June Family Folk Machine events!

The Family Folk Machine will be busy with pop-up performances through the month of June!

June 1: The FFM kids perform at Arts Fest on the Family Stage
This performance will include some of the original songs the kids wrote under the guidance of FFM Associate Director Nicole Upchurch this spring.

June 8: FFM set at the Longfellow Front Porch Music Festival
Our monthly Community Sing-Along will also take places at the Festival, along with many other fine performances.

June 17: FFM sings for Stories in the Park at Willow Creek Park, 10 am
Join us for this program of the Iowa City Public Library.

Program Notes for Many Voices/One Voice: We Are One Community

Many Voices/One Voice: We Are One Community

This collection of songs surrounds us with reflections on human togetherness. We join together, we work together, we get together with one another. We don’t live in isolation, and we all know that our world will improve if we learn how to live and work together more harmoniously. These songs offer some suggestions: “I feel glad and you feel good; we brighten up our neighborhood” when we greet the people we encounter and when we “say hello to a beloved stranger”; “Use your democratic power for the good of somebody else”; “Make this land a better land … reach your hand to another hand, with the kindness that you give.”

The singers of the Family Folk Machine answer the call to Join Together with the band. Pete Townsend’s lyrics in this familiar song emphasize that we’re joining together even though we’re all different: we don’t move in any particular direction, we don’t eat or wear the same things—“there’s a million ways to laugh, and every one’s a path.” “It’s the biggest band you’ll find; it’s as deep as it is wide.” Join us by singing along.

The FFM kids sing Fred Rogers’s beloved Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with the FFM ukulele ensemble, and they follow it up with the original song Say Hello. Say Hello was first written by students at Prairie Green School, where FFM Associate Director Nicole Upchurch teaches and will soon be co-director. Say Hello is a beautiful song about openness to the new things, places, and people we encounter in life. Nicole brought the song to the FFM kids, and they wrote two additional verses based on their own experiences and ideas.

One of our three-generation FFM families presents the Woody Guthrie song Howjadoo. It’s a joyful tune about the benefits of being friendly to the people we come across in our daily lives. There’s an instrumental break in this song during which you’re invited to shake hands with the people around you.

Ruth Pelham’s song Turning of the World expresses a resolve to improve the world we live in. “Let us sing this song for the turning of the world, that we may turn as one. With every voice, with every song, we will move this world along; and our lives will feel the echoes of our turning.” Other verses simply substitute another action for turning: healing, dreaming, loving. Join in and sing along!

Anywhere is an uplifting song by the Seattle-based, Kenyan-born singer-songwriter Naomi Wachira. The song points us toward the things all humans have in common: “We breathe the same air, we bask in the same sun, we sleep under the same moon. And the rain that falls on the ground, it’s the same, anywhere you go. And even though we live in different parts of the world, we all began the same way. And even though we believe in different things, we’re somehow the same.” On her website, Wachira writes, “I know we are certainly living in dark times, but I hope that we will all find the courage to be light in whatever way we’ve been gifted… that we will seek to understand those who are different from us and find ways to both acknowledge and celebrate our differences and similarities.”

Lady of the Harbor considers one of our most potent national symbols, the Statue of Liberty, and the distance between the ideals she represents and our country’s approach to immigrants and refugees. “Will the dream survive the strain? Shine on, Lady of the Harbor.”

De Colores is the oldest song on today’s program, commonly sung throughout the Americas since perhaps the 16th century, with a melody that probably came over from Spain. In the twentieth century it was a favorite song of the United Farm Workers for rallies and meetings. The song depicts the coming of spring to the countryside and the beautiful colors of the plants and birds. It celebrates the beauty of diversity and the bonds of affection between generations, as in the second verse we hear in turn from the roosters, the hens, and the little chicks.

