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Folk Songs: An 'Exceedingly Good' Night of Music

Courtesy Exceedingly Good Song Night

Once a month or so, dozens of people get together for a night of traditional song — and sometimes not-so-traditional. This group singalong has hopped from bar to bar in New York City for years — and in the age of the pandemic, it lives on Zoom. It’s called Exceedingly Good Song Night.

Ken Schatz, the founder and host of Exceedingly Good Song Night, welcomes more than two dozen people into the Zoom chat, one by one. Ken keeps the energy high, as he goes through each little Zoom square one by one.

There’s no posted order to who sings next. Ken just thinks about who’d be good next. Most people sing a cappella, although guitars or banjos make an occasional appearance. Sometimes two or three people are in the same room — and sing together.

A lot of these are old, traditional folk songs. Some of them are hundreds of years old. And mixed in with them are more contemporary songs, like Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” or Bette Midler’s “From a Distance.”

This Zoom call is the COVID-19-era version of an event Ken has run since 2008. He loved hootenannies, sea shanty nights and pub sings — where folk music lovers get together and trade off songs in a freewheeling fashion.

Ken’s mother was one of the founding members of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington.

“I had always grown up around sing-around sessions,” he said. “But people have been singing together these kinds of songs in rooms for, I suppose, hundreds of years.”

He wanted to recapture that kind of feel. There is no stage — just people in a circle singing traditional folk songs. You don’t even need to be a good singer. He set up the first Exceedingly Good Song Night in an East Village bar called Banjo Jim’s.

“The first one was anarchy,” Ken said. “It was chaos, because it was particularly filled with people who didn’t know what they were in a room to do. There were a lot of people being exposed to that thing for the first time.”

Me, for example. I used to go to Banjo Jim’s in 2008, when I lived in New York. I’d never heard anything like it. I was hoping to find a recording of the in-person events to share with you. But there’s an Exceedingly Good Song Night Creed. And part of that is — no one records, so performers are not self-conscious.

“There are a lot of people who are scared to sing in public,” Ken said. “And we want to support them, because their voices are as important as anyone else’s.”

Exceedingly Good Song Night hopped from venue to venue for years after Banjo Jim’s closed. Among them, Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, and Time Square’s Brazen Tavern. The event ended up at the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn.

“Everybody wanted to be in the room while it was happening,” said Lynette Wiley of Jalopy. “The people that come, their relationship to each other, their relationship to Ken — it’s just joyful.”

The Jalopy Theatre is one of New York City’s folk music hubs. The theatre runs the Brooklyn Folk Festival, and they have regular classes and events to learn how to sing and play instruments. It’s a lot for a space with a handmade feel.

“We built wooden pews for everyone to sit on,” Wiley said. And we’ve got beautiful red velvet curtains and a gorgeous piano. The atmosphere here is welcoming, I think, because it is a homemade space and it was designed to bring people together.”

Lynette said that’s the goal of folk music — especially for events like Exceedingly Good Song Night.

“That’s the music of the people, and while I love all kinds of music, folk music speaks to bringing people together, to passing down traditions,” she said.

Lots of music has now come back to the stage at Jalopy Theatre. But Exceedingly Good Song Night is still virtual. This has been a difficult journey for Ken Schatz.

“I resisted putting this thing on virtually for, what I would call in pandemic terms, a long time,” he said.

But he worried it wouldn’t be safe to go back in person because of the nature of the singalong. Everyone faces each other, in close proximity. And wearing a mask would diminish the experience.

“It is too dangerous to do what we do in the spaces in which we do it,” he said.

It wasn’t the case for Jules Peiperl, an Exceedingly Good Song Night regular.

“You still have the community aspect and you still have that wonderful strangeness of this specific event where anyone could come in and sing any song and you’d just get this wonderful strange variety of songs,” they said. “That is still present.”

But Jules said some things are not the same.

“Much of what I love about exceedingly good song night in person and dearly miss is everybody joining their voices together and harmonies that fill and shake a room,” they said.

And you can’t sing together on Zoom. There’s an ever-so-slight audio delay. So Ken Schatz and his fellow singers wait for the day they can meet in person once again.

“When They Reopen All The Bars,” as sung by Ken Schatz in this episode, was written by Penka Jane Culevski.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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