Never So Far: FFM Concert this Sunday!

Join us Sunday, October 10, at 3:00 p.m. on the Riverside Festival Stage for “Never So Far,” the Fall 2021 concert from the Family Folk Machine! For our first in-person concert since November 2019, we’ll share a fantastic set of songs that meet our present moment, and we hope you’ll be there to sing along. Please wear a mask—we will be! The concert is free (donations will be gratefully accepted). Here’s our set list:

Call It Dreaming (Iron and Wine)

Road to Nowhere (Talking Heads)

When the Train Comes Along (trad. Black spiritual)

Hope (Ysaÿe Barnwell)

You Are Not Alone (Jeff Tweedy/Mavis Staples)

Nothing More (Alternate Routes)

Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub (Paul Williams)

I Wake in Joy (Deb Talan)

It Don’t Come Easy (Ringo Starr)

Never So Far (Greg Brown)

Cover Me in Sunshine (Pink)

Link for March 21 online mini-concert!

Here is the YouTube link that you can use to watch our third online mini-concert:

The concert premieres at 3:00 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday, March 21. If you are planning to watch the concert at the time of the premiere and you’d like to chat with FFM members before or afterward on Zoom, send an email to to get the link.

Iowa Source article about the FFM

Adam Witte wrote this lovely article about the Family Folk Machine. Follow the link to see the article with photos!

The Family Folk Machine Is Now a Virtual Choir

The Family Folk Machine Is Now a Virtual Choir

It was supposed to be a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The date was set, the music selected and rehearsed, the venue booked. But before the curtain could rise on the Family Folk Machine’s Spring 2020 One Planet concert, the earth decided it had different plans.

When the Family Folk Machine, Iowa City’s intergenerational, non-auditioned choir, shut down rehearsals and cancelled the show, it seemed the logical, prudent thing to do in the face of a global pandemic. The music, it turned out, had plans of its own as well.

“The project came about because we couldn’t bear not to do it,” recalls Gayle Drake, the choir’s Associate Director, in her introduction to the first online mini-concert of what became the Family Folk Machine Virtual Choir. “This is how we express ourselves. This is how we connect to the deepest part of who we are. It was incredibly important to find a way to keep going.”

It was a daunting task. The Machine’s Artistic and Executive Director, Jean Littlejohn, had accompanied her husband on sabbatical to Germany, along with their two children, and was now negotiating a hasty return before the borders closed in Europe. In-person rehearsals were unsafe and performance venues were closed.

The choir could not stay quiet, however. Littlejohn founded the Family Folk Machine in 2013, inspired by similar choirs she and her children joined while living in Boston. From the beginning, the Machine’s mission included building community through music, removing the barrier of audition, welcoming singers of all ages, and inviting everyone to learn and grow regardless of previous experience.

“Music is an innate human ability,” observes Littlejohn, though she understands why some have lost touch with their inner troubadour. “We have members who were told in elementary school to just mouth the words because their teacher didn’t think they could carry a tune. People get older and become embroiled in the serious world, so they don’t regularly burst into song. But everyone has a right to sing.”

The idea caught on. Membership increased each year, so much so that the group moved to the Englert Theater after they outgrew their original performance space in the Senior Center. Choir members came from every walk of life, ages ranging from early elementary school to deep retirement. When COVID intervened in 2020, after so much time making joyous noise together, the silence was deafening. Everyone agreed: the show must go on, and go on it did.

Online, that is.

The Family Folk Machine pivoted to reimagine their cancelled show as a series of online mini-concerts. Rehearsals moved to Zoom and performances shifted to YouTube, each of which came with its own set of challenges.

Replicating the in-person choir experience with online concerts wasn’t easy.
“It is hard for individual singers at home,” explains Littlejohn. Some of the value of a choir, she believes, lies not only in singing, but in being present with others. “In a live choir, the feeling of community is emphasized. When we come together to make music, that smooths over flaws in individual voices. You learn to breathe when the person next to you takes a breath.”