You might know the song Yes We Can Can as the Pointer Sisters’ 1973 hit. Composer Allen Toussaint is from New Orleans, and his recorded version of the song appeared on a 2005 Hurricane Katrina benefit album. From an inspiring 2015 obituary for Toussaint, here is Jack Hamilton writing for Slate: “A song about changing the world has never sounded so intimate, so inviting, so irrefutable.” It is a “politically upright, irrepressibly exuberant American song.” The song features “one of the greatest choruses ever written: ‘Oh yes we can I know we can can yes we can can why can’t we if we want to yes we can can,’ followed by ‘oh yes we can I know we can can yes we can great gosh almighty yes we can I know we can can.’ On the page those words look like Gertrude Stein scribbling an inspirational poster; in the mouth of a great singer they’re nothing short of magical, sliding and skipping in between beats, dancing on lips and tongue, language reimagined as groove.” Give it a try and sing it with us.

City High ninth-graders Alice Boerner and Callista Robertson wrote Silence without Sound last fall in an FFM songwriting class with Associate Director Gayla Drake. The song expresses the idea of using our voices to bring our thoughts to life. The older FFM kids support Alice and Callista in singing the verses to highlight the theme of coming of age and learning to speak out.

The Wailin’ Jennys song One Voice is a beautiful encapsulation of the idea that a group of singers is a model for community. There is one voice, there are two, there are three voices, and then there are all of us, and that is still one voice. “One people, one voice, a song for every one of us.” How do we build that community? “Love, and the will to trust.” We are very pleased to feature our first-ever FFM intergenerational cello choir in the arrangement of this song.

Let’s Work Together is a fun 1970 hit blues tune by Wilbert Harrison, later recorded by Canned Heat. The lyrics encourage us to stick together when things get hard or go wrong. “Make someone happy, make someone smile; let’s all work together and make life worthwhile.”

The British band Field Music released Count It Up in 2018. With its stark delivery and retro-pop style, the song challenges us to think about the advantages we’ve had in our lives to propel us to use our power to make things better for other people. For many of us, the lyrics hit us where we live: “If you can go through day to day without the fear of violence, count that up. If your body makes some kind of sense to you, count that up. If you can turn on the tap and your kids can drink the water, count that up. And use the breath you have left to say something that matters.” Or sing something that matters, I’d add.

Knockin’ on Your Screen Door was on John Prine’s 2018 release, Tree of Forgiveness. What is our responsibility to our neighbors who don’t have any “loose change just hangin’ around” and could use some help? “I’m thinking it’s your business, but you don’t got to answer; I’m knockin’ on your screen door in the summertime.”

Sly and the Family Stone’s Everybody Is a Star celebrates the light we share with each other. “Everybody is a star—I can feel it when you shine on me. I love you for who you are, not for who you think you need to be. Everybody is a star, one big circle going ‘round and ‘round.” Shine, shine, shine. The Machine is proud to feature our first-ever horn section on this tune.

We end the concert with the John Lennon classic Instant Karma. In his light-hearted way, Lennon prods us to think of ourselves as part of the wide human community. “What in the world are you thinking of, laughing in the face of love? You’d better get yourself together, darlin’, join the human race. Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.” We need your voice with us at the end: Well, we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars and the sun.

February 17 FFM concert benefiting Veterans for Peace

This article appeared in the February 2 edition of the Press-Citizen.

The Family Folk Machine is pleased to present a benefit concert for Chapter 161 of the Veterans for Peace on Sunday, February 17, at 3 p.m. in the beautiful new building of the Unitarian Universalist Society on Oakdale Road in Coralville. We hope you can join us to support a great local cause and to sing along with some familiar peace and social justice songs while learning a few new ones.

The Family Folk Machine will perform May 11 at the Englert.
The Family Folk Machine will perform May 11 at the Englert. (Photo: Contributed photo)
The local chapter of the Veterans for Peace is one of the organizations that serves as the conscience of our community. As individuals and as a collective, the members of VFP keep our attention on our government’s war-making and urge us all to work for peace. They write letters, they bring in notable peacemakers to give public lectures, they bring traveling exhibits to our libraries, and they have hosted a weekly rally for peace for many years now. Ed Flaherty, one of the local leaders of VFP, introduced me to a new way of thinking when I heard him say that it is not enough to hate war—we have to learn how to wage peace. The VFP are actively engaged in waging peace, and they call the rest of us to think about what we are doing to increase the cause of peace in our world.

