On common ground

  • People gather on the Montague Center Common at 2 p.m. to sing. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • People gather on the Montague Center Common at 2 p.m. to sing. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Ben Fink leads people on the Montague Center Common in a little ditty about poisoning pigeons in the park shortly after 2 p.m. on a recent sunny day. Fink moved to Montague from Connecticut after hearing about the daily singing group from a friend. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Members of the community sing on the Montague Center Common last spring, around the time the daily sings started. Staff FILE Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 4/5/2021 8:34:30 AM

As the dedicated community space where townspeople share their lives, Montague Center’s Town Common in this past year of COVID-soaked isolation and anxiety became a place to come together in song, day after day.

The 2 p.m. daily community sing, which recently marked one year of people turning out for an hour of spontaneous sharing a mishmash of tunes, has brought residents and their guests together in rain, blistering heat, freezing cold, snow, wind and sun.

No one planned it to be a daily event.

Laurie Davidson remembers the idea spawned last March 15 during a Sunday morning run on Taylor Hill, when neighbor Tamara Kaplan mentioned shut-in Italians making music from balconies. Kaplan needed to be singing again with people, she said, as she had been before Greenfield Harmony suspended its rehearsals.

“Everything had ended,” recalls Davidson, for whom singing goes back to when she and her three sisters once performed at nursing homes and around their western Connecticut home. “Wouldn’t it be fun to get together and sing? We said, ‘Let’s do it!’ ”

Incredibly, a dozen neighbors turned out for that first 3 p.m. sing on Taylor Hill simply by word of mouth and email.

“People were desperate for something,” recalls Davidson.

Led by Kaplan, the singers decided to try it again the following day on the Common in hopes of increasing their numbers.

A dozen people gathered on the Common that Wednesday, March 18, to form an unmasked singing circle, singers standing 10 feet or more apart.

One of them, Will Quale, hadn’t known many of his neighbors, despite moving to the village eight years earlier from Northampton.

“It was just good fun singing a wide variety of songs, and most of them I didn’t know,” says Quale, who knew a lot of pub songs from monthly sings in Brattleboro, Vermont, as well as in England, where he’d traveled to immerse in Morris dancing and rustic folklore.

With rainy weather forecast for the following day, Quale thought it would be fun to teach “Hey Rain,” an Australian song, especially if some of the places mentioned, like “Garradunga Pub” and “Julibee Bridge” were changed to local landmarks like “Lady Killigrew Pub” and “General Pierce Bridge.” The song became an instant hit, and like many of those offered by two to 10 or so people who gathered day after day to take turns leading songs, it became a rainy-day standard.

The songs have rolled out according to whatever anyone wants to sing, whether gospel or folk, Broadway or labor tunes, whaling songs or hymns. “My Grandfather’s Clock” can be followed by “We Shall Overcome” or “Here Comes the Sun,” with tunes and lyrics shared on the spot or sung from singers’ phones or songbooks. Anything goes, organically.

The sings became “the thing I set my clock by” for Quale, who soon set up a TownCommonSongs.org website to share lyrics as well as song histories. There are now nearly 250 songs listed, but the singers’ real repertoire has swelled way beyond that, growing daily.

Quale says, “We sing songs, but we also sing our pain, our joy, our worry, our solidarity, our uncertainty, our hope, through choosing particular songs or for the way we lead them. When I lead a song and other voices join in, I feel heard, and I don’t feel like I have to face that pain or hold that hope alone. It’s collaborative therapeutic art … and we’ve all gotten really good at listening to each other.”

People nowadays rarely bring music or dance to daily life, Quale says, and “a lot of people have the sense singing isn’t anything they can do except when they’re in the shower, in the car, or at church. And when they encounter something like us singing, some approach cautiously, curiously,” often apologizing self-consciously that they can’t sing and just want to listen. But after a song’s chorus repeats, “they begin singing unconsciously. And sometimes, they’ll say, ‘This is fun. That’s a song I remember.’ It awakens something. And we’ll find it’s a closet Gilbert & Sullivan fan or Beatles fan.”

Singing together awakens something also for the regulars who show up as the core around which others drop in now and then, drawn by the visibility of the daily sing in the heart of the village.

For the singers, it’s also been a way to process what they’re going through, maybe with a relative in hospice or sick with COVID-19.

Davidson explains, “Someone will say, ‘I’m requesting this song because I’m holding my friend in my heart,’ or ‘My daughter’s friend just got in an accident.’ There’s a lot of personal stuff happening, and it’s helped us express and deal with things. It’s really powerful.”