That could not happen in the age of social distancing. Isolated by the pandemic, each choir member recorded their part at home and submitted those audio tracks to Littlejohn and Drake to be edited together. Every song contained multiple vocal and instrumental tracks; blending them coherently required huge amounts of time to get just right.

“When the individual tracks were misaligned, it isn’t chaos, exactly, but it is blurred,” remembers Littlejohn. Each song required more than 20 hours of “microadjustments” of those separate fragments before the song would snap into focus. Friends and Board Members of the Family Folk Machine volunteered to create video and animation to accompany the music, collectively contributing hundreds of hours to the cause. Littlejohn marvels at the memory: “I’m glad someone didn’t tell us what we were getting into before we started.”

Ironically, conducting her choir in isolation served to remind Littlejohn of the power of music as a unifying force. As she finalized the first online mini-concert back in November, Littlejohn decided to go back over one tune to be sure everything was done correctly. “I started the song, and as I brought in each track, voice by voice, I was overwhelmed with the experience of a choir truly coming together,” Littlejohn recalls. She recreated that experience at the next online rehearsal to show how every still, small voice contributed to the whole.

“By the end, everyone was crying on Zoom.”

The third installment of the Family Folk Machine’s online concert series premieres on YouTube this Sunday at 3:00pm. Bring tissues, and feel free to sing along. Find links at and the Family Folk Machine Facebook page.

Lyrics for March 21 online mini-concert

Mr Blue Sky by Jeff Lynne

Sun is shinin’ in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped rainin’ everybody’s in the play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day, hey hey
Runnin’ down the avenue
See how the sun shines brightly in the city
On the streets where once was pity
Mr. Blue Sky is living here today, hey hey
Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong?
Hey you with the pretty face
Welcome to the human race
A celebration, Mr. Blue Sky’s up there waitin’
And today is the day we’ve waited for
Oh Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong?
Hey there Mr. Blue
We’re so pleased to be with you
Look around see what you do
Everybody smiles at you
Mr. Blue, you did it right
But soon comes Mr. Night creepin’ over
Now his hand is on your shoulder
Never mind I’ll remember you this
I’ll remember you this way
Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong?
Hey there Mr. Blue (sky)
We’re so pleased to be with you (sky)
Look around see what you do (blue)
Everybody smiles at you

Hickory Hill by Adelaide Capps, Stella Demarest, Cady Grimes, and Jack Grimes

It’s a beautiful day for a walk in the woods
Just me and my pup on a sunny day
The birds chirp in the shade of the trees
A breeze lifts the leaves and we’re free

Out at Hickory Hill
Everything is so still
Never want to leave
Even if my toes start to freeze

When I’m far away from home
I often miss the hickory hills
Don’t mind the cold or the burs on my pants
Or even stepping in a pile of ants

I see the tall trees with their beautiful leaves
Red, orange, yellow, brown, and green
I never want to look away
Now the trees are starting to sway

The Quiet by Susan Stamnes

The quiet came on slow, or have we dreamed it?
Bird song at dawn, gone, nearly gone
I miss the mourning dove, or did we dream him?
Gray and small, the soothing call most of all
Coo coo coo

Watch for the shadows in the wheat, little dove
Hidden in the sunflowers, at dawn, little dove
They slip in at sunrise to bag fifteen
Slowly, furiously, the quiet keens

Will you go the way of your cousin?
Passenger pigeon, once in the billions, now gone, all gone
It must have been a sight when the sky grew dark
with the tempest of beating wings and gentle hearts
Coo coo coo

Watch for the shadows near the oaks, little dove
Hidden behind the maple at dawn, little dove
They slip in at sunrise to bag fifteen
Slowly, furiously, the quiet keens

Your song was a call, now a wail of broken heart
Where’s my love, my little dove? She’s gone, she’s gone
Abundant, so they say, for a decade or a day
Take one thing, you may take more, all too late we see the score

Watch for the shadows in the corn, little dove
Hidden in the grass, at dawn, little dove
They slip in at sunrise to bag fifteen
Slowly, furiously the quiet keens

