Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Sister Chain

The History of The Sister Chain*

It all began in 1971 - 1972, when we were born.

Then a bunch of stuff happened.

And eventually, The Sister Chain (TSC) emerged on the Saint Mary’s/Notre Dame music scene in the fall of 1991.

The group, an acoustic-based, all-female ensemble, was made up of the following: Kate (née Beck) Clark on vocals/guitar, Michelle Godwin on vocals/bongos, Erin Hardin on vocals/guitar, Erin (née Grefenstette) Henninger on vocals/percussion, Meghan (née King) Johnson on vocals/guitar, and Maureen (née Richerson) Parlier on vocals/keys (however, we all switched up instruments a bit depending on what we felt compelled to do). Mo Richerson left the group after the first year or so, so you will note that any later recordings don’t have any keys/synth in them.

TSC often invited other guest musicians to play with us from time to time, too—to mix things up/fill up the sound/have a good time, etc., e.g. Mike Dumbra on electric guitar and Kris “Bonch” Bonitatibus with the sticks (both of ND Earl’s Court fame), as well as a guy from ND named Dave, whose last name totally escapes me at the moment – sorry DAVE!!! (BTW: Dave was the one who helped me to splice in recordings of my then 4 year old niece singing some of her own original tunes on the debut The Sister Chain tape, which was recorded live at Dalloway’s on Sept. 9, 1992. Also BTW, we had 2 lovable co-managers, Mary “MB” (née Barger) Dirksen and Bridget McCourt, who faithfully dubbed and sold said cassette tapes for $5 piece. And a final point of interest: MB and Bridget also established a checking account in the name of The Sister Chain, which I—I must admit it—thought was pretty cool. Seeing our band name on checks made us feel totally legit. ;-)

Anywho: one of TSC’s proudest, most historical moments was when we served as the entertainment for the grand opening of the original Dalloway’s Coffeehouse on SMC’s campus. We have a recording somewhere from that venue (cassette, of course), where the Dalloway’s founder, the fabulous Margaret “Peggy” Abood introduces us as “Sister Chain.” And then you hear her being corrected by quiet-as-a-mouse Ms. Hardin (what would you expect from a woman from New Orleans?), gently insisting that it’s THE Sister Chain, not simply Sister Chain (so don’t you ever forget it! ;-)

We had the great joy and honor of playing with many great musicians (some of whom are mentioned above) during that heyday of the SMC/ND music scene, and took much pride in being the only SMC “band” at the time (maybe first ever?). Hey, we even got 3rd place at Battle of the Bands one year at ND (much to the chagrin of many, I’m sure. lol!) Another funny thing: we actually co-headlined with Chisel at Dalloway’s once, do you remember that guys? Below is the flyer to prove it (mocked up by yours truly).

So back to the she-story (hhh!): All of The Sister Chain gals attended SMC, and all of them spent the year of 1990–91 studying abroad in Ireland together, with the exception of Kate Beck Clark. While in Ireland, Michelle Godwin, Erin Hardin, Erin Grefenstette Henninger, and Meghan King Johnson spent countless hours hanging around at their homesteads singing and playing guitar, often joined by lots of locals (lots of traditional Irish songs, classic folk songs, Indigo Girls, and originals going on). We also provided the music at mass regularly at St. Patrick’s College (Maynooth), where we attended, along with Seanie from Co. Sligo. (Props Sean, wherever you are! ;-)

Upon returning from Ireland, during the summer of ’91, Meg & Kate (both from Pittsburgh) got together regularly and started cranking out some tunes, with the intent to perform at SMC/ND upon returning there in the fall. Kate had a history of being in bands since high school (The Happy Accidents) and also during our freshman year of college (Ed’s Painting Company). She and Meg also enjoyed time together during high school and college choir (geeks! ;-) Kate was (is) an accomplished pianist, and also had a regular gig as an accompanist at church on Sundays at SMC. (Hmmm... so it seems we owe a lot to The Church for keeping us in practice...). Anywho: Meghan started learning guitar in the sixth grade, and after leaving it alone for awhile, started dedicating herself more seriously to it the summer after her senior year of high school (kudos to Ben Means for giving me lessons, again, wherever you are ;-).

Upon returning to SMC’s campus in the fall of ’91, Kate & Meg found out that Michelle, Erin & Erin were intending to put a group together themselves. So, we said: “What the heck? Let’s all do it together.” (Yeah – that’s pretty much verbatim. Lol!) And alas, THE Sister Chain was born. (We invited Maureen to join in knowing that she was also an accomplished musician and singer.)

