Before everyone was advised to remain indoors and practice social distancing - I had the pleasure of getting to know a group of wonderful people from Mother Smyth and the Noisemakers.
It is Tuesday night at the Wellington Apartment Building on Highway 15. About 20 people are meeting together in the upstairs party room. They bring guitars, ukuleles, banjos, concertinas, and harmonicas. They all come ready to play and sing. Everybody grabs a chair and they sit in a big circle around the room. They all bring copies of the group’s music either on their iPads or in binders.
A few are professional musicians, others are skilled amateurs and some had never picked up an instrument before joining this group. But they all like getting together to play and sing. This is just a big kitchen party. The group really has only one rule—No drama and be nice to each other.
Mary Lee Smyth started the group back in October 2017. She and her husband Randall were from Vermont and when they lived there they often had friends over for an evening singalong. They had moved to Kingston in 2016 and shortly thereafter moved into the Wellington Apartment Building. They often talked about getting a group together for something similar. Sadly, Randall passed away in July 2017 before they were able to get around to it.
Mary and Randall had lived in Vermont. They had met when they were both waiting tables at the Holiday Inn in White River Junction, Vermont. They were married in 1980 and had a son named Greye. Because Randall was Canadian, Greye had dual citizenship. The family frequently vacationed in the Picton area and had visited Kingston many times. After high school, Greye decided to go to Queens University and after graduating he decided to stay in Canada. Mary and her husband moved to Kingston in 2016.
On October 2017, Mary decided to go ahead with the idea of getting people together for an evening of music. She posted a sign in the building inviting anyone interested in a music night to come to her apartment. If they had some musical skills then so much the better. That first night three people came and they played for a few hours in her den. The following week a couple more people showed up, soon it was eight, and then even more. One night someone brought wine and soon it was standing room only. The kitchen party was finally off the ground!
Mary has had a lifelong relationship with music. She was only five years old when her grandmother insisted she take music lessons. Her father played clarinet in a jazz band, her mother loved classical music, one grandmother played the piano and the other grandmother and her grandfather both sang. She grew up surrounded by music. Everyone in her family was expected to play some sort of instrument. She obviously paid attention because her apartment is full of musical instruments. She has a keyboard, four guitars, four ukuleles, a banjo, a mandolin, a concertina, a steel pan, a hammer dulcimer, a flute, a fife, four penny whistles, three recorders, and a type of Irish drum called a bodhran. And she knows how to play most of them. She says that once you learn one instrument learning to play others is easier. Her favourite at the moment is the ukulele.
One guitar is especially important to Mary. It is a Martin guitar. Her husband Randall bought it when he was 11 years old. He went to the local music store near his home and sat and played that guitar every day. The owner of the music store liked Randall and eventually sold him the guitar for only five dollars and that was on the layaway plan!
Many of the other musical instruments in her apartment come with stories. She has a rosewood fife dating from 1865 that may have gone to the American Civil War. It belonged to her great-great-uncle who did go off to fight.
The music group that meets on Tuesday is sometimes called “Mother Smyth and the Noisemakers” partly because Mary does act as a mother to the group. She makes sure everyone is encouraged and that they all feel included.
The group is comprised of a variety of members. The previous superintendent of the apartment building is a member, as well as some retired military personnel, some professionals and some city workers. Jerry Mercer sits in the center of the room. He sets the tempo and keeps things moving along. He played drums for the rock group April Wine back in the 1970s.
One evening a woman came to join the group. She wanted to play. Her husband tagged along for fun. He enjoyed the group so much he joined as well and he has now bought a ukulele. Mary says he has a lovely voice.
Recently he went with a friend to the Army Navy Air Force Club off Gore Road. It was open mic night and someone asked him to play. He got up in front of everybody and played and sang. He told Mary he never would have done that three years ago. That would have been way out of his comfort zone.
Each Tuesday night is different, sometimes the group works and reworks each song. Other nights are more like a party. But it is always playing night. They all get together Tuesdays for singing at the proper speed and in the right key.
The group is progressing. One night one of the members brought a friend along with a keyboard. This friend was a professional musician. Jerry asked the group to leave a window in the song they were playing for this fellow to play a solo. They had not done something like that before but they pulled it off perfectly. Right now the goal is to keep improving. No one really knows where the group is going to go next but the sky is their limit!
Specials thanks to Barb Hayes and her parents Lois and Vern for introducing me to Mary and the group.
If you or anyone you know want to share your story through a photo session contact me today. I would love to have a chat. Bryce Murdoch