On a dare, John Seay wrote his first song at age 12. Now 50, he has composed hundreds more, including a national contest winner recorded by Nashville artist Charly McClain.
Leah Ulansey, a 42-year-old English teacher, has just begun to write her own music and, emboldened by what she has to say, found the courage to perform before others.
While far apart in their musical journeys, both Seay and Ulansey belong to the Baltimore Songwriters Association, a "song circle" in which members, reflecting a rainbow of musical genres and abilities, present their compositions for comments, suggestions and (always benign) criticism.
When the group gathers at its bimonthly meetings at the Lodge in Highlandtown, the evening program is anybody's guess - until members who have decided this is the night to debut their song add their name to a sign-up sheet. Some of the songwriters are rank beginners who offer their creations in quavering, barely audible voices. Others deliver their compositions with utter confidence. Some participants are classically trained; others play by ear. Some have recorded at least one CD; others are still in the "moon in June" phase of their careers.
And while some sing the blues, others scat-sing jazz. There's a teen-age punk rocker, a vaudevillian, a Christian music composer. There are folkies whose topical tales recall Woody Guthrie and folkies who paint musical landscapes of fallen leaves and lost lovers.
The musical mix makes for a delightful exchange, a quirky contrast of personalities and a support-group climate suitable for souls in step with a different drummer. Make that a band of different drummers.
"We're a weird little family, but it works for us," says the song circle's co-founder, Jane Wellington Beatty. "I'm never, never bored, and I'm always surprised."
Saturday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), the group celebrates its third anniversary with "Raising the Roof," a concert featuring original compositions to benefit Habitat for Humanity.
In the beginning
The song circle, 3 years old, was started by Beatty, an experienced singer-songwriter currently on hiatus from her career, and Paul Iwancio, an amateur musician who works in the instructional television department at UMBC.
Beatty had read Iwancio's online posting on a folk music listserv stating his desire to start a song circle. She called, and together they envisioned a group that would include songwriters of all abilities and run according to Beatty's ground rules: "Never slam or destroy a song. Every song is a risk and should be treated with respect."
Beatty is a seasoned song circle member. When she lived in Bethlehem, Pa., she was part of an informal but diligent song circle, just five members strong. "Songwriting is a solitary art, and to get with other people who are similar to you, who are so wonderful and honest and respectful of where you were in your process," made an enormous difference, she says.
Iwancio's previous effort to join a local song circle ended when he realized it was only open to an exclusive group of friends. There was "no other group around I could join, so I realized that I had to get off my can and make it happen somehow." Ironically, the Songwriters Association has grown so swiftly - from an initial handful to 120 members - that Iwancio has little time to devote to his own music.
With the surge in popularity of "singer/songwriters" such as Ani DiFranco, Christine Lavin and John Gorka, song circles, large and small, amateur and professional, have blossomed around the country, says Beatty, 35. There is "a real strong need for people to tell stories, let alone have people listen to your stories in a way that will inspire you to write more stories."
Like poets and artists who pursue their passions at night while holding day jobs, countless aspiring songwriters spend free hours writing hooks and perfecting lyrics. The goal may be to write a commercial hit or to simply polish one's craft.
After obtaining nonprofit status, the Baltimore Songwriters Association has won two grants - from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture - to support a workshop by songwriter Hugh Blumenfeld and expand newsletter circulation. Iwancio, 43, and Beatty have also launched a regular open mic night at the One World Cafe on West University Parkway. In the future, Beatty would love to take members into city schools for student workshops and to eventually find a permanent home for the group.
"We're slowly getting the word out," says Beatty, a Baltimore resident and mother of two young children. "There's always room for one more, and we want people to come and see how goofy we actually are."
