Singing His Part

A guest post by Daphne Romanoff about what singing in a choir has meant for her autistic son Ben

Most parents think back on their kids’ childhoods and it feels like a blur — it goes by so quickly. It’s like that with my daughters, but not so much with my 23 year old son Ben. Ben is autistic – not high functioning, rather somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum. In his case, this means that he lacks some basic social and communication skills necessary for him to function independently. It’s been a very slow, constant, incremental struggle to teach him how to live in our world, not his own.

Ben is at the tip of the large autistic population which has been more included in society than ever before, first in public education, now increasingly in the workplace. “Special” and “inclusion” have been pendulum points all of Ben’s life. Although some autistic children can be successfully included in regular classes, Ben has needed intensive, specialized training in the nuts and bolts issues of eye contact, attention, behavior management, language, academics, vocational training, and more.

Ben has been trained and now works independently in regular, busy kitchens — not segregated work enclaves. Working alongside his co-workers, he can fill containers with mayonnaise, chop carrots, follow a simple recipe, and take out the trash. Ben loves music and has always been very attuned to auditory sensations. In fact, music can be distracting to him in some of the food prep jobs he’s worked at — he’ll start singing and forget to cut the croutons.

Now that he has become an adult and aged out of publically-funded education at age 22, I’ve felt like I can step back and reflect upon Ben’s experience as a whole.  Although he has accomplished a lot, poignant questions still loom: How will he progress as an adult? How will he find pleasure in life? Where will he fit in? Where will he find harmony?

He did not have to go far, as it turns out. Ben’s ultimate inclusion activity is singing with our local community choir.

The Newton Family Singers is an intergenerational group of singers whose repertoire spans traditional American folk through more recent pop. The singers range from age 5 to more than 70. They are a neighborhood group, with no auditions to join, yet they took a gamble by admitting Ben into their choir. We had visited a number of choirs in search of a place where Ben was most likely to succeed and to push him to that next step beyond his comfort zone – and mine.

While the Newton Family Singers have made no special accommodations for Ben, he has been welcomed as a member of the choir. Having a deep voice, Ben sings in the bass section and his fellow bass singers help him when he needs it. They support him and he’s learned to respond to their prompts to pay attention and to find his place in the sheet music. I don’t think Ben can form friendships as such but I know he looks forward to seeing the other basses. Furthermore, they’ve come to accept Ben as one of their own.

Things aren’t perfect. I hear Ben’s voice when he comes in too early and I notice when he somewhat subtly flicks his fingers – an old autistic behavior of his. As part of his disability, Ben does not understand that different people have different perspectives. As a result, he used to sing along with soloists, or the sopranos — whatever part had the melody. He didn’t recognize that people with different vocal ranges sang different parts.  Ben has been taught the fundamental skill of imitation, and he knows that applause is expected after performances. That’s why, if you attend one of our concerts, you will see one young man in the choir clapping along with the audience at the end of every song. Maybe one day he won’t clap with the audience, one day he will understand the different perspectives of being a performer versus an audience member.

This past season, however, Ben has learned that he is a bass and sings from that perspective. He listens to the other parts of the choir and understands the harmony that makes beautiful music. Maybe by singing in harmony, Ben is learning perspective taking through song.

I no longer come to rehearsals as Ben’s aide; caught up in the music and friendly faces, I’m now a Soprano singing with the Newton Family Singers. I rehearse at the opposite side of the choir, with an eye on Ben from afar. We have two entirely different parts to sing and Ben learns his lyrics much faster than I do.

Time continues to speed on, and Ben’s progress still moves in slow motion. But slow doesn’t mean standing still.

He’s on stage, and he’s singing his part. In harmony. With his community. And with me.


The Newton Family Singers’ next concert, April 13, 2014, will be a benefit to raise money for the Asperger’s Association of New England and the Autism Alliance of Metrowest

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Love Is a Beautiful Thing

Our own Andy Rogovin wrote another beautiful song, this one about parenting children with special needs.

