At a very young age, Dan Chouinard knew that one of his “specialties was going to be playing music for people to sing and dance to,” he says, a vocation inspired by his grandparents who often sat at the family piano playing duets from their dating years, the Tin Pan Alley music of the 1920s.
For more than two years now, Chouinard and singer-songwriter Ann Reed have been doing just that—playing music and leading people in song—at Luther Seminary’s Olson Campus Center in St. Anthony Park. On the third Monday of each month, organizer Rose Gregoire estimates that 70 to 120 people of all ages come to the center’s second-floor commons to sing together. Lyrics to the songs—a mix of tunes curated by Chouinard and Reed and requests from participants—are projected on a screen behind the two musicians.
Reed and Chouinard get together the week before each sing to plan the night’s itinerary. “We look at musician birthdays and music anniversaries of the month, and if we find that a particular musical opened on a particular date and we want to observe that date, we plan our repertoire accordingly,” Chouinard says.
The October sing started off with the “Sound of Music,” a song made famous by Julie Andrews, who was born on Oct. 1. The group sang “American Pie” by Don McClean (born Oct. 2), “Sister Suffragette” from the movie Mary Poppins (Glynis Johns, who played Mrs. Banks in the film, was born Oct. 5), “Yesterday” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (it was the No. 1 hit that week 50 years before) and “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster, because it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s favorite song and she was born Oct. 11.
“Ann and I each bring our own particular, and peculiar, I might say, tastes,” Chouinard says. “We try to keep a balance of styles and generations, and we get requests every month.” Some are sent to them via email and others are “scribbled out at the previous sing-along.”
Chouinard, a freelance pianist, accordionist and writer who does work for the Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Public Radio, spends two nights a month leading community sings. For years he’s been leading one in the recreation building at Loring Park, Minneapolis. The group there tends to sing more pop radio tunes and classic Broadway, “more Rodgers and Hammerstein, more Beach Boys, more Beatles,” Chouinard says.
The St. Anthony Park group has varied tastes, “but we do keep coming back to Pete Seeger and the music of the peak of the Vietnam War protest years.” The song “If I Had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays “is one that shows up more often than any other tune,” Chouinard says.
The idea for the monthly sing was sparked when Gregoire’s friends Michael and Regula Russelle held a sing at the Olson Campus Center to celebrate their wedding anniversary. “People enjoyed it so much,” Gregoire says, that she asked around to see if people would be interested in making this a regular event. They were.
Now Gregoire, her husband, Bob delMas, and neighbors Dennis and Turid Ormseth, Regula Russelle, Chuck and Anna Tracy, and Patty Rogness volunteer time each month to organize the sing. The event is free, but a hat is passed to pay the musicians and to cover piano tuning and the cost of printing posters that advertise the sing. Luther Seminary donates the space and St. Anthony Park Community Council donates the projector and screen that are used to display the song lyrics.
The group welcomed Chouinard back in October after a two-month hiatus. He was in Italy working on a movie. “I was an accordion–playing leader of a little dance band that shows up on a hay wagon and plays for a wacky costumed dance where all lovers in the film decide they are going to tie the knot,” he says. “It’s a romantic comedy in the style of an old fable.” The film, titled “Smitten,” was written by Barry Morrow, a Twin Cities native who also wrote the movie “Rain Man” from 1988.
The December sing will be held on the second Monday, Dec. 14, instead of the third. People gather at 6:30 p.m. for social time and the sing is held from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Chouinard and Reed try to keep the song choices as “ecumenical as possible,” he says, but he knows folks will expect some holiday tunes.
“There are a lot of people who feel you can’t go to a holiday sing-along and not sing ‘Frosty’ or ‘Rudolph’ or ‘Deck the Halls.’ ” But he doesn’t want to short-change the December birthdays, he says, as he scans his “big long document with dates and names and notes and songs” and notes Walt Disney was born Dec. 5 and Ira Gershwin on the 6th, and the list goes on: Dionne Warwick, Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Buffet and the musical “Music Man” opened on Broadway on Dec. 19, 1957.
Want to sing more than once a month?
Here’s a list of nearby gatherings:
- The Dubliner Pub, 2162 University Ave., holds a Shanty Sing the second Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. and Hymn Tap with the Fleshpots of Egypt the first Monday of the month at 7 p.m. Dubliner events are for those 21 and older.
- The Urban Growler, 2325 Endicott St., hosts a Song Circle and Acoustic Jam on occasional Wednesdays. Check the schedule at urbangrowlerbrewing.com.
- If you want to venture out of St. Paul, Merlins Rest Pub, 3601 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, has an all-ages Shanty Sing on the fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m., but beware: “There will be some mild cussing, reference to the joys of liquor and sex, and probably some references to women and/or ethnic origin that will offend the thin-skinned. But if your kid is up for it, and knows not to sing about how much he loves whisky in front of Aunt Bathilda, come on down!”