Almost everyone has some songs that live in their happiest memories. Now cold weather and Covid variants keep us apart, but one day it will be summer again – time for a hootenanny.
My friends Jason and Maureen Swinger host these informal sing-alongs regularly in their backyard, under the stars, around a roaring campfire. Guests arrive with instruments: guitars, banjos, vocal cords. Everyone is welcome, even people who didn’t hear about it and just come by to investigate the noise. That’s how I stumbled on my first hootenanny in 2015, and I’ve been coming ever since.
The Swingers use homemade songbooks collected and bound by their neighbor, Tony Potts. His compilation grows as new favorites are suggested; along the way, the Scorpions, Dire Straits, and the Grateful Dead have joined Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. If I don’t know a song, I just listen. It doesn’t matter if someone sings the tune a bit differently or adds a new verse. We’re just a link in the music chain, giving the songs a chance to live on.
To host a hootenanny, you first need songbooks. Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s Rise Up Singing is a classic collection, or create your own. Just remember that solo-voice top-ten hits tend to tank fast, no matter how well people know them. Maybe because they’re designed to put one person in the spotlight, they seem to sputter out when sung by a group. But band songs from the Beatles to the Eagles to Alabama – now those can fly. (Another tip: In this timeless firelight zone, shared books and flashlights are much more fun than individual phone lyric searches.)
Popular songs work well as starters, but don’t neglect folk songs. After all, the sea shanties that were all the rage in 2021 aren’t the only muscle-and-blood work songs. There are miners’ songs, farming songs, mountain and river music. Songs about winter constellations, piney-wood hills, four strong winds, the streets of London … about feeling so broke up, you want to go home. Other voices from other times – men and women who had hard days but made it through.
The campfire, the darkness, and the contagious joy inspire even insecure vocalists to join in. My singing isn’t always on key and I don’t hit every high note, but that doesn’t matter. Folks who shrink from the spotlight may find their voices by firelight, and the lonely or discouraged may find heart as the sparks fly up and someone asks, “Do you know this one?”
What does a Hootenanny sound like? Join one of the Swingers’ recent sing-alongs here:
“Lonesome Traveler” by Lee Hays (00:00)
“Piney Wood Hills” by Buffy Sainte-Marie (02:16)
“What’s That I Hear” by Phil Ochs (05:49)
“Those were the Days” by Gene Raskin (07:52)
“M.T.A.” by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes (12:51)
“I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley (15:36)
“On the Other Side” by The Seekers (17:49)
“Bold Orion On The Rise” by Leo Kretzner (19:58)
“May The Light Of Love” by David Roth (23:20)
“Precious Friend” by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger (26:22)
“Somos el Barco” by Lorre Wyatt (28:42)
“Day is Done” by Peter Yarrow (31:47)