Early Baez: A Tribute

By Gene Wilburn

Album Cover Copyright Vanguard Records

I just read on Facebook that it was Joan Baez’s 83rd birthday. I’m only trailing her by a handful of years and, in a way, Baez and I grew up together, meaning we both passed through the same turbulent time periods. Not that I ever met her. I was just another fan, but her voice accompanied me through the early folk revival years, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and her singing introduced me to Bob Dylan.

I was seventeen in 1962 when I first heard Joan Baez on my transistor radio. She was singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” and I was struck by two things: her beautiful, sad, gentle pitch-perfect soprano voice, and her guitar work. She played the song in D, if I recall correctly, using inverted arpeggios.

I was just learning my first few chords on a beat-up old guitar that had a turnbuckle on the back to keep the fingerboard from snapping off. I tried imitating her playing and found I could do it, a little. I couldn’t match her singing, of course. I was a teenage male without a great voice, but I could at least sing more or less in tune.

From that point on, she became my favourite folk singer, and, unbeknownst to her, my first guitar instructor.

The next year, 1963, I was struggling as an eighteen-year-old freshman engineering student at the University of Arizona, Tucson. I was failing chemistry and just getting by in calculus and feeling miserable about my prospects, but nonetheless it was a great year for folk music. I’d been to live performances of the New Christie Minstrels, the Clancy Brothers, Mike Settle, Joe and Eddie, and those enigmatic Tucson favourites, Bud and Travis.

I had acquired a cheap used Goya flamenco guitar which I used as a folk guitar. By this time I was listening to the early Baez albums over and over to pick up more of her guitar techniques. I was learning other folk styles as well, but there was something in the way Baez played that always drew me back.

My engineering roommate and some other engineering dorm buddies and I had planned a trip to the Grand Canyon to hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail but an unexpected event intervened. It was announced, on short notice, that Joan Baez would perform a concert in the university auditorium, so I let my friends hike in the canyon without me. There was no way I was going to miss this.

I bought a medium-priced ticket and attended the concert. I think it happened on a university break because the seats weren’t filled. But the audience was attentive, enthusiastic, and adoring.

With no introduction by an announcer, Baez simply stepped out from behind the curtains into the spotlight, walked up to the mic, turned her Martin guitar around and sang her first song of the night. It cast a spell on us. The sound coming out of the many AR-3 speakers in the hall (engineering students notice such things) was purer than any recording I’d heard. She was even better live than she was on record, and she played song after song of her early ballad material. She also played some early Dylan which we all loved.

Because there were empty seats near the front, I moved into a first-class seat close to the stage where I could watch her play.

To this day I think Baez is an underrated guitarist. She wasn’t a guitar virtuoso, and played the standard folk/country chords, but what she did with them was something special. Her guitar not only provided accompaniment to her beautiful singing, it served as a second voice. She had a deft, confident technique (I never heard a single clunker) and while she was singing a lot was going on with her guitar.

In tunes like “John Riley,” “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” “East Virginia,” “Donna Donna,” and “All My Trials,” her guitar joined her in harmony, played mostly on the bass lines. In “Wildwood Flower” you could hear that she’d been influenced by Maybelle Carter, yet she moulded the technique into her own.

Baez had a remarkable way of using her guitar as an amplifier of her sung lyrics. In both “Henry Martin” and “Mary Hamilton” her sudden light double stringing on the bass strings brought forth dramatic moments of the ballads. Subtle and beautifully effective, cradling her clear soprano voice.

I’ve been to many folk concerts since then, and heard many better guitarists, but few folk artists ever matched the exquisite combination of Joan Baez’s voice and her single guitar accompaniment.

Not long after, the early Beatles bombarded the air waves, and the folk movement was more or less washed away. This led to the psychedelic era of rock, and folk music was largely forgotten and ignored, except for established folk festivals like Newport and Mariposa.

Baez, too, changed with the times and her work became increasingly singer-songwriter oriented, including some masterpieces from her own pen, like “Diamonds and Rust.” But even in that iconic song, her lovely guitar accompaniment underscores the lyrics.

