We Need to Sing: Liner Notes

These are today’s thoughts about music and singing and the CD We Need to Sing.

I will probably add to these thoughts once in while, so feel free to check in and see if there’s anything new.

Nothing would please me more than to hear your stories of these songs and how they nestle into your life.

I would also love to hear your stories about other songs and their impact.

Pat Thompson
We Need to Sing


I sang in school and church choirs as a kid, and loved every minute of it. I loved the harmonies more than anything, and was lucky enough to learn to think and write in sol-fa. Little did I know how useful that would be in later years!
When I was ten years old, someone came into my school class and asked, “Does anyone want to learn to play the cello?” I had no idea what a cello was, but it was a musical instrument, and I was so keen to learn any instrument going, that I volunteered. You had to bring a note from your parents, giving permission. I charged home and begged for permission to play the cello. We looked it up in the dictionary, and my dad said, “No way. It’s too big!” Not to be thwarted, I returned to school the next day and said that my parents had agreed, but forgot to write the note. I got my cello. It was taller than me. And I guess my parents understood the concept of “Better to ask forgiveness than permission.” At any rate, they supported my early cello playing, and eventually helped me acquire a piano as well. When I came home with the trombone a few years later, they made me ask the grumpy old next-door neighbour if it was OK with her.

At the age of 20, I had parted ways with the church and finished with school. I found that I missed the music. It took awhile to connect with the Folk Music community (thanks to RWC and Rick Avery for pointing me in that direction), but when Green Fiddle Morris formed at Fiddlers Green Folk Club in Toronto, in the early seventies, the hidden reward was a group of dancers who also sang. All the time! I couldn’t believe my luck when I walked to the grocery store that first day of practice, to get some potluck food with Alison Bidwell. As we trudged along Eglinton Avenue, she burst into song, (one of the many Begging songs), and I found myself joining in on the chorus.
The folks at Fiddlers Green were so generous in sharing their songs and encouraging new singers. I can remember one 12-hour drive to Marlborough Vermont. There were eight of us in the van, and we sang, non-stop, all the way. Then we sang and danced all weekend, and sang all the way home!

Because there was only enough room at Fiddler’s Green for 12 dancers at a time, most of us took up some instrument. I ended up with a fiddle, and playing by ear was encouraged. During this time I also began to play guitar, and to use music in my teaching. Participation in music and dance was enhanced by involvement with Recreation Workshops of Toronto and ECRS. When I finally left Toronto for good, the Fiddler’s Green Folks pooled together to send me off with a guitar, and someone at work gave me a fiddle.

In 1979, I moved to Victoria, and quickly found that Folk Clubs everywhere form a universal musical family. Before long I was daring to get up onstage, alone, and with others. Everyone was willing to share the words and the tunes, and more important, the experience of belting out a song within a group of lusty-voiced singers. The folk music community is a strong one, and the group in Victoria continues to thrive. In fact, it has inspired many other clubs on the Islands.

I spent more than 30 years working with children with challenging behaviours. Really bright kids-personality plus-real characters struggling to fit into a world that didn’t understand them and often branded them “bad”. For these kids, the music was a revelation. They learned that it was “cool” to be able to belt out a song, and that shanty singers ain’t no wimps. They learned that for every struggle they had, someone, somewhere had written a song. And if it hadn’t been written yet, they could write it themselves. Those kids learned that a song is something no one can ever take away from you.

The older I get, the more I recognize the tangible power of song. Singing is not just background noise or aural wallpaper. Singing can really make a difference, can help us work and play, and grieve, celebrate and communicate. Music can help us persevere.

The results of a recent election caused many of our friends, particularly Americans, to despair. But some amazing stories began to emerge. Stories about the power of music. We heard that Flip Breskin had called all of her saddened friends together saying, “We need to sing!” Flip says they sang for hours, song after song of optimism and hope. And after that same election, Utah Phillips wrote “Singing Through the Hard Times”. Well, the world isn’t fixed yet, but an awful lot of people are more likely to try to do something about it, because that music lifted the weight of despair.

My Uncle Mac once said, “Tony makes them laugh and Pat makes them cry”.

Many of the songs on this album have been sung at memorials and wakes. Does that seem morbid? I don’t think so. Death is a normal part of life, and the songs that help us celebrate a life are often the most poignant and beautiful.

Most songs I’ve learned are connected in my mind with the person who passed them on to me. Pretty much everyone I know has passed something along, either directly or indirectly. But Bruce (Haywire) Brackney deserves a special mention. Brack is incredibly well-versed in the history and lore of all kinds of “people” music. It’s truly mind-boggling, the details he casually shares. He’s a talented musician. And he has a particular gift for matching songs with singers. Brack has “given” me so many songs, that it’s almost a “given” that most songs I sing came through Brack.

The songs on this album were chosen because I love them. I never tire of singing them. And I keep discovering new moments of musical joy when I pull them out again.

