Story by Patricia Dawn Robertson
BIG RIVER, SASKATCHEWAN — “Sing Out Strong,” said the Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society’s brochure.
I can do that, I told myself. I can sing.
The other classes on offer in mid-August — like jamming, fiddle, banjo, Dobro guitar and bass — were appealing options. One insurmountable obstacle steered me clear of the stringed instruments: These workshops required familiarity with them and pickin’ skills.
The last time I picked up a guitar was in the 1970s. My red-haired, hippy West Island guitar teacher, a friend of the family, had 10-year-old me repeatedly strumming the chords to Ian Tyson’s much-covered Four Strong Winds.
So voice it was. I had some limited voice training and could read music thanks to a two-year involuntary stretch in Holy Trinity Anglican church’s Sunday choir. Thanks to my mother’s earnest insistence that I accompany her to the weekly Tuesday evening practice, I could sing Make Me a Channel of Your Peace on key and in rounds.
My 1950’s-era parents favoured Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald so there were no bluegrass or Old Tyme music albums housed in our urbanite family’s living-room entertainment centre. My knowledge of the Carter Family was limited to the Hollywood film with Reese Witherspoon. (Witherspoon won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as June Carter-Cash in Walk the Line.)
Like many hipsters, I acquired a CD of the O’ Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. It’s an amusing 2000 Cohen brothers’ release where George Clooney mugs for the camera and affects an implausible Southern accent.
So, let’s just say I was out of my depth on the Old Tyme-front when I took my seat at 9:30 am on Tuesday after a night of fitful sleep in my MEC tent. The assembled singers formed a circle of chairs under the protection of a formal white tent better suited to an outdoor wedding than a humble bluegrass camp.
My able instructor, musician Kelley Breiding of the Spencer Branch trio, didn’t care if we were out of our element. All her students had to do was make an effort in her workshop and “run into our fears.”
“What are the consequences of musical failure?” Breiding jovially asked the assembled group. “Musical failure will not drain your bank account. And it won’t crash your car.”
As vocal students, we must learn to ignore what she called our “innate sense of self-protection.”
There was some real reason for fear, or performance anxiety, lingering among the group since music camp concluded with a performance in the event’s public festival. Sitting on Top of the World was already chosen as the tune for our Friday night gig.
Sitting on Top of the World is an Old Tyme classic written by 1930’s country-blues musicians, Mississippi Sheiks. The song has enjoyed popularity since its recording and those who have covered the song include Howlin’ Wolf, Jeff Healey, John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, the Grateful Dead, and Jack White.
Since our Sing Out Strong workshop was made up entirely of women, our teacher elected to change the lyrics to suit us. The song is about heartbreak and resilience but it’s written from a male point of view. So we dedicated some workshop time to revising the lyrics. In our new version, “gal” became “pal” and “she” was switched to “he”. We sang it together with feminine gusto:
It was in the spring one sunny day
My good pal left me Lord he went away
And now he’s gone but I don’t worry
‘Cause I’m sitting on top of the world
In addition to adapting any song’s lyrics to suit our needs, Breiding encouraged us to study the background and history of the songs we learned. She’s a voice teacher and a keen cultural ambassador for Old Tyme music and her home region, North Carolina. In addition to the technical aspects of voice training, our workshop included an abbreviated ethnomusicology lesson.
Respect for and conserving tradition is a big aspect of Old Tyme music. When musicians perform a song, they are celebrating and remembering the brilliant players from the past. And it’s a key part of celebrating their cultural heritage to perform and play songs created from their part of the world.
In addition to her self-taught banjo and guitar skills, Breiding has an English degree. And she has studied voice professionally. Her accessible and informative approach to workshop instruction is professional yet light-hearted. It’s the perfect mix for a nervous group of wannabe singers.
Every morning we met in the white tent and warmed up our vocals chords with scales. Breiding demonstrated the proper breathing technique for productive singing. Breathe from your diaphragm. It’s a revelation. Suddenly, my amateurish vocals had power behind them since I’m not singing from just my throat. So this is how real singers belt it out — from the diaphragm.
“It’s all about finding your voice, yourself and your confidence,” Breiding says.
Not only were we encouraged to form our own unique imprint on Sitting on Top of the World, Breiding also suggested we make musical friends in order to develop our skills. She urged us to continue our musical education through singing songs we already knew and learning to perform Old Tyme standards with the lofty goal of getting to the advanced stage where we could sing a short ballad, solo, without accompaniment (a capella).
On Friday evening, a massive group of amateur musicians, all music camp graduates, joined together on the outdoor stage to launch the weekend-long Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old Tyme Music Festival. We were the warm-up act for the professional musicians on the main stage.
The Sing Out Strong group was as ready as we would ever be to perform Sitting on Top of the World with the more advanced singers who studied harmony all week. We were relieved and grateful to be accompanied by a makeshift jam band.
As we confidently broke into song, the festival audience cheered us on from their lawn chairs. And we didn’t worry, ‘Cause we’re sitting on top of the world.