When I see photos of the current Baez, she’s smiling a lot. I get the impression that she’s lived the good life and fought the good fight, and has achieved an inner peace. She still looks lovely.

But my memories harken back to the sad-eyed, serious early Baez who started me on the path of folk singing, something I continue to this day.

I owe her a great debt of thanks. Dear Joan, to me you are forever young.

If you are new to early Baez recordings, you can sample her at https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnOhttps://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnO

SongNet: Building a Private WiFi LAN

SongNet: Building a Wireless Private LAN with a Raspberry Pi and a pocket router

By Gene Wilburn



There are times when you meet with a group and want to share documents in common, but your meeting place doesn’t have WiFi Internet access. It could be an informal classroom situation, a regular meetup group, or, as in my case, two music-jam/singing groups.

In one of my groups we use Dropbox for sharing electronic versions of lyric and chord sheets. In the other we use Google Drive. These work well enough when there is Internet access, but often the places we meet to set up and play don’t have WiFi available.

Dropbox and Google Drive also have two disadvantages: every time a new member joins the group, we have to set them up with Dropbox or Google Drive and Google Docs apps for sharing. Even worse is helping them make local copies of the lyric sheets on their tablets for offline access.

This was technically challenging for some members, not to mention that it requires each member to personally update their local storage regularly. In order to create a more user-friendly experience I put together a solution that I’ve dubbed SongNet.

It occurred to me, as I’m certain it must have occurred to many others, that a nifty solution would be to create a small private wireless LAN, or Intranet, that could be set up in the meetup venue room, creating a private hotspot that could be accessed by any device that members preferred, whether it was a smartphone, tablet computer, or laptop. The only required app is a web browser.

Equipment Needed

The gear needed to set up a private local wireless LAN has been around for some time and you might even have some of this in your parts bin.

  • A router that also serves DCHP addresses
  • A Raspberry Pi computer or equivalent

I focused on small size and portability by selecting the following three pieces of hardware:

  • Raspberry Pi Zero W Linux computer
  • TP-Link TL-WR802N Wireless N300 Travel Router
  • High-performance 32GB MicroSD card

Any Raspberry Pi model with a built-in or external USB WiFi adapter would work. I acquired the TP-Link travel router from Amazon for around $35 Canadian. Because the MicroSD card holds the operating system, the web server, and the web contents, I wanted one with plenty of storage and one that is as fast as possible. I selected a Samsung EVO Select 32GB microSDHC UHS-I U1 Memory Card with Adapter from Amazon for around $12 Canadian.

Setting up Raspberry Pi

The first order of business with the new MicroSD card is to set it up so it can boot the Raspberry Pi. Using the SD adapter that comes with the MicroSD card, put the card into an ordinary SD slot of a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer download NOOBS and add the NOOBS files to the MicroSD card, following these instructions and the ones that come with the download.

This done, remove the MicroSD card from the adapter and insert it into the Raspberry Pi and boot it, connected to a monitor, external keyboard, and mouse. When it boots, choose to install which version of Raspbian you prefer. I selected Raspbian (not Raspbian Complete or Raspbian Minimal). When that’s done, reboot the Raspberry Pi and follow the prompts for resetting the password to one of your choice and selecting an active WiFi network. More prompts will follow for updating the files. This takes awhile.

The Raspberry Pi Zero has so little RAM (512MB) it strains to run the graphical desktop environment and the GUI is a significant drain on system resources, so we want to eliminate it from regular use once we’re set up. We also want to activate the SSH server in order to log into the Raspberry Pi when it’s “headless” — that is, unattached to an external monitor or keyboard.

To so this, open a Terminal application and type the following:

$ sudo raspi-config

This brings up an easy-to-follow, character-based menu.


Select 3 Boot Options and press Enter.

Next Select B1 Desktop / CLI and press Enter.


Then select B2 Console Autologin hit the TAB key and press OK.


