JP Observer: Neighbors join voices outdoors in spirit of community

The sound was perfect for the day. Twenty-two neighbors joined to sing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” on a Hall Street sidewalk at 5 p.m. this past April 13. The sun was shining brightly as it moved lower in the sky.

The Hall Street Howlers, as the residents call themselves, have been gathering for a Sing-Out every day since the beginning of the pandemic. Afterwards, they linger to chat for a while—always masked and socially distanced, of course.

“We have certainly become closer as neighbors, and this activity is a lift emotionally after many of these long days,” long-time Hall Street resident Judy Bumbalo said.

Other Howlers described the more than year-long series as they socialized afterwards and in a few emails.

“What we’ve done shows the best of what community is—having fun, getting to know each other better and in times of need, offering support,” said 20-year resident Joanie Parker, who handles group communications. The Howlers have celebrated neighbors’ birthdays and honored personal losses over the year.

On April 13, five children were part of the crowd, as usual. They joined the adults outside 48 Hall Street for an enthusiastic rendition of the Hokey Pokey. Singers range from 2 to 80 years old.

“It has been wonderful to watch my son Enda, almost 3, get to know all the neighbors up and down the block,” said Nathan (Nate) Eckstrom, who plays guitar for the Howlers. He and his wife Nancy have lived on Hall Street for three years and in JP for more than ten. Son Aidan, six months, puts in an appearance from time to time.

“Enda can name almost every person in every house on Hall Street at this point,” Eckstrom said. “I love music and I always hoped my son would, too. It has been incredible to share that love with the community that has formed on our street.”

Margie Lawson and others described how the Sing-Outs got started. First, people banged on pots for health care workers, she said. Then they started singing, especially for a specific health care worker in the neighborhood who was having a tough time.

“We are so lucky to know each other,” Lawson said.

The first Sing-Out was on St. Patrick’s Day, 2020, Eckstrom and Nadine Desharnais reminisced. The Howlers sang the Drop Kick Murphy’s “I’m shipping up to Boston.” The band had to cancel their Boston appearance at the last minute because of the pandemic. 

Then, appropriately, everyone sang the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

“From that day on, the Sing-Out had begun,” Desarnais reported. “Most days it would be people suggesting songs and looking at lyrics on their phones. Since our Lyrics Leader Evelyn Barbee took over around then, we now are supplied with papers with all the lyrics and she sends out the week’s songs in advance so everyone can listen and practice beforehand, especially our guitarist Nate [Eckstrom], and our banjo and ukulele player Jim [Stark].”

Barbee, who has owned her two-family on Hall Street since 1993, said she volunteered for the job when she noticed people tend to know only a few lines from each song. She said she “has so much fun” researching all types of songs for the group to sing. She spends time looking for songs of all types to sing—at least three per evening. Sometimes she watches songs performed on Youtube and looks for different lyrics. The Howlers got together and gave her a songbook to consult, too.

Barbee gathered some black spirituals for people to sing during black history month.  

The daily Sing-Outs are organized and run completely by volunteers, including members who volunteer to send out reminders. Many people praised Barbee, Bumbalo, Eckstrom Parker and Stark for all their help.

“What makes me the happiest about the Sing-Outs is the children. Having the children with us is an added joy,” Irene Desharnais, mother of adult Nadine Desharnais, both long-time residents, said.

“I like to sing,” Ingrid Masterson, 11, said about why she goes to the Sing-Outs. “There is no other opportunity during covid.”

Many friendships have been born at the Sing-Outs over the past year. Enda Eckstrom and the daughter of Emma Anderson and Lis Pardi, Lula, got to know and play with each other at the Sing-Outs.

The parents became friends, too, and decided to create a “pod” and share a child care person to take care of the two almost 3-year-olds. Former Hall Street residents, Anderson and Pardi have moved to Roslindale, but they come back with Lula for Sing-Outs many evenings.

Anderson said how much she has appreciated that, “People created five to 10 minutes a day of human interaction” when they formed the Howlers, she said.

 “The Sing-Out is the thing that has gotten me through the pandemic. Without the social interactions it would have been a lot harder,” Pardi said.

Deborah Grose moved to another JP location ten years ago, but she returns for Sing-Outs, too. “I love singing in community,” said the member of chorale group The Boston Cecelia. “I grew up singing around campfires and the like. It’s a cultural thing. The singing group is a microcosm.”

The Hall Street Howlers are very proud of singing in every type of weather. Eckstrom said he was having a “bad day” one cold, snowy winter day, and thought he would stay inside at 5 for a change. Suddenly two Howlers appeared and started singing. He couldn’t resist, he said, and went outside to join them.

Hall Street, which runs between South Street and the Southwest Corridor Parkland has been a cohesive neighborhood for years. A group of the singers listed some of the activities they have done together as they chatted following the singing: caroling, annual clean-up, snack swap, cleaning up leaves, National Night Out potlucks, and Easter egg hunts, including one just recently.

“Sing Out! has become an anchor in our day for most of us.  We’ve enjoyed safe distancing while singing and chatting —taking us through a dark year of the pandemic,” Parker said.

“What we’ve done shows the best of what community is—having fun, getting to know each other better and in times of need, offering support,” Parker added. “During these challenging times, our communities, our neighborhoods, are our real security, looking after one another and making sure everyone is included.”  

“We meet to sing, but more importantly we gather and share stories of our day, resources for Covid tests and vaccines, suffered together the deaths of two dear neighbors, chalked sidewalks for birthdays, set up meal chains for doctors and new parents, and we chat, laugh and learn more about one another each day,” Nadine Desharnais said. “We are creating a village within a city, where people celebrate and take care of one another.”

The Howlers aren’t the only sidewalk singing group to spring up in Jamaica Plain during the pandemic. 

The Olmstead Street Choristers in Parkside off Washington Street have been singing every day as well. The Choristers have a 50-person email list and 10-12 folks who show up almost every day to sing, member Alvin Shiggs said in an email.

The Choristers also have “Sunshine of My Life” on their song list. They gather at 6 every day.

Neither the Howlers nor the Choristers intend to stop singing in the foreseeable future. 

“Getting together every day allows neighbors and friends to stay connected with each other during the pandemic,” Shiggs said. “Songs we sing bring smiles to faces and say, ‘We are here for you.’”

After Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, “We set singing aside a couple of days and recited together Amanda Gorman’s wonderful poem,” group member Robert Crabtree said in an email.

A group of residents on Sedgwick Street have been singing, too, he said he heard. 

Crabtree has written some take-offs on well-known songs for the group to sing, including “Have Yourself a Cozy Covid Season.” The last stanza goes, “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a cozy covid season now.”

The Howlers end every Sing-Out session singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round. Early in the pandemic, Parker wrote a different last verse that she said, “The children especially like.”

It goes: “Love, love, love your neighbor up and down Hall Street/Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily/Everyone stomp your feet!”

And everyone does.

“Only in JP!” Bumbalo said. 

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