By Elaine Yaw
When trying to explain why Sally Potter wanted
to start a singing festival in the Lansing area, no one tells it
better than Pat Madden-Roth, Potter’s band mate for 12 years
in the trio, Second Opinion.
After all, Pat was with Sally when she got her first taste of Toshi
Seeger’s Circle of Song tent at the 1994 Hudson River Clearwater
“It was a little like an oasis in the desert,” Madden-Roth
said of the singing tent, recalling the extraordinarily hot weekend
when people doused themselves at hoses, fully dressed, trying to
get some relief.
“You would have thought that the last place anyone would want
to be was crowded in a tent. But there they were. There was a surreal
energy about it; the sound of the harmonies, the power of the volume
created by all those voices. It was incredible. We all forgot about
Potter didn’t want the experience to be just a memory. She
wanted to re-create it, and make it something even bigger. She did
just that with last February’s inaugural two-day Mid-Winter
“If you think of the first time you ever tasted something,
like a fabulous cheesecake or something completely delectable, then
you might be able to understand why someone like Sally would want
to reproduce that experience,” Madden-Roth said. “The
experience of being with that many people singing wonderful songs
was so good we could taste it. Some people ask for the cheesecake
recipe, some people create a singing festival. In fact, she came
up with something even better.”
Potter had talked to Bob Blackman about incorporating a singing
tent at the National Folk Festival and then the Great Lakes Folk
Festival. He took the idea to the Music Programming Committee but
committee members didn’t believe a singing tent would fit
within the definition of the festival.
She decided to produce her own event. Soon, the idea for a stand-alone
singing festival began to take off.
“I thought it was a very exciting idea,” said Blackman,
who has a weekly radio show, “The Folk Tradition,” on
WKAR. “I have always loved folk concerts where the audience
was encouraged to join in, but nowadays most ‘folk’
performers don't do that very much. In the early days of the Ten
Pound Fiddle Coffeehouse (mid- to late-1970s), that venue had a
national reputation as a great ‘singing club,’ where
the audience was always eager to join in.”
The singing festival seemed like a perfect way to get people to
make their own music for fun, Blackman said.
He and Potter began meeting and kicking around ideas. “Her
excitement was contagious,” Blackman said. Madden-Roth echoed
that: “Her energy and enthusiasm for the festival just swept
the rest of us along.”
The original plan was to have one night of singing. But once Potter
started planning it, the festival expanded to an afternoon of workshops
sandwiched between two evening concerts where the audience would
do the singing, led by song leaders Joel Mabus, Mark Dvorak, Madden-Roth,
Matt Watroba and Robert Jones (each who has many fans in the area
who would come out to hear them anytime they played). What made
the festival special was that they wouldn’t be up on stage
singing alone. They would be on stage to lead hundreds of people
singing songs whose lyrics were printed in a program.
No one could predict the tremendous success the first festival had.
“I expected a good turnout for the evening concerts but even
then, I would have guessed more like 50 percent or 75 percent capacity
instead of one sell-out and one near-sell-out,” said Blackman,
who was the emcee for the evening sing-alongs.
In fact, the evenings attracted houses of 540 and 400, and 1,200
people attended the 12 free Saturday afternoon workshops.
“By the time we met to rehearse for the first evening concert
- there was no doubt,” Madden-Roth said. “It was magic.”
“The audience seemed excited to be there, relaxed, and very
supportive of the whole idea,” Blackman said, recalling his
observations from the stage. “I actually felt more of the
energy, though, when I'd come out in the audience and sing along
with everyone else.”
For the festival to be a success, Potter knew she would need the
community to embrace the idea right away. “We needed them
to come and sing,” she said, “and they did.”
It helps that the Lansing-area is a community that enthusiastically
supports folk music, Blackman said.
“There's a large audience for folk concerts at the Ten Pound
Fiddle, the Creole Gallery, the Great Lakes Folk Festival, the East
Lansing Art Festival, etc.,” he said. “My radio show
and the other folk shows on WKAR, WDBM and WLNZ have helped to develop
a large and devoted audience over the last 20 years. Elderly Instruments
has attracted a lot of people interested in making their own music.
All of these organizations support each other in many ways, which
strengthens the overall music scene to everyone's benefit. That
creates an environment where a new folk music venture can start
up and have a reasonable chance of finding an audience.”
The festival did find an audience, one that will likely come back
year after year.
“I suspect that most of the hundreds of people who came last
year will be back or will be regretting whatever circumstances might
keep them away,” Madden-Roth said. “And those who know
they missed something special last year will surely want to check
it out this time. Personally, I can't wait. I've been on a diet
for most of the year ... I’ve got to taste some more of that