The quiet came on quick around the planet
Traffic down, human sound gone, nearly gone
And in that silence deep, as if from hiding
Gray and small, the soothing call mourns for all

We cry for you too, too
We cry for you, coo coo, coo coo

I Can Help by Billy Swan, with new lyrics by Gayla Drake and Claire Sauder

If you’ve got a problem, I don’t care what it is
If you need a hand, I can assure you this
I can help, I’ve got two strong arms, I can help
It would sure do me good to do you good
Let me help

It’s a fact our water’s polluted, ain’t nothing new
But the oceans in you, mama, should always be blue
I can help, take a tip from me, I can help
It would sure do me good to do you good
Let me help

When I go to sleep at night, I know I’m gonna have sweet dreams
’cause I’m doing all I can to keep the planet clean—-a clean machine

You know we love to recycle, reduce, and reuse
You take care of us, mama, and we’ll take care of you
I can help, ’cause the world needs a family, I can help
It would sure do me good to do you good
Let me help

If We Don’t by Dolly Parton and Rhonda Vincent

Look around and see what’s goin’ on
What’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on
To me it seems to be so very wrong
So very wrong, can’t get along
We can find the answers to
The questions if and when we do
I do believe
We could do a whole lot better
If we walk this life together
Who will make a difference in this world
If we don’t?

I’d like to think there is a better way
A better way, a brighter day
I’d rather think like this than to be swayed
The other way and only say
“There’s no point to even try”
Be content to live a life of high heartbreak
When we decide to, we can change it
Take our world and rearrange it
Who is ever gonna change it, change it
If we don’t?

Take a look inside ourselves and see what we can do
Make a step to be of help, so much to be improved
Try to make a difference in this world before we’re through
Who will do it, who will do it, who will do it, who?
If we don’t?

So look around and see what’s goin’ on
Everything just seems to be so wrong
If we’d open up our eyes
We could see a better life and I still believe
There’s a place for all of us
If we’d reach out and touch the love
Nothing’s gonna ever change it much
If we don’t—-If I don’t–If you don’t–If we don’t–If I don’t
If you don’t–If I don’t

Article about FFM in the Cedar Rapids Gazette

Diana Nollen wrote this article that was published in the Gazette on March 15, 2021

Like well-oiled gadgetry, Iowa City’s Family Folk Machine has found a way to switch gears, shifting rehearsals and concerts online. The final results will debut on YouTube at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The intergenerational choir was in the midst of preparing its 2020 spring concert when the global pandemic brought that to a screeching halt.

“It’s so weird to be at this anniversary,” said Jean Littlejohn, 49, of Iowa City, who founded the group in January 2013, conducts the choir and serves as the nonprofit organization’s executive and artistic director. “Every day I can remember exactly what I was doing a year ago.”

She and her family were in Germany, where her husband, University of Iowa sociology professor Michael Sauder, was on sabbatical. Their planned seven-month stay was cut short when they realized they would need to return to Iowa City before international borders closed. So Littlejohn contacted associate directors Gayla Drake and Jon Ranard, who had been directing the choir in her absence. Together, they drafted an email informing the members that rehearsals for the May 9, 2020, concert would be suspended.

“At first, we didn’t even know that we would have to cancel a concert,” Littlejohn said. That step came next, then the board met in May to figure out how to proceed.

“The choir put a lot of work into the songs, and the concert was going to be really cool,” Littlejohn said. “It was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — and the songs were great and the arrangements were great.”

Virtual realm

They decided to postpone the concert until the fall. It wasn’t long before they realized that wouldn’t happen, either. When they started seeing other choirs using virtual technology, they decided to go the video route, too.

But instead of showing a virtual choir with a grid of performers in little boxes, one of the board members suggested having their choristers record their voices at home. Those individual voices would then be mixed to provide the soundtrack to visuals incorporating nature photos or animation. Members Aprille Clarke, Susan Stamnes and Susan Spears volunteered to handle the visual elements, and began learning animation.

