Song Circle

Dave's National Guitar (by StarbuckGuy)

David Rudkin playing his National Guitar at ROM Song Circle

Ever since I was a boy and heard the Kingston Trio sing “Tom Dooley” on the radio, I was hooked, lined, and sinkered by folk music. I lived in the country and in small towns until I went to university, and radio was my main way of being introduced to music. The Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, Terriers, Harry Belafonte, Peter Paul & Mary, the Rooftop Singers — I loved ’em. Couldn’t get enough of them.

Then I went to university — 1963 — and discovered an entirely more sophisticated type of folk music. Peter Seeger, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barbara Dane, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Phil Ochs, Judy Henske, Buffy Sainte-Marie — a  pantheon of wonderful folk and blues music pouring from dormitory stereo systems, campus radio, and coffee houses. The folk boom. I loved the early-mid 60’s folk era.

In a middling sort of way I began to play a six-string guitar, learning finger-picking patterns by listening carefully to Joan Baez LP’s and copying her licks. To this day I think she’s an underrated guitarist. And I sang. At the local coffee house — the Inner Ear. Once in a trio. Once paired with Sue Taylor as a duet. Sometimes we were hired to do garden parties.

Then other things intervened, like grad school, the end of the folk era, earning a living, moving to Canada, and except for pulling out a guitar occasionally, folk music was something lost. I couldn’t even find any good folk albums in the giant record stores in Toronto.

Came the 90’s and with it CD reissues of 60’s folk. Vanguard and Elektra albums suddenly became available again, and I began gobbling them up. And I discovered there was an extremely rich vein of Canadian folk music that I’d bypassed altogether in my ignorance. I began collecting, going to concerts, talking to campus radio folk DJ’s like Rick Fielding and Steve Fruitman, and folks in the music biz, like Susan Martinez, Derek Andrews, Gary Cristal, and Richard Flohil. I attended The Woods Music & Dance Camp, and met dozens of excellent musicians and singers.

None of my immediate circle of friends seemed to know much about these acoustic riches, so I decided to compile a book of Canadian folk music available in CD format — a kind of Penguin’s Guide. It was published by Reference Press in 1995: Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music, and reprinted, with additions, as Northern Journey 2, in 1998. The online edition of Northern Journey 2 is still available on my Northern Journey Canadian folk music website.

Getting back into music this way, I also got back into playing guitar and singing. I discovered the song circle concept and with a few colleagues at the Royal Ontario Museum, where I worked at the time, we started our own song circle in 1994, meeting at about six-week intervals after work on Friday nights from about 5-9pm. It’s been an ongoing event since then. When I left the ROM for another job, my friend and colleague Tony Hanik took over the reins of organizing it.

Tonight I’m going to the ROM Song Circle with a song in my heart, and picks, capo, and lyric books in my backpack. I’ve missed participating in music since my operation, but I’m now feeling ready to sing and play again. And I’m going to request that Tony lead us in singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Song Circle Rules

My knowledge of song circles began with attending the weekly Friday night Toronto Song Circle, a wonderful group of people who make Toronto a very special place. One member, Linda Miland, kindly gave me permission to reprint the Song Circle rules, called In Search of Harmony. I’m reproducing it here for anyone who like to use it as a guide in setting up a local song circle.

In Search of Harmony (formerly The Unwritten Rules), by Linda Miland, 1996.

The “Unwritten Rules” of the Toronto Song Circle are distributed to newcomers to the weekly event. These guidelines may be useful to others interested in forming a song circle.

Welcome to the Song Circle, our weekly gathering for group singing. It was begun in 1984 as an outgrowth of The Woods Music and Dance Camp (which is still held every summer early in August), to provide opportunities for singing in harmony during the rest of the year.

People with various levels of musical ability(1) come to our Song Circle. There’s no pressure to lead a song or to sing alone; if it’s your turn and you lose confidence or draw a blank, just pass (you can always lead or request a song later in the evening). Because group singing is the main activity, the music is mostly folk music; but there are no restrictions, and people enjoy a wide mix of styles(2). Songs may be accompanied, but musical instruments generally remain in the background.