What this does is deactivate the GUI desktop environment from loading automatically, presenting you instead with a console screen with user pi already logged in. Should you need to boot up the GUI for any reason, when you’re attached to an external monitor, type the following at the Command-Line prompt:

$ startx

The next step is to activate the Raspberry Pi’s SSH server so you can log in from other machines using an SSH client:


Put the cursor line on P2 SSH then tab to Select and press Enter.


On the next screen tab the cursor to “Yes” and press Enter.


Setting up the web server

Next, in a Terminal window or at the console, type the following commands to set up the directories to prepare for installing the web server.

$ cd /var
$ sudo mkdir www
$ sudo mkdir www/html
$ sudo chmod -R 755
$ sudo chown -R pi

Because the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a minimalist Linux computer, I elected not to use the fully-featured Apache2 web server. Instead I opted for the simpler Webfs, a lightweight web server that is more than sufficient for serving static pages such as song lyrics.

To install webfs on the Raspberry Pi, type the following commands in a Terminal or at the Console and follow the prompts:

$ sudo apt update
$ sudo apt upgrade
$ sudo apt install webfs

In order to add content, we need to know the IP address of the Raspberry Pi. To find this out, type the following:

$ ifconfig

And look at the IP address for wlan0, the WiFi adapter. The IP address is the set of numbers just to the right of inet, in this case


We can first test this by opening a Terminal on a Macintosh, Linux, or Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL2) computer and typing:

$ ssh -l pi

or whatever your IP address is for the Raspberry Pi. Answer yes to accept the security credentials and if all is well you should now be logged into the RPi.

To populate the Raspberry Pi’s web site, we turn to another command-line utility called rsync. Go to the directory where your lyric sheets are stored on your Mac or PC and type the following in a Terminal window:

$ cd Lyrics (or whatever your directory name is)
$ rsync -avz * pi@

Of course you use your IP address rather than the for my Raspberry Pi. Then you can watch as the files transfer to the Raspberry Pi’s web directories.

To test the site, first log onto SongNet (password: singalong):


Then open a browser and point it to the IP address of the Raspberry Pi: e.g.,

You should see an alphabetical listing of your song sheets. Webfs by default allows directory listing, which, if you don’t mind scrolling, may be all that’s needed for your site. The web listing will look something like this and you simply scroll and click on the song you want to see:


If you know some HTML and want to create your own index.html page for the site, log into the Raspberry Pi and type the following:

$ sudo nano /etc/webfsd.conf

Go to the line that reads


And change it to


Because Webfs defaults to port 8000, it’s also preferable to set the port to the standard 80. This too is located in the webfsd.conf file. Go to the line that reads


And change it to


Save the changes and reboot.

$ sudo shutdown -r now

Because my groups have accumulated a very large number of files, I wrote a Perl script called buildIndex.pl that pretties this up by putting an Alphabet Selector at the top of the lyrics page and Anchors within the listing for quicker access. It also looks nice.


Setting Up the Router

Following the instructions that come with your router, log into the router using a browser. The first thing to do is to set the IP address of the LAN (Local Area Network). Choose a network IP range that is different from the one you have at home to assign what is called a “non-routable IP” range, which is a set of numbers set aside for LANs that are not connected directly to the Internet. To make typing the addresses easy, I set my router to a network, subnet


It’s important that the Raspberry Pi have a fixed IP address or the system won’t work. You can do this in one of two ways. One is to use the RPi’s graphical interface to log onto the portable router hotspot and follow the menus to manually assign a fixed, or static, IP address. Another way to do this is, if your router permits it, is to put the MAC address of the Raspberry Pi’s WiFi adapter in the router itself and have it automatically assigned by the router:


Users of SongNet need to type this IP address into their browsers to access the songs, so I chose to assign the address for ease of entry.


One of the critical functions of the router is that of a DHCP server that serves dynamic IP addresses to the users of the network. When they log into SongNet they get a 10.0.0.X address that connects them to the system. This is handled in the router’s DHCP section where you set aside the range of IP addresses that are available. In this case the addresses from (100 addresses) have been made available.



