Nonprofit choir Family Folk Machine unites singers aged 5 to 75 to perform original and classic songs

Family Folk Machine: One Family

The Englert Theatre — Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m.

Jean Littlejohn directs FFM at the Veterans for Peace concert, February 2019. — Gary Clarke

In April of 2018, right near its fifth anniversary, Family Folk Machine (FFM), which had by then already become an institution in the Iowa City community, achieved another milestone: it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The intergenerational choir’s goals had always been focused on fostering and serving the community — “We seek to build community through singing songs with our neighbors,” their mission statement reads in part — and the new status was a big step forward in helping them do just that.

“When we founded the FFM, I was relieved not to have to figure out filing for nonprofit status right away, as I had no experience with nonprofit organizations,” said FFM Executive/Artistic Director Jean Littlejohn in an email. “As the choir grew, we had the opportunity to add more staff and expand our programming, but it was going to be difficult to expand under the umbrella of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, which had given us a home since our founding. At the same time, we wanted to take steps to strengthen the organization and make its operating model sustainable, which was going to require more of a budget. In the fall of 2017 we looked into the options and finally decided to take the plunge and become an independent nonprofit.”

That expanded programming took off running almost right away. Last spring, FFM associate director (and legendary Iowa singer/songwriter) Gayla Drake kicked off two new programs: the Family Folk Machine Shop and the Family Folk Machine Shed. The Shop is a songwriting workshop that has already spawned work — three of the five original songs that will be performed at the FFM’s upcoming concert came from there: “Homeward Bound” by Gayla Drake and Jerry Partridge, “Little Disasters” by Aprille Clarke and “Hidden Youth” by Susan Stamnes. The Shed is a practical skills workshop for both singers and instrumentalists.

“I’m hoping that we can chart a path where we can begin to offer workshops like these and others to the public on a regular basis,” Littlejohn said. “I know a lot of people who love the idea of the FFM but just can’t make the weekly rehearsal commitment work for their family. I’d love to expand our programming so that we could offer some FFM-like experiences that would not require an ongoing time commitment.”

In addition to looking forward to new music, the choir is broadening their repertoire with a deep look into the past. They recently began research for an initiative for their 2020-21 season, the Old-Time Music Project, which will explore 19th century music that might have been sung here in Iowa.

All of this serves to tie together FFM’s dedication to expanding definitions of community while deepening the community they themselves share. Their upcoming concert — their 15th — was programmed on the theme of “One Family,” which explores stories of the different challenges faced at different stages in life and the relationships that can form between generations.

“Most of our concerts, whatever the theme, have an underlying thread about community, and this program is no exception,” Littlejohn said. “Among the songs about the stages of life, we also have songs about the ‘global family’ — seeing our interrelatedness as humans — and about facing societal problems as a unified group.”

The choir is at its largest now, in the 2019-20 season. There are nearly 100 singers, in addition to the band and directors, and the age range spans at least 70 years, from the youngest, a 5-year-old, to the eldest at “75 or so.” There are 23 elementary school kids, around 11 junior high students and four high schoolers. The disparate ages don’t just affect skill level, but the level of understanding of content as well, especially when dealing with topics of community and life stages.

“From a parent perspective, I have appreciated learning songs with my kids that deal with difficult topics,” Littlejohn said. “If you find yourself living in a position of privilege, difficult topics or ugly parts of American history and culture don’t always surface spontaneously for teaching moments with the kids. Learning songs together that touch on some of these topics has provided me with a path toward discussing them with my own kids.”

Family Folk Machine — courtesy photo

Not all ages sing all songs. For example, the littlest singers sit out of the piece “Sweet Mama Angel,” written by FFM board member Jeff Capps about losing his mother. “I don’t want kids to sing words on a topic that’s heavy if they don’t understand what’s being expressed,” Littlejohn said of the song’s poetic language and imagery.

But overall, she believes that it’s important for children not to be restricted, and for music to be a partner in deeper understanding.

“All the kids this fall are singing with the group on a song called ‘Circle of the Sun.’ It’s a catchy song that uses images from nature to talk about the life course: babies are born, children learn to talk, people learn to love, and I hope to die in a circle of the sun. It’s a gentle way to assure kids that dying is part of the natural course of things,” she said. “As a parent, I like the idea that kids might internalize that concept before their own life causes them to have to draw on it.”

Of course, more than just children can benefit from lessons being taught through song. And it’s more than just the narrative lessons that are important: The practice itself can foster wisdom across all ages.

“Within the choir, we are building this feeling of collectivity [of community] week by week and helping singers focus their attention outward, on their singing neighbors,” Littlejohn said. “But there’s also an internal component: learning the value of each individual voice despite imperfections.”

And FFM isn’t content to keep those lessons to themselves.

“We want the audience to join in the songs where they can so they can experience that collectivity,” Littlejohn said. “At the same time, we want to encourage them to know their voice matters, to know that the song is going to be better if they join in.”

“Singing a song together focuses the attention on the things we have in common and helps us believe the best about other people, which primes us to work together productively,” she said. “Singing together is like signing a contract to be part of the human family, to participate in a common enterprise, to throw your lot in with the voices around you. It helps us think collectively.”

Genevieve Trainor believes in the transcendent power of choral singing. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.

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