The entire group loves this song and as part of our charity efforts to raise money for the Asperger’s Association of New England, and the Autism Alliance of MetroWest, we’ve found donors who will contribute a dollar to these charities for each “Like” we get on YouTube. That’s a pretty easy way to give to charity. Thanks to Hinckley Allen and NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children and Adolescents) for offering to give up to $4,000 to match those “Likes.”

The video is embedded below, but to get more information on the charity efforts and to “Like” it, you need to go to the YouTube page here. Thanks!

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Gone At Last featuring Phoebe Snow

I’m embarrassed to admit that a month ago, I had no idea who Phoebe Snow was.

After listening to Paul Simon’s “Gone At Last,” I was curious to learn more about his duet partner on that song (from the album Still Crazy After All These Years). She also sang back up on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” from the same album.

The second episode of Saturday Night Live (the second ever, in their first season), featured Paul Simon singing solo, reuniting with Art Garfunkel for a few songs and presenting Phoebe Snow for a song.

The video and audio aren’t great here (someone filmed their television) but here’s Phoebe Snow, 7 months pregnant, introduced by Paul Simon on  Saturday Night Live, October 18, 1975.

The always amusing AV Club section of The Onion actually reviewed this episode. Classic sentence:

“The episode opens with Simon, in his porn-mustache and the haircut of a man who doesn’t yet understand that letting his hair grow wild in those areas where it will still grow at all doesn’t make him look any less balding, alone onstage, singing the title song from his then-brand new album, Still Crazy After All These Years.”

So who was Phoebe Snow? She was born Phoebe Ann Laub and took her stage name from a fictional character from an advertising campaign for a railway line.

Phoebe Snow is best-known for her song “Poetry Man” which got to #5 on Billboard’s Top 100 and #1 on their adult contemporary chart:

From an interview with (via Songfacts):

“That was the second song I ever wrote in my whole life…. ‘Poetry Man,’ came about because I was really getting the hang of guitar picking and I had these open chords, not open tuning, open chords. And I was having a relationship with somebody. From the words you can probably deduce that the guy was married. It was a bad thing to do. But I got a lovely romantic sonnet out of it. As it turns out, he was not a particularly great guy either. I turned it into this ode to romance. It’s funny looking back on it – I sat there and hunched over the guitar and said ‘I’m gonna finish this.’ I was in the throes of young romance.”

For the record, although Jackson Browne was the rumored subject of this song — she was 22 and opened for Browne to support her debut album — Snow categorically denied the speculation.

So it’s the mid-1970s and Paul Simon needs a duet partner for a song he wrote, “Gone At Last,” so he and his producer, Phil Ramone, call to request — and get — the premier female singer in New York City: Bette Midler.

It didn’t work out. Midler and Simon officially declared that they did not agree on the arrangement of the song, but a clash of personalities may have been involved. (As much as I admire Simon as a songwriter, I didn’t have to delve deep into Paul Simon research to find people who hate him for various reasons; see: “Little” Steven Van Zandt, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.)

In any case, Midler was out and Ramone and Simon then chose Snow to sing on the track.

Here’s Paul Simon with Phoebe Snow performing “Gone At Last” on Late Night with David Letterman (“You’re gonna hurt someone with that voice,” Dave tells Snow at the end of the song).

Would the song have been a top 25 hit with Midler instead of Snow? Well, I have no documentation, but YouTube comments suggest that this demo has Bette’s vocals on it:

The arrangement is very different –a lot of percussion and no piano, as well as overly busy backing vocals towards the end — but this vocal certainly lacks the passion of Snow’s recorded track.


As the song says, Phoebe Snow had some bad luck. In 1975 she gave birth to a daughter, Valerie. Valerie suffered from severe brain damage, a result of hydrocephalus and, according to Snow, medical malpractice. Doctors did not expect her to live long and told her mother not to take her home from the hospital; they told her to put Valerie in an institution for a life that would be measured in months. “Never,” Snow declared.

Phoebe chose to care for Valerie at home and, after divorcing Valerie’s father, by herself. This meant stepping away from her musical career. Phoebe did such a good job caring for her daughter that Valerie confounded doctors by living for 31 years.

