[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone. This month is a tangent.]
Folks who follow Switchback see occasional dates on their schedule marked “Outreach Program.” Let’s go close-up with one of those, one that happened in October in Springfield, Illinois.
The Hope Institute for Children and Families provides educational and residential services to children facing extraordinary cognitive, physical and emotional challenges. Switchback came for a week-long residency, everything from one-on-one engagement to an all-school concert to the finish their time there.
This outreach program was quite different from a one-show gig. To plan their time, Martin McCormack and Brian FitzGerald worked with Hope’s music therapist for months leading up to their week at the school. Alisabeth Hopper helped the band create a curriculum, a compendium of lesson plans to be piloted at her Hope Learning Center. Full of details, activities, aims and goals this “HopeWork” is designed to be used in part or whole at other facilities by other musical performers.
Then, of course, there are all the fun parts.
About 30 youngsters arrive in a smallish space along with half a dozen staff. Marty and Brian have met all these folks earlier in the week, and most of today's songs have been sung in smaller classroom rehearsals. With the band plugged in just a few feet from the front row, first up is a medley of sing-alongs working off the same tune. It’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” easily oozing into “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” with a smooth segue into “The ABC Song” where Marty asks Brian if he’s truly confident of the lyrics.
Songs throughout this half-hour session start and end gently, the idea being to stimulate but not over-stimulate Hope’s students.
Next up, so to speak, is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with full-throat audience participation on the “One, two, three strikes you’re out!” line.
Marty then reminds the students they are working on “White Christmas” for their upcoming holiday show so they should give that one a try. The room is full of singing and signing the familiar December-dream carol. Later the audience is asked for a song suggestion. It’s “Jingle Bells” with bells handed out and enthusiastic response to the shouted “Hey!” with Brian upping the tempo each time around on his new mandolin.
Most of us have witnessed Switchback absorb energy from their audiences. That is not different here with the youngsters’ encouragements ranging from small to dramatic. One Hope staff member commented that among performers at the school Brian and Martin are clearly more interactive and that they listen for what the students want.
Switchback did an instrumental so the audience could be the percussion section, slapping out beats on their thighs. It was just a strum-along, but Brian, always the creator, started whipping off licks on his Taylor M4-CE that would fly on any stage.
With the end near, Switchback led the singing of that tender and saucy tale of an errant meatball sneezed into oblivion - “On Top of Spaghetti” - to the delight of all.
After a few small-group photos with much hugging and many smiles, Switchback finished with Hope’s traditional good-bye song and its lyric “Music is over until next time.” Then Marty signs off with a warning about the next day’s closing concert: “There might be dancing!”
Here is the full disclosure section. My lovely wife Sheila Walk heads our Springfield Area Arts Council which funded this whole wonderful week by hiring Switchback and Hope’s music therapist. Back years ago when I first met Martin and Brian, they were fresh from a half-day at this same Hope Institute. Over lunch Marty said Switchback wanted to be “the house band for Hope.” Pretty damned endearing. Sheila says it took a few years and a generous bequest, but this year she made it happen.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
Dear Switchback friends,
I am writing this from my hotel room at the Grand Majestic Hotel in Prague, Czech Republic. Last week we traveled to Ireland with 60 friends from coast to coast, north to south of the USA (plus one from Japan).
With the exception of a few, everyone had seen us play. And of those who did, they remembered the moment they decided that their relationship with our band should be something more than just being a fan.
Joining us on this tour was perhaps a subconscious effort to seal the friendship. And, certainly for Brian and myself, making real friends who support our music has always been paramount, and a conscious effort. These folks become part of our “Waygood Family.” As Sue Arnold, our business manager put it best, “Good friends make good family.”
Which brings me to Thanksgiving, the holiday that we are celebrating in the United States next week. In some ways, people either love or dread this holiday because of the idea of family.
Some people look no further than their DNA to determine who is family and who is not. Here in Prague, we tourists discovered one ironic display of blood (perhaps bloody?) family at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. According to local legend, the beloved Duke Wenceslas was slaughtered by his younger, power-hungry, probably jealous, brother. Posthumously, Wenceslas was not only declared a saint but also king... so I guess that made everything OK. (Pictured above is Wenceslas with his grandmother, St. Ludmila, who was also assassinated. By whom? Wenceslas' mother!)
Sometimes blood family takes for granted that family are also friends. But when one looks at true friendship, there is a commitment to service unbound by blood obligation. Obviously this can take many forms, but at heart this is a surrendering of one’s own interest for the other.
I think of my own friends and the simple displays of love and self-sacrifice we have shared through the years. The only time I have lost a friend was when that friend decided that his own interest superseded mine.
The original idea behind the holiday of Thanksgiving was to give thanks for the many blessings we have received. As blessings go, true friendship is very rare. And only true friends can become family. However, it is very rare for blood family to become true friends.
That doesn’t mean that somehow every friendship is equal or that every friend rises to “family” status. What does exist is the potential to surrender to that notion.
If we believe the Thanksgiving story, the Native Americans extended their own generosity so that the English could survive. Their donations of corn, squash and turkey suggested, “We could have friendship.”
What went wrong was that at some point the colonists’ own personal interest superseded that of their newfound friends. It’s a good illustration of the complexities of family and friendship. Good friendship has to be practiced in order to create good family.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful especially for the fans who become friends, and later, family. Here’s to many more shows, tours and meals shared between us in this WayGood World of ours!
American Roots & Celtic Soul