Song Circle Structure (What’s Going On) Our group is leaderless, and there is no formal membership. We meet every Friday night after 8:00 in the home of a participant, from September through June. A typical evening(3) consists of a singaround, a break, and a “jam.”The singaround begins at 8:30 and ends by about 10:30.(4) The format is “play, pick or pass”: Each person in turn has an opportunity to teach or lead a song; to request a song, either from the whole group or from an individual (no coercion allowed); or simply to pass to the next person.After the singaround we break, starting with announcements. This includes the locations of the next few Song Circles, and upcoming folk events of interest to the group. The host may announce the closing time (please respect this). People bring snacks or beverages to contribute to the table.After the break, we stop taking turns, but continue making music. You can still lead a song or make a request, but you may have to be more assertive about it. Song Circle Traditions (Fitting Right In) Respect for the music. Once the music inside has begun, enter the house or apartment quietly, without knocking. When someone starts a song, our custom is that the chatting stops. We keep to one group, and avoid splitting up and having two different songs happening at two ends of the room (this doesn’t apply during the break, when people often swap tunes). Singers often find shakers, spoons, and other forms of percussion to be intrusive; exercise judgement and restraint. We always avoid playing (or even singing) so loudly that the people nearby can’t hear the others clearly. Be sensitive.Respect for the person leading a song. Although musical opinions get expressed (“That’s too high!” “Can’t we speed it up?”), it’s the leading singer who determines the musical key, pace, phrasing, and version of the song. (Most songs have a lot of different versions; there isn’t a “right” one. Watching the leader’s face is the easiest way to notice variations.)Respect for the audience. A song led by a confident leader is easier to learn and more fun to sing. We appreciate leaders who show consideration by coming well prepared. Here are some tips we’ve developed for leading songs:

  • Be ready to teach the song to those of us who don’t know it. (Some people bring photocopies of the words, to distribute.)
  • Tell us what you expect of us, so we don’t have to guess. For example: “I’ll sing the chorus first, so that you can learn it more quickly. Join in when you’re ready.” “This is a sea shanty, so please sing along on the repeated lines.” “Let’s try this one without instruments.” “I’ve worked out an arrangement on this song, so I’d like to do it solo.” “Anyone who knows this one, please sing it with me.”
  • When leading a round or a zipper song, plan ahead as to how many verses you want it to run to. Inform the group as to how you intend to end it off.
  • If you know which key you can sing the song in, you won’t run up against the bottom or top of your vocal range. Ask an instrumentalist for the note. (Or, ask another singer to teach you the technique for estimating where to start a song.)

Support for the host. Those who can’t offer to host the Song Circle contribute in other ways. We bring a snack or beverage to be shared at break–if not every time, then sometimes. Many of us also offer to help out or even to host at someone else’s home, coming over early to help set things up, and/or staying up late to clean up afterwards.


  1. Children who are patient and mature enough to follow our format and customs are welcome.
  2. Although the group has been known to discuss the choice of material, no guidelines have ever resulted. If you’re curious, however, individuals have occasionally complained of too many songs on the same topic or all in the same style; too many solo performances and not enough chorus songs; too many rounds or zipper songs; songs that we’ve done too, too often; requested songs that the requestee has become sick of performing; songs in languages other than English; too many pop/country/classical/depressing/political/pro-union songs. Clearly the group likes variety. (People interested in pursuing a specific type of music often form splinter groups and meet separately. If we’re lucky they come back and perform it for the Song Circle.)
  3. Sometimes our get-togethers have a special theme or format. Occasionally, a workshop is held featuring a professional musician as a teacher; in this case, there is probably a charge for the evening. When enough interest is expressed, we’ve also held open stages, where people can present planned performances of up to two long or three short songs apiece. (There are also other groups that foster performance singing. Ask about them, if you’re interested.)
  4. If, after the circle has come back to its beginning, it’s still too early for break, then those who have passed will be asked again if they want a turn.
    • With a large group, latecomers may miss their turn.
    • With a small group, there may be time to go around the circle twice.

