Will the circle be unbroken?
Chico Quakers invite everyone to rise up and sing along
“We gotta do my favorite song,” says William Carlson, the spry senior sitting across the circle from me. “Page 74, ‘Old Time Religion.’ ”
I nod my approval, and Carlson shoots back a mischievous wink, like a grandpa who just sneaked his grandson a piece of candy or recited an off-color limerick. “Oh, it ain’t what you think,” he says with a chuckle and starts snapping in time to the classic Southern Gospel song. The man to my left, Victor Mlotok, starts pumping away on his accordion, while Jim Anderson and Edna Thelander join in on guitar and harmonica, respectively.
All in the ensemble raise their voices together, and after the familiar refrain I understand what Carlson was winking about: “We will pray to Aphrodite/ Even tho’ she’s rather flighty/ And they say she wears no nightie/ And that’s good enough for me.”
In an instant my preconceptions about Quakers are shattered and I struggle to sing along past the smile on my face.
This is the Rise Up Singing Song Circle, which meets monthly at the Chico Friends Meetinghouse, headquarters of Chico’s Quaker, aka Society of Friends, population. The group takes its name from Rise Up Singing, The Group Singing Songbook, a spiral-bound collection of more than 1,200 folk songs. The book was conceived and edited by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, a pair of folk-singing political activists who wanted a collection of songs that could be reproduced and sold cheaply to make it easy to start song circles.
Unlike most “fakebooks,” Rise Up Singing contains only chords and lyrics, assuming singers will know the melodies of the songs they pick and teach them to the group. This also cuts the cost of using expensive copyrighted material. The editors’ definition of “folk” is broad, so the book contains selections spanning most genres, from old English dirges to contemporary rock songs.
Blood and Patterson are also Quakers, and for that reason many of the song circles are started by Quakers, also commonly known as “Friends.” There is no official link between the Rise Up groups and the Society of Friends, a religious movement born in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. Quakers believe in peace and equality of all people. They do not have churches, clergy or necessarily adhere to scripture, instead believing that God is in and around all of us. Quakers were among the first abolitionists, comprise a large percentage of conscientious objectors to war and are very active in their pursuit of progressive social issues. They do not proselytize, so those outside the religion needn’t fear attempts at conversion.
Likewise, Rise Up groups are very egalitarian: There is no set “leader” and everyone picks songs as they go around the circle. No one is chided for being off-key, and it is not necessary to play an instrument, though instruments are welcomed. The focus is on the singing and the sense of camaraderie it creates. Part of the beauty of a song circle is the range of music covered when everyone has an equal say—the last Chico meeting had people spanning a wide age range singing everything from Woody Guthrie to the Grateful Dead. Many people preface the song with a little history of the artist or more personal anecdotes, adding to the education and entertainment value.
The Chico group was created last winter by four friends after a trip to a large Rise Up gathering in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which Blood and Patterson also attended and participated in.
“It was wonderful,” says co-founder Janet Leslie after the sing-a-long. “We sang all weekend long in huge circles with all kinds of instruments. We sang all the way there and all the way back in the car, and when we got back we all thought, ‘Wow, we have to start doing this.’ ”