Phoebe’s eulogy for her daughter is the only content on her website,

Having chosen not to tour, Snow continued to support herself and Valerie by singing. She sang on numerous commercial jingles in the 1990s; I remember almost all of these commercials but had never realized it was the same voice on every one of them.

She sang, for instance, “Cotton, the fabric of our lives” although I couldn’t find a copy on YouTube. (The song was so popular that Big Cotton remakes the commercial with new young singers and they have clogged up the search engines, but I did find a twenty year old version featuring Aaron Neville.)

Here are some more Phoebe snow jingle classics.

Phoebe Snow from a Stouffers Commercial (1995) “Nothing comes closer to home”:

General Foods International Coffee, “Celebrate the moments of your life”:

“Safeguard the ones you love”:

Snow developed a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010 and died in 2011. CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about her in 2009, which functions well as a video obituary:

A bit more profane (yes with some 4 letter words so totally NSFW for people who actually work in the presence of others), but very sweet, is this radio remembrance from Howard Stern. Along with his stories of her, he also plays some tracks she recorded for his radio show. Snow was friends with Howard, sang at his wedding, and displays a great sense of humor. If you think of Howard as just a nasty mouth on the radio, or Snow as just a sainted mother, listening to this will show another side of both of these people.

And now she’s gone.

Here’s Snow performing Etta James’ signature song “At Last” with Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Roll Revue:

Here’s cleaner audio of Snow’s take on “Piece of My Heart”:

I can’t believe I’ve only gotten to know Phoebe Snow. I certainly won’t forget her, the example she set with her life, or her music.

Do you have a favorite Snow performance, or know of a jingle she sang on? Let us know in the comments.

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Album Study: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon

Paul Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon was his third solo album, although most people think of it as his second.

His first, The Paul Simon Songbook, was released in the UK in 1965, early in his career; it featured songs like “I Am a Rock” and “The Sound of Silence” that would later be rerecorded for Simon and Garfunkel albums.

After his success with Garfunkel and the subsequent dissolution of their partnership, Simon released Paul Simon featuring “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” among other songs.

So, for most Americans, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon was the second solo album.

Since Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon has been known as a bit of a musical explorer, finding rhythms and textures from other cultures and incorporating them into his own musical stew, already filled with 50s Doo-wop, the Everly Brothers, and Greenwich Village coffeehouse folk. There Goes Rhymin‘ Simon shows how this sort of musical borrowing and recombining has always been part of Simon’s songwriting method.

The first song he recorded for the album ended up being the opening of the side 2, “American Tune,” a State of the Union type address set to a melody by Bach:

“American Tune”:

JS Bach, St Matthew’s Passion:

“American Tune” was recorded in England. For a few other tracks, including “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock,” Simon headed for Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Reportedly, he wanted to play with the same black players who backed the Staples Singers’ on “I’ll Take You There”:

How great is that track? Feel free to play it again, we’ll wait.

Anyway, Al Bell at Stax told Paul that he could get him the same musicians that the Staples family used, but that the guys were “mighty pale.”

Here’s a trailer for a documentary about Muscle Shoals:

Those backing players were known as the “Swampers”; besides their own contributions to pop music, the Swampers were memorialized in the 4th verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”:

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;
They’ve been known to pick a song or two.
Lord they get me off so much.
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue
Now how about you?

Admit it, you always wondered what they heck that was about. You’re welcome.

Anyway, those were the side players who backed Simon on “Kodachrome” and “Love Me Like a Rock.”

“Love Me Like a Rock” also had some help from the Dixie Hummingbirds. Who?

The Dixie Hummingbirds have been singing together since… 1928. Holy cow! That’s like having the Newton Family Singers in 2090.

“Kodachrome” and “Love Me Like a Rock” were both released as singles and both got to #2 on the charts.

“Kodachrome” was kept from the top spot by Billy Preston:

and “Love Me Like a Rock” was blocked by Cher:

Cher at her prime! I had forgotten after all those auto-tuned 80s singles.

Anyway, the point is, Paul Simon has always been searching. Just as Bob Dylan adapted Woody Guthrie, Simon has always been exploring different musical genres and writing songs in different “voices.”

