From song circle to Arcade Fire

by carl on August 20, 2011

Last night, 17 voices rang out in our living room, a circle of friends. We sang works all the way from Stephen Foster to “The Elk Herd.” The singing went on until 11 o’clock, when we joined arms and ended with “The Sailor’s Farewell.”

It’s a gathering that has happened twice a month since 1991, usually in the house or apartment of a member of the Ottawa Song Circle. You can come at 6:30 for potluck, or at 7:30 just to sing. There are few rules: the host begins by leading a song and then the turn passes around so you can pick, pass or play. That is, you can choose a song and ask someone else to lead it, you can skip your turn in case of dire emergency or else you can lead a song – with or without an instrument. We believe everyone can sing.

Of course, not everyone can make it to Carnegie Hall, but that’s another story. And even strong singers have to take the time to learn a new song. But at song circle, all are welcome to lift their voices as one.

Our song circle in Ottawa owes its beginnings to two people: Caroline and David Parry. David was a musician, actor and theatre director who had been the head of the music and dance section of the Canadian Museum of Civilization until his untimely death in 1995. Caroline Parry, a writer and musician who moved to Ottawa in 1991 to join her husband, decided she couldn’t go on any longer without a song circle like the one she had belonged to in Toronto. They started the song circle at their home along the Ottawa River.

At that very first song circle – formally, an offshoot of the Old Sod Folk Music Society – three singers met for the first time: Ian Robb, Shelly Posen and Ann Downey. When they discovered how they could harmonize, they formed a trio called Finest Kind. Five CDs and many local and overseas tours later, they’re still going strong. The trio’s British, Canadian and American roots show up in the songs we sing most often at song circle – though we do occasionally sing in French, German, Spanish and Russian.

The children of some singers grew up in song circle. Many fond memories of children’s voices blending with their parents in perfect harmony are now just that. Those children have now become adults, married and moved far away. Some young song circlers have become musicians in their own right: singer, songwriter, playwright and actor Evalyn Parry of Toronto and her brother Richard Parry of Montreal, member of Arcade Fire and leader of his own band, Bell Orchestre. That’s right – their parents are David and Caroline Parry, the founders of the Ottawa Song Circle.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Caroline Balderston Parry September 19, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Hey Carl, all very interesting, and it’s great to see Song Circle written up. Also, thanks for the kudos! A couple of wee corrections, however, for the record. David started work in 1988 at the CMC, and commuted to Toronto for 2 years. Then we bought our house in Britannia in 1990 –I moved there then, and the SC started the next year.
David was the head of the live theatre program, Dramamuse, at the CMC, not as broad a portfolio as you name him: “head of the music and dance section.” And for further record, did you know the CMC has recently axed the entire Dramamuse program? Yep! Boo to the Conservatives who don’t get the importance of live culture. . . .

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