Sharon Hazelwood startled me recently by asking me, “Do you ever just sit on your own and sing for the pure enjoyment of it?” The answer: “Yes, all the time.” These songs are just a few of the many that have provided hours of deep satisfaction with the pure joy of singing. The physical feeling of it, and the gratifying emotional release it consistently provides. Combine that with the absolutely delicious and decadent pleasure of sharing songs and singing harmony with one or more other person, and you’ve got a high that no drug could come near.

For years, as we sang at Festivals and Folk Clubs, we reminded each other not to talk too much. This led to some frustration, as we felt the urge to tell the stories of the songs and our experiences with them.
Then Tony and I were invited to participate in an International Storyteller’s Conference in Toronto. The emphasis, obviously, was on storytelling. We loved that Festival and the weeks of preparation for it. One of the highlights, and tasty challenges came from presenting a workshop titled, “What is the difference between a story and a song?” (Think about that one for awhile. It’s a fun exercise).
Being encouraged to tell the stories, we felt liberated and much more relaxed. We returned home with the realization that it’s OK to take the time to tell about a song. After all, a song is just another form of story.

So here are some thoughts and stories that go with the songs on the CD. For every one of these stories, there is a longer version. If we ever meet up, and you want to hear it, just ask.


This Old Mandolin (Michael Peter Smith)
Learned on board the boat in Friday Harbour.
Back at school the next day, I casually mentioned a song about a mandolin, and the kids begged me to sing it for them. I told them it was too grown up, too sad, too complicated and didn’t have a chorus. “You wouldn’t like it.” They persisted, and this song became an all-time favourite of a couple of the most poignant kids I ever met. Every day they would come to class and say, “Sing the Mandolin song, Pat.” And they would sing along. They knew all the words.
The kids decided that “This Old Mandolin can take a hobo back home” means that if you have a song in your heart, no one can take it away from you. For kids who have lost everything over and over again as they moved from one foster home to another, a song couldn’t have meant more.

Upon the Road (Celia O’Neill)
The only song I have ever passed on to Brack. I learned this from Fraser Union. I sang it at my mother’s wake and at other Memorials. We sing it lots at other times, too.
Recently I was privileged to meet Celia. Wish there had been more time to spend with this lovely and very wise woman. I didn’t get her version of the song until after this one was recorded, so a couple of words have undergone the folk process and weren’t caught in time. As soon as possible I will get the original words on this website.

Old Devil Time (Pete Seeger)
Not an easy one to sing, and the version I first heard was Rosalie’s. I sang it for our dear friend Jan, when she needed it, but couldn’t be there to hear me sing it.
Recently, I heard Pete’s version on the radio. So different. The folk process has been at work, and this song particularly demands that the singer personalize it.

Grandma’s Patchwork Quilt (Larry Penn)
We used to lay out a patchwork quilt in the middle of the floor and the adults and kids would sit around the edges. Then we would sing this song and we could talk about the meaning of “My Grandma’s gone to rest” and be comfortable about it. We would talk about all the ways of saying that someone died, and all the children’s’ experiences with death. It was so important to have that conversation, and this song gave us permission to do it.
For many of the students, this was the first song in which they dared to solo. They wrote to Larry Penn and delighted in his response to them.

The Joy of Living (Ewan MacColl)
Flip Breskin taught me this one at Northwest Teachercamp. The following week I was asked if I knew a song to sing at a Memorial for an exceptional colleague who had recently succumbed to breast cancer.
It was challenging to get through the song without choking up. But it was important to learn how to do it.
This song makes pretty much everyone cry, and that’s not such a bad thing.
The words have been altered slightly to set it in B.C.

Geraldine and Ruthie May (Sarah Campbell)
What a powerful image! This was a difficult one to learn. At first, it seemed depressing, but listen to the story. These are two women who have captured something many privileged folks never have… a deep and enduring friendship.

To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places (Jane Voss)
Not a quick, folksy song with a catchy chorus, but oh, what a way to say, “Fair winds and following seas.” Another example of the phenomenon of a Songwriter zeroing in on a whole cluster of universal emotions.

Women in Work Clothes (Van Rozay)
I learned this from Sharon Hazelwood, but always wondered who wrote it. One day it was requested at a party, and as I sang it, a stranger walked in. He joined in and he knew all the words!
“I should, “he grinned, “I wrote it!” And that’s how we met Van Rozay, a talented songwriter from California (now living in Gig Harbour, Washington). By the way, Van sings it as a swing tune. It’s very different, and quite delicious. Van was gracious enough to slip us a tape of some other songs he’s written. We look forward to learning some more of them, and we hope to catch up with him in Gig Harbour. Van was also able to clarify for us that “Star-route” refers to a rural mail route in the US. There is a star on the mailbag.
Flip Breskin sings the song with a rag-time guitar accompaniment. Another example of the folk process.

