By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Music brought people together in downtown Bowling Green Friday night.
On South Main Street more than 100 people gathered at Grounds for Thought for “Singing for Our Lives: Empowering the People through Song” a protest song singalong led by three of the four members of the Grande Royale Ukulelists of the Black Swamp.
A couple blocks north more than 100 people celebrated the ageless power of rock ‘n’ roll with The Welders, who for more than 30 years have been staging a spring break show at Howard’s Club H.
Mary Jane Saunders, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, opened “Singing for Our Lives” at Grounds by explaining her rationale for suggesting the event.
Many are feeling stressed and uncomfortable in the current political climate, she said. That’s been expressed in several rallies, most held in the green space next to the Presbyterian Church.
The sing-along of classic songs was offered as an occasion “to have fun together” while not forgetting the cause that has united so many in the community.
“Music has the power to empower and to energize us,” she said.
Pop music historian Ken Bielen gave a brief introduction to protest music, much of it by simply quoting memorable lines.
He recalled that it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who urged Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. “When people get together in the right combination, history is made.” He then recalled Country Joe McDonald’s admonition to the throngs at Woodstock singing along to “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.”
“I don’t know how you expect the stop the war when you can’t sing any better than that.”
And at first the singing at the Grounds event was, let’s say, dutiful. But humor, another unifier, helped pull everyone in.
After singing the Holly Near song that gave the event its title, Jason Wells-Jensen joked about the setting of the microphone, saying all short people were the same height to him.
At which point bandmate Anne Kidder, started singing “we are tall and short, together” with the audience spontaneously picking up the tune and continuing even after Kidder had stopped singing.
From then on, the singing grew more enthusiastic, even as some of the lyrics were tough on the tongue or the music was in 5/4 time and the audience was supposed to clap on the fourth and fifth beats. The sound ranged from Don Scherer’s seismic bass to the jangle of percussion.
The GRUBS for the occasion loosened their prohibition against non-ukulele instruments and employed guitars and Sheri Wells-Jensen’s banjo. That was a fitting choice given banjo was the instrument of activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, whose songs and spirit infused the gathering.
The repertoire included the lesser known verses of such standards as “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” Some obvious choices were included such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but there was the unexpected choice as well.
Jason Wells-Jensen said only on studying the lyrics did he realize that Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit “Bad Moon Rising’” was in its way a protest song, warning of danger ahead.
He mentioned that while many in audience knew this and other songs from when they were first popular, he and others encountered them much later. “This was always classic rock to me.”
For The Welders holding forth down the street at Howard’s “Bad Moon Rising” was just one of the many hits from their youth. When The Welders started gathering for their spring break show more than 30 years ago, they were already an assemblage of BG music scenesters. They still bring together members of bands, past and present, to jam on old favorites, in a loose, sometimes antic way.
Doug Fiely, an artist who also makes an annual appearance as a painter in the Black Swamp Arts Festival’s juried art show, fronts the band. He growls out tunes and commentary and lays down bass lines.
The days when the band would haul a chainsaw on stage are long passed, but the scars from those days are still evident on the stage’s railing, just part of the club’s lore.
Take a time machine and go back 40 or more years, and many of the same people would be on the stage, and many of the same folks would be in the audience. As the night wore on, people young enough to be the grandchildren of those on stage infiltrated the audience with no lessening of the level of enthusiasm.
Joining Fiely on stage this year were: Joe Baker, vocals and rhythm guitar; Gus Sonnenberg, organ and electric piano; Michael Peslikis, electric piano; Tim Stubbs, drums; Bob Manley, alto saxophone and flute; and Robbie Evans on lead guitar. They had the experience and skills to pull off such a loose-jointed show that gave the appearance of being ready to head off the rails while actually staying true to its course.
The audience sang along at the club as well, answering the call of “Day-O” and robustly chiming in on “Hit the Road, Jack.”
Aside from a handful of listeners who made their way from Grounds to Howard’s, Bob Dylan was in that thin slice of the Venn diagram where the two shows overlapped. At Grounds they sang an earnest “Blowin’ in the Wind” the lyrics still relevant. At Howard’s they covered the surreal “All Along the Watchtower” with Evans playing scorching guitar that paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix and Manley delivering a flute solo that harkened back to his early days as an acolyte of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull.
The other common denominator was the spirit of people sharing music together.
Outside the stretch of Main Street between the venues was eerily quiet for a Friday night nearing midnight. The college students were off on spring break. The kids didn’t know what they were missing.