DON’T SING! © 2018 by Wayne Erbsen

 These are the words that were indelibly etched on my teenage mind in the far away past. Actually, the year was 1963. Let’s go back there.

 In 1958 the Kingston Trio recorded the North Carolina murder ballad, “Tom Dooley.” This recording went on to become #1 on the Billboard charts and helped to usher in a major revival of folk music in the late ‘fifties early ‘sixties. At that time I was living in southern California where a number of folk clubs sprang up, including the Ash Grove, the Troubadour, and the Ice House. One night a week each of these clubs had a “Hootenanny,” which were evenings with an open mic where anyone with a guitar and enough courage could get up to pick and sing. The term “Hootenanny” was actually coined by Lee Hayes, who was a member of the Weavers, a controversial folk group that was formed in November 1948 by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger.

 People then started having hootenanny parties in their homes. These “hoots,” as they soon became known, caught on like hula hoops and Slinkies. It was at one of these hoots in 1963 where I was singing away on some popular folk song. Back then we sang songs like “The Water is Wide,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and many of the hits of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Tarriers, the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. We were just starting to get into bluegrass. I had hardly finished singing my first song when the guy sitting next to me with a banjo slung over his shoulder looked directly at me and said, “DON’T SING.” I couldn’t believe my ears, so I looked at him and said, “What?” He stared directly at me and very slowly and deliberately enunciated these same words, “DON’T SING.” I can still see his lips slowly forming each word. I couldn’t believe he said that. Of course, I knew I didn’t have the polished voice of a trained singer, but I couldn’t understand why someone would go out of their way to demand that I stop singing a folk song. His rude comments hit me bone deep. It felt like he not only stabbed me with his dagger, but he twisted it in for good measure. As you would expect, I’ve never quite gotten over it. In fact, It changed my life.

 The good news is that it changed my life for the better. Even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I must have made a secret vow to myself that in spite of his rebuke, I would sing anyway. And sing a LOT. So at every hoot, there I was, singing away. As time went on, my repertoire increased and I was learning songs by the bucketful. In fact, my memory was so sharp back then that I could hear a song once or twice, and I had the lyrics forever stitched into the fabric of my brain. At one point, I made a list of all the songs I had in my head and the list topped seven hundred songs. Only recently have I started losing my grip on the lyrics of some of the obscure songs that I rarely sing.

 My ability to memorize the lyrics to so many songs has certainly come in handy. I could be mistaken, but to me, it seems like many bluegrass musicians have a fairly small number of songs in their heads. It happens frequently that when I’m in a jam many of the singers invariably forget some of the lyrics. When that happens, I’m usually the one who jumps in there to prompt them on the forgotten words to the song. And when nobody could think of anything to sing, I’m there with a bag full of songs, so I’m often the de facto singer.  

 As I learned and collected more and more songs, of course, I kept personal songbooks of lyrics that I had copied from LPs or heard people sing. Being interested in history made me want to dig deeply into the origins of the songs as well as the stories of the people who sang them. In 1982 I started publishing a series of songbooks on such themes as old-time, bluegrass, railroad, Civil War, pioneer, cowboy, outlaw, and gospel. To date, I’ve edited and published twelve songbooks under my publishing company, Native Ground Books & Music. By publishing these books, I like to think I have helped to keep many of the old songs alive. In my books, I’ve tried to make it clear that you don’t have to have a great voice to get out there and sing. In fact, you don’t even have to have a very good voice at all. As long as you follow good jam etiquette and remember not to sing during performances, except when invited, you’ll be fine!

 So all you closet singers, I hope you’ll take a lesson from me and venture out from under the coats and umbrellas and sing your guts out, good voice or not. And don’t forget to sing by the “letter” method. Just open up your mouth and let ‘er fly! We can’t wait to hear you sing.

About the Author
Wayne Erbsen is a musician, author, radio host, and publisher. He has written over 30 song and instruction books for bluegrass and clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, dulcimer, and ukulele. Check out his website at  nativeground.com. If you would like to receive a free Native Ground Books & Music monthly newsletter containing articles, tips, tabs and discount coupons send your name and email address to info@nativeground.com.

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