In this benefit concert, the FFM would like to introduce you to some songs you can use in your own efforts to wage peace. We’re happy to be highlighting three songs by local artists in this concert. One is a new song called “Presidents’ Day” by Folk Machinist Gayla Drake. The song was inspired by the walk-out of Iowa City schoolkids last February in response to incidents of gun violence. We will bring back the Awful Purdies’ song “Lament to Apathy,” which we were honored to perform with the Awful Purdies two years ago. And we’ll present a choir version of the 2017 song by Iris Dement called “We Won’t Keep Quiet,” for which you can find a beautiful video on YouTube featuring lots of Iowa Citians.

Along with these newer songs, we’ll sing classics like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Down by the Riverside,” and Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” We hope you can join us for uplifting songs supporting a good local cause. We’re suggesting a $10 donation at the door, and I’m sure the VFP would be pleased to accept larger donations as well.

We’ve started work on the songs for our spring FFM session, “Many Voices/One Voice: We Are One Community.” We’ll present a concert at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, May 11, at 2 p.m. We’re excited to be learning a wide variety of challenging music for this concert about neighborliness, unity, and our community responsibilities. We’d love to see you on February 17 and on May 11!

Jean Littlejohn lives with her family in Iowa City and directs the Family Folk Machine.

Many Voices/One Voice: We Are One Community

Looking forward to the Spring 2019 session of the Machine! Rehearsals begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 13 at the Senior Center.

We’ve got some great sub-themes going between the songs for our spring program. One is *Shine*. I’m starting an arrangement of the Joe Jenks song “Lady of the Harbor”:
And she welcomes them with open arms
she says, “Let my children in.”
Shine on, shine on, o you Lady of the Harbor.

From “Everybody Is a Star,” by Sly and the Family Stone:
Everybody is a star—-I can feel it when you shine on me
Shine, shine, shine shine

From John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”:
And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun

Another sub-theme is voice. From the Wailin’ Jennys, “One Voice”:
This is the sound of one voice. One people, one voice.
A song for every one of us.

From “The Turning of the World,” by Ruth Pelham:
With every voice, with every song, we will move this world along
and our lives will feel the echoes of our turning.


Family Folk Machine First Annual Appeal

Last summer, the Family Folk Machine became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. This fall, we have launched our first annual Appeal in order to build a solid foundation for the choir so we can sustain our work into the future. Please support the Machine with a secure online donation of any size by clicking here. You can also mail a check made out to Family Folk Machine to P.O. Box 1421, Iowa City, IA, 52244. Thanks for your support!

Press-Citizen article about FFM fall concerts

This column appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Saturday, November 3.