Test Out the System

Now that it’s all put together, it’s time for a test. Disconnect the travel router from the Internet by removing its ethernet cable, disconnect the Raspberry Pi from its external monitor and keyboard, and put the router and RPi together in a room and plug them in.

At this point it’s necessary to use your tablet or computer’s WiFi setting to join SongNet.  I assigned the password singalong for joining SongNet.


Now open a browser and enter:

This should show you (and everyone logged in) your songs and allow you to select them for display.

Finally, before you unplug the local WiFi network to carry it or put it away, you should shut down the Raspberry Pi properly. To do this SSH into the Pi and type the following:

$ sudo shutdown -h now

Give it a minute to finish closing all its files then it’s ready to tote to the next gig.

A Musical Interlude

A Musical Interlude

By Gene Wilburn

I once described myself as “a loner with friends” — an introvert with broadband connectivity. Through Internet forums and special-interest groups, some of the friends I’ve made have been local enough to meet in person. Nowhere has this been more evident than on the Rangefinder Forum. As we discussed rangefinder cameras and film shooting (frequently trading and buying and selling cameras and lenses to each other), we revelled in the glorious sunset of the film-photography era. As more people began to embrace digital, used film cameras got cheaper and cheaper and even I got to experience the beauty and joy of shooting with a Leica M2 with a Hexanon 50/2, and a Leica CL with Summicron 40/2, not to mention a fine bevy of Bessas.

Some of the members of RFF, as the forum is known, began scheduling local meetings of rangefinder enthusiasts. I think the first was in San Francisco, perhaps New York. Not long after, a Toronto meetup took place, and extended to several subsequent meetups as we got to know one another. We found we had more than just cameras in common, and we developed a network of friends around the city that is still thriving.

One of the people I met this way was my friend Guy Steacy, a US draft dodger from San Francisco who came to Canada a short while before I did. We’re about the same age, both tall and white-haired with Swedish ancestry, both with degrees in English, and we were born across the Bay from each other: he in SF, me in Richmond. We both emerged from the era of Flower Power and shared similar tastes in music.

Guy has a good sound system and a discerning collection of LP and CD recordings, and over the past couple of years we’ve begun having meetings of what we call the Bay-Area Boys Listening Society. On a recent Saturday Guy invited me over for some listening and I was delighted to accept.

These interludes are special for me, because I tend to be a hermit and don’t go out often, except for walks to the harbour. Special not just for the music and amiable conversations, which are always a pleasure, but also for the trip into Toronto then the long trip to the east end via the Queen streetcar. I’ve always liked being in Toronto — all my jobs were in the city — and I especially like seeing the parts that are less upscale than the Bay-Bloor area. Another friend of mine, Stan Smith, who was attending the University of Toronto at the same time I was, went back home to Nelson, BC, one time, for Christmas. When he got back he said he just stood on the corner of Yonge and Bloor, “getting off on the traffic.” Some people love cities. I’m one of them, and I’m a boy at heart when it comes to streetcar rides.

Walking up from Union Station to Queen and Yonge, I got on board the 501 to Neville Park and began my journey east sitting in a single window seat where I could gaze out and take some photos. From there Toronto began to reveal itself. The rusty, abstract statue on Victoria St., St. Michaels Hospital, Henrys camera store, Vistek camera store, the armoury, mannequins on the sidewalk, the bridge over the Don Valley, the Riverdale neighbourhood, the Leslieville neighbourhood. Pedestrians bundled up against the cold winter wind, a thin young Asian woman who began singing aloud as her stop approached and continued to sing as she stepped down to the street. Passengers boarding, most of them nodding or saying hi to the driver. Faces that looked lived in.

We passed pubs, convenience stores, meat shops, tatoo parlours, head shops, art design studios, Indian restaurants, coffee shops, cheese shops, more convenience stores, parkettes, a shop that sells whey products, and a gas station. Streetcars passed us headed the other way, filling with passengers even on a Saturday. The 501 line is said to be the longest streetcar ride in North America. Starting at Long Branch, in the far west end of Toronto, you can ride it all the way to the Beach area in the east end, or vice versa. It carries passengers of all ancestral nationalities, many of them conversing in languages other than English or French. All now Canadian, not in the American “melting pot” way, but in the Canadian “cultural mosaic” way.