About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
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10 Responses to Song Circle

  1. Eve Goldberg says:

    Thanks for writing about song circles Gene! Good to know the ROM song circle is still going. And nice to see Linda’s “Unwritten Rules” being spread around.

    Have fun tonight!

  2. Gene says:

    Eve, thank you so much for dropping by. We sing some of your songs too! Your guitar student, Irene, has brought them to the circle, and we love them.

  3. JohnB says:

    I heard Cohen singing Hallelujah during his recent tour — and he’s brilliant when he sings it. But not the best … that honour goes to k. d. lang on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album. Let me know when you’re going to your next song circle. I have no voice, can’t carry a tune (even with a bucket) but I can set up and clean up.

  4. Suzanne says:

    Gene great article, I never heard of a song circle before,I just keep learning some new every day, I am a huge fan of K.D. Lang, and her version of Hallelujah, it’s one of my ipod staples, in fact that whole album is, I had the opportunity to see K.D. Lang when she was first starting out in Calgary, wearing her crazy outfits, and moving all over the stage, true to her music all the way..I had forgotten some of the names that you mentioned I used to be a big fan of Joan Baez, and folk music in never fail to surprise me and pull the rabbit out of the hat…Fantastic photo, BTW, tack sharp and you can almost hear that pickin…

  5. Gene says:

    @John, you’d be more than welcome to join us. The more the better! I heard k.d. lang peform Hallelujah on the CBC Juno Tribute to Leonard Cohen, and it was THE performance of the night.

    @Suzanne, thank you again for reading and commenting! This is one of my favourite photos!

  6. Linda Miland says:

    Hi, Gene! Long time, no see.

    Thrilled to find my single claim to Internet fame still kickin’ around the Web. Thanks!

    (Woulda found it faster if you’d spelled “Miland” with a single ‘l’, tho’. ;)

    Warm & musical regards, Linda M

  7. Gene says:

    Linda, hello and belated apologies for getting the spelling wrong. Sheesh, it’s been that way on my site since 1996. My bad!

    It’s really nice to hear from you. I hope your years have been filled with music!


  8. James Rhodes says:

    Nice blog on the song circle.

    Here’s one in Florida. Not as formal. More of a pickers circle.

  9. I just went to my first song circle (3 in a row, back-to-back, actually) during the annual Mill Race Festival in Galt (Cambridge). Veryu much enjoyed it. Overheard someone mention that there was a circle in Toronto, did a Google search, and found your post.

    I’d like to know more specifics about the ROM circle.

    Please e-mail me.


    Steve Bergson

  10. Linda Miland says:

    Gene, I _still_ get a big tickle when I see The Unwritten Rules on your website. Guess I’m just an egoist!

    But wouldn’t it be great if every city had a Song Circle for folkies like us to attend?

    I tend to avoid blogs, since once I start, I might not surface from the Web for months! But my egoism led me to yours again, and I have to say, it’s a joy to read. _And_ I’ve picked up some new names to follow up — “old” folksingers whose music I’ve somehow missed hearing. Very exciting!

    Nostalgia is like a warm bath — in this busy age, a perhaps-guilty pleasure. I, too, remember when folk music was sooo hard to find. Once I got Connected, I even complained for a while that I missed the thrill of finding a rare recording — often (after the 60s) in the $1 Bargain Bin, where albums ended up that were by “passé” folksingers or Canadian artists who were (undeservedly) poorly known in genpop. But bless the Web — better to be drowning in opportunities than hungry for them!

    So I guess I’m just saying, Thanks. Your book is still on my shelf, and here you are, still being a fount of information. Keep blogging!

    I’m in the midst of moving back to Toronto, and would love to visit your ROM Song Circle sometime, if people don’t mind. I’m no singer, though I can carry a tune in a bucket. But folks tell me I give a good neck-and-shoulder rub, so I’m not useless. (Hand massages, too — musicians love hand massages. =)

    — All the best, Linda M

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