John Seay, for one, has benefited from the company of other composers, no matter how green. "My interest and productivity has skyrocketed," says Seay, a construction supply company manager who lives in Dundalk. "I've got a few relatives and friends who have always liked my songs. It's cool to have a new one to show them, but [it's great] to be in a group like Paul's, where every two weeks you have a chance to present a tune, even if it's not perfect, and you can get that feedback. I find myself thinking more about ideas for songs and blocking time out to work on them. And I'm pretty much convinced I've done my best writing in the past two years."
Seay once wrote a song that made the short list for a Bette Midler album. Another song, "The Future's in Our Hands," was recorded by Lea Salonga, who sang the voice of Mulan in the Disney film. Now that he realizes the infinitesimal chances of breaking into the songwriting industry in a bigger way, Seay is no longer as keen on fame and fortune as on writing good stuff. And while "I feel I'm in the upper echelon in our group, I'm not interested in leaving" for a more seasoned song circle, he says.
For Ulansey, an English teacher at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, presenting a new song to others is like "stripping yourself naked. But you're risking something wonderful; you're risking being honest and trusting people. Once you realize the worst thing that can happen isn't so bad and that you've been true to yourself, it gets easier."
Songwriting has allowed Ulansey to "take experiences I thought were unique to me and find something universal in them.It sort of makes me feel more part of the human community to have an outlet."
Trying it out
On a stifling Monday night in June, the songwriters gather. After harmonizing on a jubilant version of "Happy Birthday" to themselves, it's down to business. Eight writers, the maximum allowed per meeting, have signed up to present new songs.
Seay's "Anywhere I've Never Been Before," a wry song about travel envy in which he wants "to be anywhere I've never been before," garners chuckles and a few pointed questions. "Why you're staying and everyone else is leaving?" Beatty wants to know.
Others dispute the need to ask such a question. Sometimes it's just hard to leave town, and you feel like you're the only one left, they explain.
On to Mark Chello's "grunge shanty," a wonderfully twisted tall "tale of Bone Shakin' Barbara who was wild and who was free." In a swingy jazz idiom, Nita Callihan sings "Two Days Behind," a cheerful lament about the impossibility of getting through life on time.
Then comes Eliot Bronson, the group's folk singing wunderkind, whose ballad, "Songs That I Can't Play," is practically unassailable. "Um, what CD is that coming out on?" a group members asks, as laughter ruffles around the circle.
Next, Ulansey performs "It's Easy to Write on a Napkin," with boyfriend Marlin Ballard, with whom she wrote the song. First, Ulansey apologizes for the melody, which prompts the audience to shout, "Quarter! Quarter!" It is a reference to Beatty's prohibition of self-criticism: "We have a 'no excuses' jar. For every time someone starts to apologize for their song, they have to throw in a quarter." Whatever accumulates goes toward coffee and beer.
There is no need for Ulansey to make excuses. The song is well-received, and the lyrics, concerning a woman's frustrated attempts to connect with her man, draw plenty of "I've been there" nods from the crowd.
It's Jane Lamar's turn to sing "Road Trip," as George Spicka, who once opened for Jimi Hendrix, plugs in his guitar and wails away.
Jeff Swiss commands everyone to whistle along with his "Laughin' Buddha Bubba," a light-hearted ditty that one listener likens to a cross between Leon Redbone and Taj Mahal. "That group whistle was just awesome!" Iwancio exclaims.
The evening concludes with "Spend My Life Loving You ...," a simple song written by Ben Garber for his new wife.
As the evening progresses, members make suggestions to the artists about wording, adding a bridge, amending narrative inconsistencies, canning cliches. Some of the presenters take notes as they listen to the comments.
There are members, perhaps newcomers, who haven't said a word. Maybe by the end of the year, they'll be in the circle's center, introducing their first song.
The song circle is "a very powerful thing," Beatty says. There's "a lot of humor and a lot of humility. It's wacky and very wonderful."
'Raising the Roof'
What: An evening of original music presented by the Baltimore Songwriters Association
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: UMBC Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Building, 5401 Wilkens Ave.
Admission: $5 donation suggested