I got off at my stop and walked the rest of the way to Guy’s place along a narrow, tree-lined street, each house a little different from its neighbour. Some old, some renovated, some newly replaced — most of them two storeys on narrow, deep lots. Cars, mostly compact models, parked on the street. An older neighbourhood, getting more than a whiff of upscaling in the hot Toronto real-estate market.

Guy greeted me at the door, made us a pot of coffee, and we settled in for an afternoon of listening, at significantly loud volume. We both have eclectic tastes, so we started with some Grateful Dead standards, then followed the Dead on an experimental journey through “Playin’ in the Band” which probed the edges of rock music. From there we cut over to Art Pepper and grooved to some “California Jazz.” Since we both like music that is a little unusual, we finished off with the Diga Rhythm Band, a band that included Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. An excellent afternoon of music, conversation ranging from Old English to current politics, and the consumption of many cups of coffee.

Then the reverse trip home, streetcar to city centre as dusk fell over the city and the lights of the city switched on. Toronto — beautiful in the twilight. Back to Union Station and the GO-train ride home where Marion greeted me with a kiss and a bowl of hot veggie chili.

Mick Jagger had it wrong. Sometimes you can get satisfaction.

Exit Banjo

Ome Banjo Tuning Peg Detail

If you’re a folkie or country music musician, you inevitably go through a banjo phase. It may start with a love of bluegrass music, or it may be sparked by listening to the earthy, folksy playing of the late, lamented, Pete Seeger, but it gets into your musical soul and nothing will do but getting a banjo and learning to play. Even Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, once said, via Charlie Brown:

And I conclude my report by offering this suggestion,
As soon as a child is born, he or she should be issued a dog and a banjo,
Ma’am that’s right … a family of eight … eight dogs and eight banjos,
Yes Ma’am, we’re talking happiness here!

The banjo is, overall, the happiest instrument in the band, though it can also evoke sadness and loneliness via mountain minor tunings.

Which brings me to my banjo, an Ome Jubilee. Lovely instrument and I tried to learn it with piddling success. I actually used it on a song that the trio I was in, Olde Spyce, performed at the Forever Young Folk Festival in Oakville. With luck, no music critics were present that day.

I got started on banjo when I went to the Woods Camp of Dance and Music one summer week and signed up for beginner’s banjo with Arnie Naiman, a wonderful old-timey banjo player and instructor. He made it fun, once we students got the hang of the basic clawhammer rhythm. For a guitar player it was like turning the strumming upside down and I noticed that camp staff gave our beginner’s group a wide berth when they walked by. Until the end of the week we sounded pretty dreadful, but the magic started to happen and we all started to get it.

That was then, and this, as they say, is now. I bought the Ome banjo directly from Arnie and worked at it with more enthusiasm than musicianship and it finally dawned on me that I was never going to be a good banjoist. My instrument is, and has always been, the guitar. The banjo got played less and less until it became a forgotten fixture in my closet.

I suspect my story, or a variant of it, has happened to many a budding banjoist. Those who really get the instrument take to it and go on to perform lovely music. The rest of us merely taste what might have been, had we the musical talent.

And so, as I downsize my life into late retirement, I decided to let the banjo go. Not without regret, but with all the weight of reason behind the decision. It’s not as bleak a parting as it may sound, however, because the cash I get from selling the banjo is going toward a new guitar.

And so I say, adieu friend. May you find a home with a talented musician who, along with a dog, will bring you the happiness you deserve.

Ome Banjo Front View

The difference between ‘in’ and ‘to’

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way !
O sisters let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
O sisters let’s go down,
Down in the river to pray.

“Down to the River to Pray” as sung by Alison Krauss in O Brother Where Art Thou?

This song, as sung by Alison Krauss, haunts me.  It’s a traditional hymn, and I’ve even seen thoughts that the tune might be Native American, from the Hupa Nation1. It’s one of those songs that, when it sticks in your head for days, you don’t mind. It’s beautiful.

