This Friday I recommend you kick off Memorial Day weekend in Tinmouth at the Old Firehouse with House Blend. Get there early as this huge group usually packs the place. House Blend is an eclectic, 16-member (sometimes up to 20) democraticly led a cappella group that sings an interesting and wide variety of music. Some of it is arranged by its own members and brought in from the outside. Anyone can bring a song and anyone can lead a song, if they so choose. House Blend is comprised of: Helen Anglos, Vicky Arthur, Dan Axtell, Mary Barron, Alan Blood, Charlotte Gifford, Thomas Hartigan, Jack Hoffman, Bonnie Kraft, Sue Venman, Cathy MacDonald, Betsy Rybeck Lynd, Lee Lynd, Susan Rugg, Harriet Tepfer, Burt Tepfer, Gill Truslow and Laurie Rabut. The group ranges in age from 44 to 70s.
I met Hartigan last year at a Vermont Food Bank volunteer day. As we passed out turkeys and other food items, we spoke about his group and I was intrigued. I’ve always found a cappella groups exciting, whether it’s a barbershop quartet, the TV show “Glee” or “The Sing-Off” reality competition. I think having no music makes it hard, but voices blending in harmony makes it sound sweet.
Hartigan and I caught up on the phone and he filled me in on the group and how he got into it. He said, “I first saw House Blend back in November 2011 at the Old Firehouse in Tinmouth and later joined in February 2012. What was so interesting to me was that you have this group of singers where there’s no formal leader and there’s no conductor. Each song is led by one of them but it’s within the group, not a conductor like an orchestra. Most people in the group take a role in that. It’s been a pretty cool journey for me. We try and keep it interesting across the board. It’s in many different languages. English primarily but we also sing in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin. We sing jazz, folk, rock, gospel and renaissance. We do that to keep it interesting and challenging for us but also interesting and challenging for the audience as well.”
The group originally started in February 2006. Most of the group were part of the 100-member River Singers out of the Brattleboro/Keene area. About 20 of them decided they wanted to do some different stuff. House Blend currently has 12 original members. I told Hartigan I think having that many people in it for so long tells a lot about this group. Hartigan said, “ I agree. We’re all good friends and it’s kind of a love affair with each other and with music. With the challenges, it’s certainly not always easy because everyone’s got a life, so sometimes we struggle in some of the rehearsals or we struggle to advance new music. It sometimes takes longer than we otherwise might think, but the reward is always beneficial to us.”
The group tries to have as many people as possible lead the songs. Hartigan leads some songs but said he’s not good enough musically to teach someone else the parts. After a number of rehearsals, the group eventually decides which songs are worth going with and which are not. Hartigan said, “It’s pretty democratic across the board. We have committees and we have a board to make sure we stay moving forward. They’re more advisory than running the show, so to speak.”
One of the songs Hartigan brought to the group was “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” from the 1940s which was on the charts at the same time from three different women—Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore and June Christy. Hartigan and a buddy used to sing that song to patients, in snippets, while working at a hospital. He said it was fun for him.
Sometimes the group will do sessions where it will bring someone in to teach some music. One of those songs was the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” With 16 people on stage, it’s typically a minimum of four-part harmony, but usually six- or seven-part and even sometimes eight, where the sections split twice. What I find interesting is that the group sings in all these different languages, but doesn’t necessarily speak the language. Hartigan explained, “There’s a fair amount of language diversity in the group. Everyone is primarily English speaking but a fair number of folks do speak more than just English. I, however, am not one of them. One of our members is a college professor who teaches French and Spanish. Some of the other folks have traveled extensively around the world and have pieces of the languages or have gone to singing camps overseas. I have snippets of French and Spanish but by no means do I have command of either language.”
I asked if it’s hard to sing it when you don’t speak it and Hartigan said, “It’s really helpful when you have someone who can teach the language and give you a sense of what it means. Sometimes you start learning phonetically. I had to take Latin as a kid so I understand the roots of the romance languages. You can get some of the meaning from that old understanding. Portuguese is a little more complicated to me and the Balkan states’ languages are just syllables to me. What’s interesting is when we have a sense of what the words mean or what’s the story. It adds connection to it and makes it easier, especially rhythmically.”
I asked Hartigan what he loves best about playing in this group and he said, “I love the joy that this brings me and the joy that this clearly brings the audience. We are well received pretty much everywhere we go… I think we come out best live on stage where the joy, excitement and interest in the variety of things that we sing keeps the group intrigued and keeps the audience connected to us.”