by Jean Littlejohn

The Family Folk Machine will present “Stand by Me: Songs of Friendship” in two concerts this November in intimate spaces: Sunday, November 11, at 3 p.m. at the Senior Center; and Saturday, November 17, at 3 p.m. at the Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber. Since we’re an intergenerational choir, the songs on the program reflect on friendship through the course of our lives: friendship between children, in the teen years, adult friendships, and even friendship beyond the grave.
The younger kids of the Folk Machine will be presenting the premiere of their song “A Friend Is Who I Am” at our concerts. It’s quite a feat to write a song as a group and prepare it for performance in a few short weeks! This new song is catchy and charming, and it benefits from a swinging ukulele part by Nicole Upchurch and the crystalline sounds of a banjo ukulele (“banjolele”?), played by Craig “Pappy” Klocke.
One of the beautiful things about working with the Family Folk Machine is witnessing the transformation that sometimes occurs when a familiar song is brought to life by a community of singers. Many of us have heard these lyrics a hundred times: “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see; No, I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand by me.” When we sing these words as a group, though, instead of a song that’s just about a couple of loyal friends, we have a vision of what we as a community can be for each other when things in our land are dark.
Friendship can help us through hard times. We’ll sing Pete Seeger’s “Precious Friend”: “Just when I thought all was lost, you changed my mind.” Our group of seventh-graders will sing, “Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me,” from a song by the band James.
A song on the concert program that’s a favorite among our choir members is “Little Bird,” by the Iowa City band The Weepies. It’s a gorgeous and elegantly crafted song, and in our interpretation it expresses the way a friend can help you when it seems like the world is against you: “They tell me I’m crazy, but you told me I’m golden.” Our arrangement of the song will feature the rich guitar playing of Gayla Drake and the intergenerational FFM string ensemble.
It has been wonderful to add Gayla to our band this fall. We’re enjoying the talents of two other new musicians as well: Jon Ranard is joining us on piano, and Scott Wittenkeller is adding drums and percussion to our songs. These two versatile and sensitive musicians join Tara McGovern, Craig “Pappy” Klocke, Jim Schepker, Dave Parsons, Nicole Upchurch, and Jeffrey C. Capps for a stellar instrumental line-up, augmented by our string ensemble and even some brass instruments.
Please join us on November 11 or November 17 for uplifting and thought-provoking songs about friendship. There will be lots of opportunities for singing along, and we need your voice.

Jean Littlejohn lives with her family in Iowa City and directs the Family Folk Machine.

Arranging songs for the Family Folk Machine

by Jean Littlejohn

Right now I’m finishing up the last few song arrangements for our fall FFM session, “Stand by Me: Songs of Friendship.” I love all the stages of bringing a song to life in the Folk Machine, but the arranging stage is a really exciting one. Arranging gives me the space to think about a song in slow motion, to find its inner logic and structure, and to dream about the meanings and connections that will be layered onto the song when it takes shape in the voices of the choir. It gives me an opportunity to think about how certain lines in the lyrics may have particular resonances for certain people in the Machine (although, of course, I’m sure there end up being many resonances that I know nothing about) and how certain verses would sound in various individual solo voices. I can think about the people who are going to be singing the harmony I’m writing, and it makes the work really fun, like creating a special present by hand for a friend you really like.

Sometimes you don’t know, going in, whether a solo song is going to “arrange up” very successfully for choir. This fall I’ve been very pleased by the way all the songs have arranged up. We’ve got a program full of strong songs, and they’re already starting to take shape in rehearsals.

Press-Citizen column about the fall FFM season

Press-Citizen Community Music column September 1, 2018

by Jean Littlejohn

The Family Folk Machine has begun rehearsals for our fall program, “Stand by Me: Songs of Friendship.” We’re learning arrangements of well-known songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” and our title song, “Stand by Me,” along with lesser-known songs that reflect on friendship from a variety of angles. The program is a mix of rock songs, traditional folk songs, contemporary folk songs, and original songs.

Being able to present original songs highlights an area of growth for the Family Folk Machine. Last fall we welcomed Nicole Upchurch as associate director, and she has started a songwriting curriculum with the FFM kids. Last spring the kids split into five groups and created five completely original songs; they were able to perform these songs on the Family Stage at the Iowa Arts Festival and at an event for Take a Kid outdoors.

“Autumn Wind,” one of the songs written by FFM kids last spring, will be featured on this fall’s concert in an arrangement for the full choir. The song reflects on the change from summer to fall. The songwriters met with Nicole, local songwriter Gayla Drake, and me to complete final touches on the song before adapting it for the full FFM ensemble, and the result is a beautiful song about how a friend can help you weather life’s changes.

There will be two FFM songwriting projects during the month of September. The younger FFM kids will be writing a song about friendship under Nicole’s guidance, and Gayla will be teaching a songwriting class to a group of teens and adults. Part of the mission of the Folk Machine is to foster individual musical growth, and it’s fantastic to have these new opportunities for individuals to increase their musicianship and hone their creative abilities.