But the word ‘in’ has bugged me for a long time. “Down in the river to pray.” I keep thinking, shouldn’t it be ‘to’? It doesn’t make logical sense, and even Alison Krauss titles it as “Down to the River to Pray.”

It’s an old southern hymn. Perhaps even an Underground Railroad song. I wonder, is the ‘in’ just a bit of illiteracy that crept in and stuck?

I tried singing it with ‘to’. It’s more logical, but it doesn’t sound as good or scan as well. It puts ‘to’ into the line twice, and it’s too many to’s. Despite the logic, it really sounds better as ‘in’.

So, I thought, needing to tidy this up in my mind, perhaps it’s a prayer offered up during the Christian rite of baptism — the total immersion kind where you go to the river and get dunked in the water and then pray.

There’s a certain logic to that. Baptism is a cleansing. A ritual that emerged from “one of those dusty countries,” to quote Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When you live in a dusty, dirty place, a dunking in the river undoubtedly takes on added significance, both spiritual and physical.

But, true to my agnostic leanings, I needed a better explanation to settle my word compulsion. And what I came up with is this: that the ‘river’ is the ‘stream of unconsciousness’ in the Jungian sense. From whence come our imaginations, mythologies, and symbols. The deep part of our being that we seldom perceive directly.

That river is one I can pray in. Yes. “Good Lord, show me the way.”

1 Musical Perceptions: Down to the River to Pray. See the comments.

The Ballad of Charlie Darwin

Charles_Darwin_aged_51 (by StarbuckGuy)

In this Year of Darwin, I hope you will help me celebrate his birthday on Thursday, Feb. 12, by singing this little ditty I wrote in 1979 for the ROM’s annual Charles Darwin Birthday Luncheon. The event was an informal brown bag lunch originally held in the Paleobotany Lab and hosted by Curator Dr. John “Jock” McAndrews, the museum’s palynologist. For years thereafter I would lead the lunch meeting in this song on Charlie’s birthday.

The Ballad of Charlie Darwin

A topical ballad to be sung on Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12
Written for the Annual Charles Darwin Luncheon at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Verses: Gene Wilburn (gene@wilburn.ca), 1979
Chorus: Dave Barr (dwbarr1@gmail.com), 2009
Creative Commons 2009
Melody: “The MTA” a la Kingston Trio)


Now this here song is the tale of old Charlie
Darwin of Shrewsbury
How he disappointed his mammy and pappy
When he went to the university

Charlie Darwin was the one to bring out the sun
On eevo-lution to shine
May we never regress to that dark wilderness
Of intel-li-gent design

Well he never was a grade A student
He muddled through a pass degree
Then he packed his Lamarck and set off on a lark
And sailed all out to sea

He sailed into the Galapagos Islands
Saying “What will become of me
These finches don’t conform to the Gideon’s Bible
I picked up in the hotel for free”

He sailed and he sailed and he sketched and he drew
Conclusions from every tree
He said “In a little while I’ll be just like old Lyell
And write me a natural history”

He didn’t know about genes and all them things in betweens
DNA and such chemistry
But when he got to thinkin the ideas started clinkin
He said “Selection’s natural, you see”

He sailed back to England and he married Emma
And the moved to the counteree
He settled down at Down where he worked with a frown
And he raised him a family

He was a quiet man for the rest of his span
As he worked on the family tree
Of the orchid and the barnacle and earthworm and the bee
And the likes of you and me

(last verse slowly)
Now old Charlie’s gone but his spirit it lives on
As we gather in his memory
And when you think you’re poor and recession’s* at the door
Just remember that Evolution’s free

*(or “inflation’s”, depending on the economic climate)


Please feel free to sing this, distribute it, improve on it, change the chorus, anything you like. I’d appreciate a complimentary copy of any changes you make, or even better, an audio file of your singing!

– GW, 2009

Here’s a PDF version of the ballad with suggested guitar chords in the key of C

Note: Chorus by Dave Barr added, 5 Feb 2009. Thank you Dave!