When Kaplan’s daughter, who’d been stranded in a Moroccan study program, finally returned home one evening to quarantine, singers gathered on Taylor Hill to greet her.

“That was one of the moments when I realized this is not just an event; it’s about community,” remembers Quale. “This is about neighbors becoming friends and support groups. It was a real moment for me of what this could be.”

Singer Ariel Shira, explains, “Singing pulls me up from any problem or pain I may be experiencing… Singing is its own world, and the energy of singing is a physical, tangible, energy of joy. Entering this circle often feels like suddenly being plucked up out of the hard stuff, into a space of freedom — at least for a little while.”

While daily turnout has remained fairly constant, allowing singers to feel they can continue singing unmasked in an adjustable outdoor circle with enough space for safety yet to also hear one another, they’ve expanded repertoire and opportunities for more sings.

The singers come together for full-moon sings and sunrise sings and have serenaded shut-in neighbors like musician David Kaynor, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Kaynor, an organizer of Montague’s annual May Day celebration, has also rolled by wheelchair to the Common sing for rare outings where singers have treated him with favorites like “Bells of Montague” and “Here is My Home.”

Watching the seasons pass, day by day, singers break into a tractor song or one to celebrate truckers driving by. They’ve gathered for birthdays, to mark 100 and 300 continuous singing days and for even a small potluck picnic-table Thanksgiving.

They’ve sang songs for apple season and for Christmas, songs to mark the winter solstice and even to honor retiring the Montague Center librarian and her replacement.

Singers even turned out to celebrate the annual nighttime blooming of Davidson’s cereus cactus at her home.

Spontaneously, in this news-filled year, songs arose to mark the primaries, the national election, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential inauguration.

‘Neither sleet nor rain’

“For a long time,” Davidson remembers, “we thought, ‘What are we going to do when winter comes? We’re going to have to haul a fire pit out.’ But then, day by day, we just did it. It all came together.”

In summer, singers found chairs, which they moved under shade trees, and sang songs about water and swimming. After becoming drenched by the first few spring downpours, they headed under the Montague Congregational Church’s eaves or a nearby porch. To beat winter’s numbing temperatures, they danced or moved while singing and shared hot cider and baked goods.

“When it was really cold,” says Quale, “I’d just sing to myself until someone else joined me. And someone always did!”

During the harshest weather or when people were away, singers took pains to assure that someone would keep the sing going.

“Singing is the first and greatest love of my life,” says Ben Fink, who moved to Montague this winter from Connecticut after learning about the sings from a friend. “Of everything we’ve given up during the pandemic, losing the opportunity to sing with people in that way was for me the most devastating. And having the opportunity to sing together on the Common has saved ... if not my life, then certainly my sanity: Just the opportunity to be with people in person on a daily basis, the opportunity to make something together, something that is deeply meaningful for all of us. And the particular experience of singing and hearing each other’s voices, however obscured by distance and wind and road noise … it’s the experience of being truly and deeply together, with other people, and not alone at home behind a screen.”

The singers are dedicated to staying connected yet also attuned to protecting health, keeping their distance and their numbers down. Nearly all sing without masks to share songs more clearly. They encourage singers to wear masks if they feel they need to and expand their circle as more people join.

Quale says that in response to people’s warnings about public gatherings and concerns about the hazards of singing during the pandemic, he’s “voraciously” researched science journals for analysis on droplet particles and fluid dynamics.

The small gatherings, the concentration of singing enthusiasts within walking distance and with flexible daytime schedules, together with the relatively low pandemic numbers in this region, has also assured safety, say Quale and Davidson, and make the ongoing Montague gatherings a rarity.

“There are a few communities where they’ve tried going to a big field where people have done one-off events,” says Quale, but they’ve have had trouble either gathering singers or limiting participants for ongoing communal sings. He’s advised organizers elsewhere to avoid trying to bring together existing choral groups whose members may be stretched across wide areas, but to instead “think of people in your immediate neighborhood who you don’t necessarily know and may not sing the same stuff you do, but could all just sing something. For a long time, there wasn’t any more of a commitment than ‘I want to do this again tomorrow.’ At some point it became ‘Wow! We should just see where this goes, but very intentionally we’re trying to make it always happen.”

“And just start,” advises Davidson. “If you think we need to get this organized, or we need 10 people to connect, or we need a director and his repertoire isn’t ready yet, it may never happen.

“All we had to do was just physically show up,” she says, “and then the songs came out.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is richiedavis.net.


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