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Album Study: Graceland

Paul Simon’s Graceland was written in a very odd way. (The Talking Heads are going to appear by the end of this blogpost.)

Instead of finding a pattern of chord changes and singing a melody over it, Simon and his longtime engineer Roy Hallee traveled to South Africa and met local musicians there. Simon would jam with the musicians and Hallee had set up the studio they rented so that individual instruments were recorded to individual tracks.

Later, they returned to the United States and could manipulate the jams into compositions, adding an instrument or harmonic line here, and taking it out from somewhere else. This is why the music is not that hard to learn instrumentally: the same chord changes continue throughout songs like “You Can Call Me Al” or “Under African Skies” — although the arrangements change to signal a chorus or verse.

This track by track recording process also explains why the album sounds simultaneously like an exuberant jam session and highly produced. Listen carefully and you’ll hear lots of backwards guitar lines (they start long and quiet and then get loud before cutting off sharply):

Listen at 0:32 of “Under African Skies”:

And, perhaps the most famous instrumental part on the album is a crazy bass line played by Bakithi Kumalo:

Kumalo played the first half of this solo, but then Hallee and Simon reversed it and produced the second half of the solo; it’s a musical (and audio) palindrome!

And in case you were wondering, it is possible to play this line live:

At 3:34 (after Paul mistakenly introduces “Here comes the bass” and then has to repeat himself), the bass line comes in and the crowd goes wild. I should point out that this crowd is at the 25th Anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in other words, most of the people in the first 15 rows are professional musicians and they love that bassline.

So how did Simon think to create his album in this fashion? Well, we know he was inspired by a cassette tape of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, his collaborators on a number of tracks. According to Marc Eliot’s Paul Simon: A Life, that cassette joined the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in his regular rotation (p. 186-7). Eliot points out that those two albums share some of the African rhythms and arrangements that would influence Graceland, what he fails to mention is that Eno and Byrne had used the same jam session and tape splicing technique that Simon would use to create their tracks.

I would not have thought to put the Talking Heads in a category with Graceland, but it almost, sort of makes sense. Simon’s stream of consciousness lyrics are even fairly similar to Byrne’s — and a departure from the highly constructed poetry that he strived for earlier in his career.

You know what happens when you Google “Paul Simon David Byrne”? You find some videos of encores from Simon’s June 6, 2011 show in NYC’s Webster Hall. Byrne with Simon’s band doing Byrne’s “Road to Nowhere”:

And here they are on Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”:

Suddenly it all makes sense!

Bonus: This page has videos of Byrne doing “Al” and “I Know What I Know” with his own band. For more of a downer, that page also has an interview with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin about “collaborating” with Simon; if you want to have warm glowing feelings about Simon, you’d better skip it.

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Tribute to Pete Seeger

UPDATE 2/5/14: A local television station sent a reporter to the singalong and his report is viewable below.

UPDATE: Join us for a singalong at the Waban Library, this Saturday February 1 at 3pm. details below.

Our co-founder, and resident songwriter for the Newton Family Singers (and the acoustic combo Waiting For Neil), Andrew Rogovin wrote a tribute to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The full chorus performed the song in our Spring 2012 concert celebrating the life and music of Seeger.

Rest In Peace, Pete. Thanks for all the great songs and for inspiring so many musical communities around the world.


Public Singalong to commemorate the life of Pete Seeger

Saturday, February 1st, 3pm

Waban Library Center

1608 Beacon Street, Waban

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died this week at the age of 94.  Come celebrate his life through song at a community Sing-Along hosted by the Newton Family Singers on Saturday, February 1st, 3pm at the Waban Library Center.  Songs will be chosen straight from Pete’s songlist – songs about freedom, equality, justice, peace, the world we love and the strength of community.  Sing together as a community.  As Pete once said himself: “Participation – that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”

All are welcome! Bring acoustic instruments!

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Graceland films

Paul Simon was already headed for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from his work with Art Garfunkel in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the mid 80s however, he had a record do poorly (Hearts and Bones) and a marriage that wasn’t going well (to Carrie Fisher) and a tape of South African music was the only thing that was cheering him up.

