AS A HALF DOZEN people packed up after an hour of casual group singing on a grassy bluff at Carkeek Park, a man who had been sitting at one of the nearby picnic tables approached and put a hand on his chest. “You sounded good,” he said. “Thank you. You warmed my heart.”
As they always do, the singers invited him to join in next time.
After all, joining in is what song circles are all about. You don’t have to sing beautifully; you don’t even need to know the songs.
Bruce Baker, who organizes the Seattle Song Circle on alternate Sunday evenings and the Dusty Strings noon open singing group on Wednesdays, started performing decades ago. But he really found his calling with song circles. “In a song circle, the audience and performers are one,” he says — a dynamic that satisfies desires for both music and community.
Some of the singers are professionals; some write their own songs or new verses to old ones. Others, like me, are completely new to singing in front of strangers. All are welcome. “Inclusion is really one of the delightful things of it,” Baker says. “Everyone’s got something to offer, and if you just try a little bit, you’ll get something out of it.”
Singing together swiftly builds connection. And last year’s upheaval made that bond even stronger in some ways.
Like many things, song circles went online during the pandemic. Then something magical happened: They found one another.
Now, rather than a dozen or so singers in one place for a song circle, Baker gets up to 40 or so from as far as Australia. During the singalong at Carkeek Park, he set his smartphone on a tripod so others could join in via Zoom.
People from Seattle join virtual sings all over the region and even the world. Although in-person possibilities started opening up, the virtual option kept going — and, many hope, always will.
Some of the singers are caretakers or have disabilities or other barriers to attending in person. When one song-circle regular was laid up, she listened in from the hospital, and some people wrote and performed songs for her.
During a song circle, you’ll likely be handed a songbook or directed to one online. When your turn comes, you can sing, pass or request a song of your choice. Some singers accompany themselves on instruments; others are a cappella.
They’re usually singing folk songs. “I’ll Fly Away” is a staple, and you’ll be right at home if you’re familiar with Bob Dylan’s work.
Song circles are a great way to learn new-to-you music. But it’s not just about the music. Folks tell stories the songs bring up, and during the virtual version, a steady stream of banter fills the chat. Although listeners’ mics are turned off during songs to avoid the mess that online lags create, people sing along, anyway. During the Sunday night virtual session, Arnie Dorin, one of the East Coasters who has become a regular, sent me an unprompted message. “I always thought I had a horrible voice, but this group is sooo supportive. And the feeling of togetherness and sharing is so incredible,” he wrote. “This has been amazing for me. I have made friends with a whole group of people.”