“This has been one of the most amazing success stories,” Littlejohn said. “These three individuals ended up creating videos that were just way more creative and imaginative than anything I would have thought possible. …

“Once we could see that our process was going to work, we expanded and we ended up recording all 15 songs that would have been on the (May) concert. And then we decided to present them in three chunks to make it a little more manageable.”

The first video in the “Our Planet” series debuted on the group’s YouTube channel on Nov. 15, followed by the second section Jan. 1. Sunday’s final segment features songs by Dolly Parton, ELO and Billy Swan, as well as an original piece by Stamnes and another by the choir’s kids, about Hickory Hill Park. Littlejohn’s daughter, Claire Sauder, edited the children’s video.


Littlejohn brought the idea for the ensemble to Iowa City from Boston, where the family moved for two years for her husband’s research fellowship. While there, she and her children, Claire and Ben, participated in two intergenerational choirs.

“It was such a neat experience,” she said, “just having something you could do with young kids where you could be equal participants. When we moved back to Iowa City, I thought that idea would work really well in this community.

“I didn’t really know how to start an organization, but I talked to some people and we got it started about six months later (in 2013).

“The reason we were able to really get things going was because we teamed up with the (Iowa City) Senior Center. For the first five years of our existence, we were just part of the Senior Center’s programing. And then we became an independent nonprofit in 2018, which was another steep learning curve, but we’re feeling really good about that now, and it’s allowed us to expand our programing a lot and grow into new directions.”

The group has performed in several locations, including the Senior Center and the Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber, but as membership grew, the ensemble outgrew those spaces and moved performances to the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. Musicians typically join them on a wide range of instruments, from piano, guitar, drums and bass to fiddle, banjo, mandolin, ukulele and other folk sounds.

All ages of singers are welcome to join, without auditioning. Before the pandemic hit, the ranks had swelled to 80 participants, ages 4 to 80, mostly from Iowa City, Coralville and nearby communities.

Rehearsals have been held at the Senior Center from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Youth participants had their own 30-minute rehearsals, then joined their parents. Children’s activities and a babysitter also were available. Teens and University of Iowa students have sung with the group, as well.

“We had a really robust group of teenagers the past few years,” Littlejohn said. “It’ll be interesting to see once we go back to in-person, if that has to be sort of reconstituted from scratch or if they’ll still be there.”

Participation fees generally are $50 for adults and $30 for children over age 5, with a cap of $125 per family, but during the pandemic, those fees have been optional.

“We just want to welcome everybody to participate, even if they can’t pay,” Littlejohn said. “We actually do that normally, as well.”

The organization’s operating budget is small, between $17,000 and $18,000, and donations typically are accepted at in-person concerts. The financial flow has changed with the pandemic, too, and Littlejohn is grateful that grants from several community organizations have helped cover costs for the equipment needed to stage virtual events.

Musical styles

The musical scope also has changed over the years.

“We have this word ‘folk’ in our name and I’ve had a lot of occasion to reflect on what that could possibly mean,” said Littlejohn, who has a master of music degree in organ performance from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in music theory from Northwestern University in Illinois.

“When we first started, I think what it meant was that we have this sort of foundation in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and all these different strands of American folk music. But lately I’ve been thinking about the music that we perform — it spans a lot more genres than just that.

“In some ways, I think there’s this broader meaning of folk — that we perform music that gains something from group expression. … So that ends up including various strands of popular music and things like the Beatles. Sometimes we do some very recent music too, especially if it suits a particular theme that we’re working on,” she said.

“It’s actually a huge question and something we’ve talked about a lot on our board, because it’s very important to us to be inclusive, and so we’ve had a lot of discussion about it — is that word ‘folk’ actually making it seem like we’re only interested in certain types of music or certain parts of American culture?

“I feel like there’s a lot that’s good about the word, too, and so I guess I just want to advocate for a very broad interpretation of that word and hope that it works.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508;

At a glance

• What: Family Folk Machine online mini-concert, “One Planet,” part 3

• When: YouTube premiere, 3 p.m. Sunday

• Where: Links at and

• Cost: Free

• Ensemble information:

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