He flew to South Africa to learn more about the music he was listening to and to collaborate with South African musicians. Simon brought his longtime engineer and producer Roy Hallee with him and they recorded a lot of jam sessions without having written any songs ahead of time.

Back in the States, Simon wrote lyrics and melodies to lay over the music

This unorthodox method of composition (not unlike what David Byrne and Brian Eno were doing with the Talking Heads) resulted in Simon’s most celebrated album to date, Graceland.

The documentary series “Classic Albums” focused an hour on Graceland, and that can be found (for now) in parts on YouTube, starting with part 1:

The recording of Graceland was somewhat controversial, however, as South Africa was still ruled at the time by a white minority under a repressive policy of Apartheid. While students on campuses were protesting and urging divestment from companies that worked in South Africa, Simon went right in and worked with individual artists from that country.

Ultimately, Graceland introduced South African culture and art to the world and arguably helped people see beyond the politics to the people. More recently, a new documentary takes a look back at the album for an assessment of it’s cultural impact. The film, originally titled “Under African Skies” and later subtitled “Paul Simon’s Graceland Journey” came out in 2012 and aired on PBS, so it may show up again. Meanwhile, the trailer still can be found online:

Perhaps one impact was that at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert, Simon sang (before dueting with Garfunkel):

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Loves Me Like a Rock — April 13!

The Newton Family Singers Present…


A Joyful Celebration of the Music of Paul Simon

To Benefit the Asperger’s Association of New England and the Autism Alliance of MetroWest

Sunday, April 13, 4pm

Newton North High School Auditorium, 457 Walnut Street, Newton

Click HERE to go to the NFS Concert Website

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Paul Simon!

Paul Simon! Paul Simon!

A great songwriter and performer, Paul Simon will be the focus of our attention this spring.

Paul Simon performing at a Sandy Hook funeral

He still sounds great, by the way, and is currently touring with Sting (!?$!).

In April 2011, he played a show in a Seattle, WA club and the audio was recorded. Not the highest fidelity, but it’s nice to hear what someone sounds like live (especially as Simon’s records are so meticulously engineered). MP3s from the Seattle show are available for free here from Burning Wood.

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Back to the 80s

We’re going to have a great show this Sunday, November 17, 2013. The band is tight with a new drummer and loads of enthusiasm. The singers are harmonizing beautifully and a few of them are even stepping up to dance a bit. The arrangements and song selections are beautiful — surprisingly beautiful for anyone who remembers the 1980s as synth drums and droning keyboards (only one keyboard part in our set).

More information about the concert and a link to tickets are here.

Meanwhile, here’s a look back at a hot Boston band from 1980.

Shane Champagne was the shizzle back in the early 80s.

Their big single was “Shadow World”:

Nice video.

I love that reggae beat anchoring power pop. Makes me think of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” or The Police’s “Walking on the Moon.” Or “Watching the Moon/Walking on the Detectives” (from Elvis Costello’s Spectacle):

Anyway, back in the summer of 1980, Shane Champagne was a guest on local Boston television station WCVB (channel 5) . The station was one of the first to broadcast 24 hours, and “5 All Night” showed old movies through the pre-dawn hours.

They also had band promotions! Shane Champagne was releasing a 10″ EP and appeared on 5 All Night on November 1, 1980. They were interviewed by Matty Siegel a DJ from WCOZ (which used to occupy 94 1/2 on the FM dial, now JAM’N 94.5).

Here’s the intro with a performance of “Dying to Stay Alive”:

I love the multiple vocals on the songs, although overall, the tempos seem slower than would be expected in the hyper sped up world of today.

Why am I spending so much time on Shane Champagne on this website? Well aside from local Boston rock history, they have a direct connection to the Newton Family Singers. I’ll give you a hint: the bass player looks like he could rock a guitar.

One more Shane Champagne performance video from Channel 68’s “Boston Live” from summer 1980. This is,  as of this moment, my favorite of their songs, “Rockaway”:

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