Musicians aid each other - for a song

Music: At the Baltimore Songwriters Association, fledgling composers and seasoned ones play their works to kindred spirits.

June 21, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

On a dare, John Seay wrote his first song at age 12. Now 50, he has composed hundreds more, including a national contest winner recorded by Nashville artist Charly McClain.

Leah Ulansey, a 42-year-old English teacher, has just begun to write her own music and, emboldened by what she has to say, found the courage to perform before others.

While far apart in their musical journeys, both Seay and Ulansey belong to the Baltimore Songwriters Association, a "song circle" in which members, reflecting a rainbow of musical genres and abilities, present their compositions for comments, suggestions and (always benign) criticism.

When the group gathers at its bimonthly meetings at the Lodge in Highlandtown, the evening program is anybody's guess - until members who have decided this is the night to debut their song add their name to a sign-up sheet. Some of the songwriters are rank beginners who offer their creations in quavering, barely audible voices. Others deliver their compositions with utter confidence. Some participants are classically trained; others play by ear. Some have recorded at least one CD; others are still in the "moon in June" phase of their careers.

And while some sing the blues, others scat-sing jazz. There's a teen-age punk rocker, a vaudevillian, a Christian music composer. There are folkies whose topical tales recall Woody Guthrie and folkies who paint musical landscapes of fallen leaves and lost lovers.

The musical mix makes for a delightful exchange, a quirky contrast of personalities and a support-group climate suitable for souls in step with a different drummer. Make that a band of different drummers.

"We're a weird little family, but it works for us," says the song circle's co-founder, Jane Wellington Beatty. "I'm never, never bored, and I'm always surprised."

Saturday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), the group celebrates its third anniversary with "Raising the Roof," a concert featuring original compositions to benefit Habitat for Humanity.

In the beginning

The song circle, 3 years old, was started by Beatty, an experienced singer-songwriter currently on hiatus from her career, and Paul Iwancio, an amateur musician who works in the instructional television department at UMBC.

Beatty had read Iwancio's online posting on a folk music listserv stating his desire to start a song circle. She called, and together they envisioned a group that would include songwriters of all abilities and run according to Beatty's ground rules: "Never slam or destroy a song. Every song is a risk and should be treated with respect."

Beatty is a seasoned song circle member. When she lived in Bethlehem, Pa., she was part of an informal but diligent song circle, just five members strong. "Songwriting is a solitary art, and to get with other people who are similar to you, who are so wonderful and honest and respectful of where you were in your process," made an enormous difference, she says.

Iwancio's previous effort to join a local song circle ended when he realized it was only open to an exclusive group of friends. There was "no other group around I could join, so I realized that I had to get off my can and make it happen somehow." Ironically, the Songwriters Association has grown so swiftly - from an initial handful to 120 members - that Iwancio has little time to devote to his own music.

With the surge in popularity of "singer/songwriters" such as Ani DiFranco, Christine Lavin and John Gorka, song circles, large and small, amateur and professional, have blossomed around the country, says Beatty, 35. There is "a real strong need for people to tell stories, let alone have people listen to your stories in a way that will inspire you to write more stories."

Like poets and artists who pursue their passions at night while holding day jobs, countless aspiring songwriters spend free hours writing hooks and perfecting lyrics. The goal may be to write a commercial hit or to simply polish one's craft.

After obtaining nonprofit status, the Baltimore Songwriters Association has won two grants - from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture - to support a workshop by songwriter Hugh Blumenfeld and expand newsletter circulation. Iwancio, 43, and Beatty have also launched a regular open mic night at the One World Cafe on West University Parkway. In the future, Beatty would love to take members into city schools for student workshops and to eventually find a permanent home for the group.

"We're slowly getting the word out," says Beatty, a Baltimore resident and mother of two young children. "There's always room for one more, and we want people to come and see how goofy we actually are."

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