. On Wednesday, November 13, starting at midnight, you can go to the Community Foundation’s Great Give Day site to enter a donation to the Family Folk Machine.
2. The Community Foundation will cover all fees for online donations to Johnson County non-profits that day, so 100% of your donation will go straight to the Family Folk Machine.
3. The CFJC will match donations up to $1,000 per donor and $2,500 per organization, up through the first $25,000 donated.
4. Gifts can also be made in person at 501 12th Ave. in Coralville or over the phone at (319) 337–0483.

Thanks for your support of the Family Folk Machine!

FFM Annual Appeal

Dear friend,

I’m reaching out to you today on behalf of the Family Folk Machine. The FFM has been building community and training kids and adults to reach their musical potential by presenting heartwarming concerts for nearly seven years. We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and we are seeking financial support in order to sustain the growth of our mission and activities into the future. 

I’m hoping you can support us with a donation of any size. We accept anyone who wants to sing with the choir regardless of ability to pay, and we keep fees low for all our members. Support from our community helps us to continue this part of our mission while also growing in creative new directions.

Please support the Family Folk Machine today by following this secure link. Or take advantage of the opportunity for a matching donation from the Community Foundation of Johnson County by donating on the CFJC’s Great Give Day, November 13 (details below). 

Hope to see you at our fall concert, “One Family,” on Sunday, November 17, at 3 p.m. at the Englert Theatre! Thanks for your support of the Family Folk Machine.

Yours in community,

Jean Littlejohn
Artistic and Executive Director, Family Folk Machine

The Community Foundation of Johnson County is matching gifts on Wednesday, November 13 for their first-ever


 Here’s how it works:

On Wednesday, November 13, starting at midnight, you can go to the Community Foundation’s website, cfjc.org, and follow the Great Give Day links to enter a donation to the Family Folk Machine. 
The Community Foundation will cover all fees for online donations to Johnson County non-profits that day, so 100% of your donation will go straight to the Family Folk Machine.
The CFJC will match donations up to $1,000 per donor and $2,500 per organization, up through the first $25,000 donated. 
Gifts can also be made in person at 501 12th Ave. in Coralville or over the phone at (319) 337–0483.

Introduction to the Machine session August 18, 1:30 p.m.

Fall session FFM rehearsals begin Sunday, August 18! Before rehearsal, we’ll host a session for newcomers (and recent-comers) called Introduction to the Machine. It’s our hope that attending this session will make it easier to jump in to FFM rehearsals. We’ll meet at the Senior Center in downtown Iowa City at 1:30 for the Intro session, before our 3:00 rehearsal.

Press-Citizen column about the Fall 2019 FFM session

Community Music Column Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 10, 2019
Family Folk Machine

by Jean Littlejohn

The Family Folk Machine is Iowa City’s intergenerational, non-auditioned community choir. We’ll begin our fall session with rehearsal on August 18 at the Senior Center, working toward a November 17 concert at the Englert Theatre on the theme “One Family.”

With each semester, we bring some new singers into our fold. This fall we will present an “Introduction to the Machine” session at 1:30 on August 18 to help new members learn about how we operate. The beginning of fall is a great time to try something new, like singing with a choir. It’s good for your health and well-being!

Our songs this fall will focus on the different stages of life, family relationships, and the way a caring community can function like a family for individuals. The FFM kids will present Pete Seeger’s story-song “Abiyoyo,” in which a ukulele-playing boy helps save his town from a terrible giant. Our junior-high group will perform the Bob Dylan classic “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The Folk Machine is fortunate to have a formidable group of junior-high students, and these kids are not afraid to call society to account and to tell the adults in their world to get out of the way “if you can’t lend your hand.”

From the parents’ side of things, we’ll be learning to sing the beautiful and mystical “Flower of the Universe,” a recent song by Sade that was part of the movie A Wrinkle in Time. We’ll reflect on how you can try to be like your children, but “you cannot make them just like you,” as the song “On Children” teaches in a setting by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
FFM Associate Director Nicole Upchurch will share her singing gifts with us this fall in her song “Let Her Learn,” which she often sings with her band the Awful Purdies. We’ll back her up with our full choir and band as she sings about women in her life who have inspired her: “I’m grateful for my family, linked not by blood but by unity.”

We’re looking forward to presenting some other home-grown songs in our fall session, too. Last fall FFM Associate Director Gayla Drake started a songwriting workshop for Folk Machinists, and this fall we are programming three songs that were developed within the workshop context. “Little Disasters,” by Aprille Clarke, is a humorous reflection on the twists and turns life takes. “Hidden Youth,” by Susan Stamnes, addresses the challenges of aging—but in a light-hearted manner. Gayla collaborated with Jerry Partridge to create the song “Homeward Bound,” which explicitly presents the idea of all humanity as one family. We recognize our brother, sister, father, daughter in each new person we meet.

We’re grateful for our Family, and you’re welcome to join us. If you’d like to learn more about the Family Folk Machine, please visit familyfolkmachine.org or send an e-mail to jean@familyfolkmachine.org.

Article originally published in the Iowa City Press Citizen: New songs and old feature in Family Folk Machine’s fall repertoire.

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