Fishing With John (Bill Gallaher/Mike Jones)
Big John MacDonnell from Cowichan Bay made a point of giving me a copy of the book Fishing With John at Tony’s 50th birthday party. Bill Gallaher, a talented and prolific Victoria songwriter put Edith Iglauer’s story into song. Mike Jones, a long-time friend and fellow musician, wrote the tune. For years I delighted in singing harmony to Maureen Campbell’s version, and she kindly wrote out the words for me as we packed up to leave Victoria on the boat. Both the story and the song are very personal for me, in my 22nd year with Tony. I often can’t get through it without tears, but what else in new?

All the Good People (Ken Hicks)
I never met Fred Holstein or even heard of him until his friends were mourning his untimely passing. Brack shared a live concert tape, and I was hooked. Wish I could turn back time. I would have traveled many miles to connect with this guy. Every single song took my breath away, and I was jumping up and down with excitement at so much new material to learn. I want to dedicate this one, especially, to all the folk music communities, who become family wherever we go.

The song has an instant chorus. I put the chorus in after every verse, because there can never be enough of it, and this way you get to sing it lots. One of many songs that caused me to drop everything (in this case, a wet dishcloth) and run for a pen and a piece of paper….Then run for a guitar and try it out….. Then sing it over and over and over, for hours on end. Each time I sing this one, there is an endless colour display of memories dancing through my mind, of the countless good people and kitchen tables in my life. For these, I am most grateful.

It took ages to detect the writer of this song, and I do hope to learn more about Ken Hicks’ work.

Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy (Traditional)
About fifteen years ago I mentioned to Jill King that I might like to have a concertina to accompany some songs. “Get a Duet,” she wisely advised. I didn’t know what a Duet was, but I put out the word that I was looking for one. Next thing I knew, I got a phone call from my most considerate sister Magi. Magi is a Morris Dancer in Toronto, and, against all odds, she had managed to come up with a Wheatstone Duet Concertina. Took me awhile to get the money together, but I finally sent it. I do believe Magi had forked over her rent money to get hold of the instrument. When it finally arrived, hand-delivered by another Green Fiddle Morris Dancer, I was stunned! It’s a work of art. Of course, Tony and Jim Ham had to open it up that first night, and all it’s insides sproinged everywhere. But when they finally got it back together, I sat up all night in the cockpit, figured out three chords and then tried every song I ever knew. For years there were only three chords in my repertoire, but those three chords got me through many hours of busking or sitting at anchor in some isolated bay. This song is the first one I ever learned with both hands. It’s coupled with a Morris Dance-able treatment of the tune.

The Testimony of Patience Kershaw (Frank Higgins)
More than 25 years ago, Rena and Jim Miller went to Scotland and came back buzzing with excitement about a political rally they had attended. At the rally they had been treated to music by a number of well-known folk musicians and they brought back a tape of the evening. This song is taken almost literally from the words of a 17-year-old girl who was interviewed for the Royal Commission on Child Labour in 1842. I listened to this song, loved it, and learned it. It was one of the first songs I ever sang in a solo concert, at the Seattle Folklife Festival in about 1984. Since then I have learned a number of songs about mining. Mining songs always seem to be so strangely and poignantly beautiful.

Heaven (Julie Gold)
It’s not a bouncy sing-along song, but oh, did this one ever grab me. Brack gave it to me on a tape one summer, just as I was leaving for the airport to visit my Mom in Toronto. The plane was delayed 11 hours and I loved every minute of the time I spent in the Vancouver Airport getting songs off that tape. Then I spent three weeks in Toronto during a heat wave. My sister dropped off a loaner guitar and I learned a bunch of the songs, sitting on my Mom’s front porch. Ellen, my dear, kind-hearted, funny character of a mother, was fading by then, and conversation could sometimes be challenging. But, for the first time ever, she actually sat and listened to me singing. Gradually, she began to sing along, and to recognize the songs the next time she heard them. Surprisingly, she liked this one. So I sang it at her Memorial, and it seemed to say what needed to be said.

One for the Money (Travis Edmonson)

It took a long time to come up with the name of Travis Edmonson, (remember Bud & Travis?) the writer of this song. The song is a keeper alright. I love the gentleness of the message, and way the song is crafted to invite people to join in. Everyone is familiar with the “One for the money” expression, so everyone feels immediately comfortable with the words. This song is full of phrases that make me grin and go all soft around the eyes - and I especially love the little tag at the end of each verse.

Travis Edmonson has a web site. If you Google his name, you will find it. I know there’s lots more of his songs worth learning, and I plan to get some more of his music soon.

One Response to “We Need to Sing: Liner Notes”

  1. Rose Birney Says:

    Well, you’ve definitely got the music bug, girl! Very interesting to hear about what makes your thing ping. And how like a boy to open up your concertina the first night and get all the parts sproinging - just when you most want to play the damn thing… Have a good sail you two. R xox

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