Bill Staines, mainstay of folk music, dies at 74

Folk singer Bill Staines used to tell a story along the strangest line of his most famous song, “A Place in the Choir”, whose lyrics celebrate the diversity of the animal kingdom and, therefore, that of the humans.

Thanks to numerous cover versions and a bestselling picture book, countless children and adults have been able to sing the chorus to you:

All of God’s creatures have a place in the choir,
Some sing low, some sing higher,
Some sing aloud over a telephone line,
Some just clap their hands, or paws, or whatever they have.

But what about the line that ends one of the verses? “The otter doesn’t have much to say and the porcupine talks to itself. What’s going on with this porcupine?

The lineage, as Mr. Staines has often recounted, came from a camping trip he and his wife, Karen Elrod Staines, took to the Tobacco Root Mountains in southwestern Montana. Lying awake in their tent at 4 a.m., he heard a strange chatter outside.

“And I was like, well, they landed,” he told the story to an audience in 2009. But when he looked through the tent flap, they weren’t aliens; he was a talking porcupine.

Mr Staines died on December 5 at his home in Rollinsford, NH. He was 74 years old.

His wife said the cause was prostate cancer.

Ms Staines, who works in special education, said the song, which first appeared on Mr Staines’ 1979 album, “The Whistle of the Jay”, did not marked one of them as a highlight of his career.

“When Bill wrote ‘PIC’ and played it for me when I got home from school, we both shook our heads and said, ‘I don’t know if he’s a keeper or not.’ , she said via email. “Obviously and fortunately, we were wrong. “

The song was covered by Peter, Paul and Mary; Red grammar; Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy; and many more. A rousing live performance by Irish band Celtic Thunder on YouTube has been viewed over seven million times.

“Songs are like kids you care about,” Mr. Staines, who has recorded nearly 30 albums, told the Register of Yarmouth, Mass., In 2013. “You write a song and it is born and you have to have it. nurture for a while and she grows up healthy and strong, then he develops relationships with people who have nothing to do with you. ‘A Place in the Choir’ has a life of its own. It’s like a child who has grew up and that’s gone.

William Russell Staines was born February 6, 1947 in Medford, Massachusetts, to William Henry and Dorothy (Trask) Staines. He grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and two childhood friends, Dick and John Curtis, were the catalysts for his acting career.

“When I was about 11, Dick got a guitar, so of course I had to buy one,” Mr. Staines told the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., In 2018. “It was a Sears guitar. Silvertone 3/4. With a cowboy painted on it. I sanded the cowboy on the front, and Dick, John and I put together a little rock’n’roll band, with contact pickups on our acoustic guitars .

Soon after, he’d gone solo and started writing his own songs, switching to a full-size guitar, which he played in an unusual way: backwards.

“When I got my first guitar, I took it and held it the right way, the right-handed way,” he told the Quincy newspaper. “But I’m left-handed and I didn’t feel good. So I turned it over and thought that must be the left-handed way of playing. You know, a D chord is always a D chord, so I just had to do it differently.

This approach gave his picking a somewhat different sound, as he was hitting the treble strings with his thumb. At least one other guitarist was impressed.

“About four years ago I met this guy in California who was a wonderful guitarist, who said, ‘I really like the way your style sounds,'” Mr. Staines told the Wenatchee World of Washington. State in 2009. “And I saw him a year ago, and he went out and bought a left-handed guitar and was playing it right-handed. So that’s even a step towards the strangest.

Mr. Staines wrote countless songs. Many evoked the natural world, like “River”, one of his best known, with its melancholy refrain:

You ride old river, change you old river,
You and I, river, go down to the sea.

Others were character sketches – “thoughtful, in-depth narratives made especially memorable by their ability to translate the common details of common lives into songs of unusual eloquence and beauty,” as LE McCullough put it. in The Austin American-Statesman in 1986. There was, for example, “The Roseville Fair”, on the first meeting of a couple and their unfailing love. Among those who covered the song was Nanci Griffith, who called Mr. Staines “the Woody Guthrie of my generation of songwriters”. Mrs Griffith, who died in August, credited Mr. Staines to encourage him in his own career.

Mr. Staines, an old-school troubadour who traveled tens of thousands of miles each year to perform, started out in cafes and other small venues. Early in his career he was MC for the Sunday Hootenanny at the famous Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass.

He was still a road warrior half a century later. His most recent album, in 2018, was called “The Third Million Miles”.

Besides Mrs. Staines, whom he married in 1976, Mr. Staines is survived by a son, Bowen Keith Staines, and a brother, Stephen.

Mr. Staines had another talent: yodeling. He sometimes gave workshops on competence. In 1975, he won a yodelling competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas – “beating bewildered Swiss yodels,” reported the Christian Science Monitor.

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