Song Circle

Dave's National Guitar (by StarbuckGuy)

David Rudkin playing his National Guitar at ROM Song Circle

Ever since I was a boy and heard the Kingston Trio sing “Tom Dooley” on the radio, I was hooked, lined, and sinkered by folk music. I lived in the country and in small towns until I went to university, and radio was my main way of being introduced to music. The Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, Terriers, Harry Belafonte, Peter Paul & Mary, the Rooftop Singers — I loved ’em. Couldn’t get enough of them.

Then I went to university — 1963 — and discovered an entirely more sophisticated type of folk music. Peter Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barbara Dane, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Phil Ochs, Judy Henske, Buffy Sainte-Marie — a  pantheon of wonderful folk and blues music pouring from dormitory stereo systems, campus radio, and coffee houses. The folk boom. I loved the early-mid 60’s folk era.

In a middling sort of way I began to play a six-string guitar, learning finger-picking patterns by listening carefully to Joan Baez LP’s and copying her licks. To this day I think she’s an underrated guitarist. And I sang. At the local coffee house — the Inner Ear. Once in a trio. Once paired with Sue Taylor as a duet. Sometimes we were hired to do garden parties.

Then other things intervened, like grad school, the end of the folk era, earning a living, moving to Canada, and except for pulling out a guitar occasionally, folk music was something lost. I couldn’t even find any good folk albums in the giant record stores in Toronto.

Came the 90’s and with it CD reissues of 60’s folk. Vanguard and Elektra albums suddenly became available again, and I began gobbling them up. And I discovered there was an extremely rich vein of Canadian folk music that I’d bypassed altogether in my ignorance. I began collecting, going to concerts, talking to campus radio folk DJ’s like Rick Fielding and Steve Fruitman, and folks in the music biz, like Susan Martinez, Derek Andrews, Gary Cristal, and Richard Flohil. I attended The Woods Music & Dance Camp, and met dozens of excellent musicians and singers.

None of my immediate circle of friends seemed to know much about these acoustic riches, so I decided to compile a book of Canadian folk music available in CD format — a kind of Penguin’s Guide. It was published by Reference Press in 1995: Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music, and reprinted, with additions, as Northern Journey 2, in 1998. The online edition of Northern Journey 2 is still available on my Northern Journey Canadian folk music website.

Getting back into music this way, I also got back into playing guitar and singing. I discovered the song circle concept and with a few colleagues at the Royal Ontario Museum, where I worked at the time, we started our own song circle in 1994, meeting at about six-week intervals after work on Friday nights from about 5-9pm. It’s been an ongoing event since then. When I left the ROM for another job, my friend and colleague Tony Hanik took over the reins of organizing it.

Tonight I’m going to the ROM Song Circle with a song in my heart, and picks, capo, and lyric books in my backpack. I’ve missed participating in music since my operation, but I’m now feeling ready to sing and play again. And I’m going to request that Tony lead us in singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Song Circle Rules

My knowledge of song circles began with attending the weekly Friday night Toronto Song Circle, a wonderful group of people who make Toronto a very special place. One member, Linda Miland, kindly gave me permission to reprint the Song Circle rules, called In Search of Harmony. I’m reproducing it here for anyone who like to use it as a guide in setting up a local song circle.

In Search of Harmony (formerly The Unwritten Rules), by Linda Miland, 1996.

The “Unwritten Rules” of the Toronto Song Circle are distributed to newcomers to the weekly event. These guidelines may be useful to others interested in forming a song circle.

Welcome to the Song Circle, our weekly gathering for group singing. It was begun in 1984 as an outgrowth of The Woods Music and Dance Camp (which is still held every summer early in August), to provide opportunities for singing in harmony during the rest of the year.

People with various levels of musical ability(1) come to our Song Circle. There’s no pressure to lead a song or to sing alone; if it’s your turn and you lose confidence or draw a blank, just pass (you can always lead or request a song later in the evening). Because group singing is the main activity, the music is mostly folk music; but there are no restrictions, and people enjoy a wide mix of styles(2). Songs may be accompanied, but musical instruments generally remain in the background.