Expanding our leadership has been possible in part due to a new organizational structure. Last spring, the Family Folk Machine became an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Our previous five years of existence had been under the umbrella of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center. The Senior Center supported and nurtured us from an idea into a robust reality, and we are happy to be maintaining a close working relationship with the Center and its staff. Meanwhile, Nicole and I and our new board are learning about budgets and best practices and record-keeping—definitely an area of individual growth for me.

The FFM will present “Stand by Me: Songs of Friendship” in two concerts this November in intimate spaces: Sunday, November 11, at 3 p.m. at the Senior Center; and Saturday, November 17, at 3 p.m. at the Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber. As I’ve been working on the song arrangements, I’ve realized that these concerts are going to be very special because of the unusually personal and reflective nature of these friendship-themed songs. I hope you can be there!

FFM kids at ArtsFest this Saturday!

This Saturday, June 2, the FFM kids will take the Family Stage at 2 p.m. They are going to perform several of the songs they wrote this spring, and you won’t want to miss them! FFM Associate Director had the kids divide into groups for songwriting–words, tunes, chords, and everything–and the results were fantastic. Saturday’s set includes a song about autumn, one about walking in Hickory Hill park, a lullaby to the moon, and a song that considers the everyday problem of having your pickax break when you’re down in a cave.
Here’s an ArtsFest map to help you find the Family Stage:
See you there!

Family Folk Machine Celebrates Five Years

Press-Citizen article published May 5 about the upcoming Family Folk Machine concert

by Jean Littlejohn

The Family Folk Machine, Iowa City’s intergenerational choir, is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a concert at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, May 12, at 3 p.m. We are excited to bring back some of our favorite songs from the past five years for this concert.
In putting together a program of favorite past songs, we wanted to represent certain themes that have been important to the Machine. We included a song by Woody Guthrie (“Deportee”), a song associated with Pete Seeger and the Weavers (the Weavers’ arrangement of “When the Saints Go Marching In”), and a couple of songs with Iowa City roots (including Greg Brown’s “Wash My Eyes”). We are following the Louis Armstrong tradition of using social justice verses in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with new words written by my sister, Rebecca Littlejohn.
One of our Iowa City songs is “Unsteady Youth,” by Alexis Stevens. The song was Stevens’ contribution to the Iowa City Song Project, a 2012 Englert commission, and it’s full of Iowa City references (“We’ll go for a walk out in spite of the cold, where the sidewalks are paved in words over gold…and the sweet angel face that’s turned black as a crow…”). We first performed this song in the spring of 2013, when the song and our choir were both brand new. It’s been rewarding for us to learn this beautiful song again this spring, with lots of new singers.
Another song that’s been a favorite for singers and for listeners is “Loon,” by Boston songwriter Oen Kennedy. A joyful wilderness encounter with loons brings Kennedy to ask “Will I keep my heart open?” The song inspired a beautiful monotype by artist and FFM member Amy Dobrian. Thanks to Amy’s generosity, we’ve been able to use her image of loons under the starry sky on our concert posters. Amy framed and donated the original piece for a raffle—it is now on display at the Senior Center, and you can purchase raffle tickets there or at our May 12 concert.
We will feature one brand-new song on our concert, a song that was written for the Folk Machine by Jeffrey Capps. Inspired by the iconic image of Woody Guthrie’s guitar, with its “This machine kills fascists” inscription, Jeff’s song states “This machine wages peace.” You may see some photos floating around Facebook of Folk Machine members with a special This Machine guitar. We’re loving Jeff’s new song. From its second verse: “Fight the fight with a lyric and a light ‘til you find the harmony/Fight the fight ‘til the darkness dies/All in all, just takes something pretty small to rock this big ol’ world.”
We hope you can come sing along with us on May 12!

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