News article about the Family Folk Machine and Community Folk Sings


This column appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Sunday, February 9, 2014:

The Family Folk Machine is celebrating its first anniversary. We like to bring music into the community, and one of the ways we do so is by hosting Community Folk Sings. These events take place on the second Saturday of each month at Uptown Bill’s from 3:00 to 4:30.
At the folk sings, we use the book Rise Up Singing, which is a treasure trove of lyrics and chords for more than 1200 songs. Everyone has a chance to pick a song for the group to sing. We usually have multiple guitar players, improving the chances that someone will know the song you choose. Last fall the Senior Center, parent organization of the Folk Machine, bought a nice stash of songbooks, so we have plenty to share.
Browsing through Rise Up Singing brings back memories for many people. Finding songs you had forgotten about is part of the fun of a folk sing. And it’s fun to learn new songs that other people know. We usually make a pretty good sound, too, with the singing supported by guitars, dobro, harmonica, percussion, or whatever other instruments people bring. Group singing offers a nice metaphor for community: our voices help each other along, and the collective sound is much richer than any of the individual voices.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Pete Seeger, whose life was an example of what can be accomplished by group singing. Singing together puts people in a cooperative relationship with each other. My mother has said that perhaps our Congress people should be required to sing a song together before each session, in order to increase the odds of their working together to get things done.
One of the issues facing us in Iowa City and Coralville is how we can improve our relationship with the Iowa River and our other waterways. The Family Folk Machine is rehearsing a program of songs about rivers and water for our May 4 concert, with the idea that it’s important for us as a community to spend time thinking about the river and our relationship to it.
Some of the songs we’re learning are examples of the rich metaphors that water provides for understanding important events in our lives. Others feature actual rivers and flooding more directly. We are pleased to be singing a song about the history of the Iowa River by Iowa City songwriter Chris Vinsonhaler. And we’re planning to offer a premiere at our May concert thanks to Katie Roche, who is leading a song-writing workshop with the kids of the Family Folk Machine. Katie started the kids brainstorming with the prompt, “What if the river was clean?”
It sounds like a question Pete Seeger would ask and did ask about his beloved Hudson River. He answered the question by building a boat and singing songs, and the Hudson River today is much cleaner than when he first asked the question. Maybe we Iowans can get together, sing some songs, and do something for our river, too. The kids will show us the way.

by Jean