Song Circle Structure (What’s Going On) Our group is leaderless, and there is no formal membership. We meet every Friday night after 8:00 in the home of a participant, from September through June. A typical evening(3) consists of a singaround, a break, and a “jam.”The singaround begins at 8:30 and ends by about 10:30.(4) The format is “play, pick or pass”: Each person in turn has an opportunity to teach or lead a song; to request a song, either from the whole group or from an individual (no coercion allowed); or simply to pass to the next person.After the singaround we break, starting with announcements. This includes the locations of the next few Song Circles, and upcoming folk events of interest to the group. The host may announce the closing time (please respect this). People bring snacks or beverages to contribute to the table.After the break, we stop taking turns, but continue making music. You can still lead a song or make a request, but you may have to be more assertive about it. Song Circle Traditions (Fitting Right In) Respect for the music. Once the music inside has begun, enter the house or apartment quietly, without knocking. When someone starts a song, our custom is that the chatting stops. We keep to one group, and avoid splitting up and having two different songs happening at two ends of the room (this doesn’t apply during the break, when people often swap tunes). Singers often find shakers, spoons, and other forms of percussion to be intrusive; exercise judgement and restraint. We always avoid playing (or even singing) so loudly that the people nearby can’t hear the others clearly. Be sensitive.Respect for the person leading a song. Although musical opinions get expressed (“That’s too high!” “Can’t we speed it up?”), it’s the leading singer who determines the musical key, pace, phrasing, and version of the song. (Most songs have a lot of different versions; there isn’t a “right” one. Watching the leader’s face is the easiest way to notice variations.)Respect for the audience. A song led by a confident leader is easier to learn and more fun to sing. We appreciate leaders who show consideration by coming well prepared. Here are some tips we’ve developed for leading songs:

  • Be ready to teach the song to those of us who don’t know it. (Some people bring photocopies of the words, to distribute.)
  • Tell us what you expect of us, so we don’t have to guess. For example: “I’ll sing the chorus first, so that you can learn it more quickly. Join in when you’re ready.” “This is a sea shanty, so please sing along on the repeated lines.” “Let’s try this one without instruments.” “I’ve worked out an arrangement on this song, so I’d like to do it solo.” “Anyone who knows this one, please sing it with me.”
  • When leading a round or a zipper song, plan ahead as to how many verses you want it to run to. Inform the group as to how you intend to end it off.
  • If you know which key you can sing the song in, you won’t run up against the bottom or top of your vocal range. Ask an instrumentalist for the note. (Or, ask another singer to teach you the technique for estimating where to start a song.)

Support for the host. Those who can’t offer to host the Song Circle contribute in other ways. We bring a snack or beverage to be shared at break–if not every time, then sometimes. Many of us also offer to help out or even to host at someone else’s home, coming over early to help set things up, and/or staying up late to clean up afterwards.


  1. Children who are patient and mature enough to follow our format and customs are welcome.
  2. Although the group has been known to discuss the choice of material, no guidelines have ever resulted. If you’re curious, however, individuals have occasionally complained of too many songs on the same topic or all in the same style; too many solo performances and not enough chorus songs; too many rounds or zipper songs; songs that we’ve done too, too often; requested songs that the requestee has become sick of performing; songs in languages other than English; too many pop/country/classical/depressing/political/pro-union songs. Clearly the group likes variety. (People interested in pursuing a specific type of music often form splinter groups and meet separately. If we’re lucky they come back and perform it for the Song Circle.)
  3. Sometimes our get-togethers have a special theme or format. Occasionally, a workshop is held featuring a professional musician as a teacher; in this case, there is probably a charge for the evening. When enough interest is expressed, we’ve also held open stages, where people can present planned performances of up to two long or three short songs apiece. (There are also other groups that foster performance singing. Ask about them, if you’re interested.)
  4. If, after the circle has come back to its beginning, it’s still too early for break, then those who have passed will be asked again if they want a turn.
    • With a large group, latecomers may miss their turn.
    • With a small group, there may be time to go around the circle twice.