Oh the name, you ask? Yes, everyone wants to know where our name came from. ;-) Well, of course, we thought it would be cool to have something that represented the sisterhood of all of us being from Saint Mary’s. We were also a bit into the neo-hippie-Grateful Dead thing at the time; you know: the imagery of people running around with daisy chains, calling each other “sister” and “brother” and stuff like that. (Yeah: hokey to the core, I know.) Anyways: I was big on calling the group “Sister Betty,” in honor of the nun who organized the church music at SMC that Kate and I were doing at the time, though Kate was afraid Sr. B might take it the wrong way (though Sr. B later confessed that she would have been honored ;-). At any rate, we obviously compromised, threw it all together, and The Sister Chain was named. You know how compromise is: everybody gets a little bit of what they want, but no one really gets what they want – lol. At any rate, it worked well enough. That could probably be the theme of our entire history together, now that I think of it – somehow, despite, all of our differences, we made it all work.

OK, I am philosophizing now, but it really was special. Anyone who has ever been in a band or ensemble or group of some kind knows how special it is when a group somehow comes together and manages to hang together. It was tough after we all graduated, because life threw us apart, as is natural upon graduation. We knew it was likely that we wouldn’t all be playing much together again, if at all, after playing several shows and venues for two solid years. While at SMC, we had pretty regular gigs at Dalloway’s, and then on top of that, played anywhere and everywhere else that we could – every kind of benefit (MLK Day, Women’s Day, whatever), every house party invite, every special event (@ both SMC and ND alike, e.g. Hogstock, Battle of the Bands, the SU, etc.), and then of course came that magical moment when were able to move on to and to start playing pretty regularly at the infamous House of Moe (aka Club 23). Talk about good times, good music, and good friends. We pretty much adopted that place (in addition to Dalloway’s) as our home. So, if there was a theme to our closing, it could probably be summed up as “bittersweet,” which fittingly was a Big Head Todd and the Monsters cover song that we often did.

Speaking of songs, we did do a lot of originals, but also a lot of cover songs, too – all with our own personal stamp of course. We did both originals, and original versions of cover songs, largely because of our own musical limitations! Seriously: we never pretended to be musical virtuosos: we just liked to get together, and sing, and have a good time, and provide some enjoyment for other folks, too, while we were at it.

I’m pretty sure that our first official, original Sister Chain** song was “I’d Do Anything,” followed closely by “Night is Blue.” Michelle G wrote the lyrics to “I’d Do Anything” while we were in Ireland. I distinctly remember being in the basement of LeMans Hall at SMC one night, early in the fall of ’91, sitting around in a circle toying around with how we would put the words to music. I tried to roughly imitate what some musical friends of ours in Ireland had done with it one night while playing around (shout out to our Miss Judgment friends! ;-). Then we started throwing in harmonies on the chorus (our “unique” vocal arrangements was probably our forte). Then Mo Richerson threw in a cool synth intro at the beginning. Then, I’m pretty sure that the lights went out, but we kept singing anyways. When the lights came back on, another SMC-er, someone whom we didn’t know, walked in, totally flabbergasted, and said something to the effect of: “Is that you guys singing? Is that your song? You guys sound awesome.” It was a good source of encouragement. Do you girls remember that the way I do?

Incidentally: LeMans had some spaces with some good acoustics, which helped, I must admit. In addition to the LeMans basement, we also practiced frequently in the LeMans Chapel, which is somewhere up on the 3rd or 4th floor. I don’t know if this is the case now, but at the time, it wasn’t utilized very frequently for official functions, but the door was always open. And it was (still is?) a gorgeous, dark-wood, double-floor chapel – I think there might even be a full pipe organ in there? There’s definitely a balcony. So, like I said: good acoustics. It was in that very chapel that we auditioned to be included on the SMC/ND music compilation CD (remember that Ryan?). We were pretty excited to be included on that CD; our first (and now that I think of it, only!) CD recording, professional studio, publicity photos, etc. Funny thing: CDs were really just starting to come out at that time, so this was a big deal all around. ;-)

Some of the other mainstays in our “originals” repertoire (in addition to “Night is Blue,” like I already mentioned) included: “September Song,” “Seamus & Shoelaces,” “My Name Is Sky” (which is on the ND/SMC Incubus compilation CD), “Sunset,” “I Remember,” “The Green Grass Turned Blue,” and “Ceres.” There were lots more though. In fact, Mike Dumbra, whom I mentioned earlier, recently sent me mp3s of virtually all of our original songs. So if you want copies, hit me up.

Some of our other mainstay cover songs (in addition to “Bittersweet,” which I already mentioned) included: “Black Boys on Mopeds” (Sinead O’Connor), “Mother” (Pink Floyd), “This One Goes Out to the One” (REM), “Walk on the Ocean” (Toad the Wet Sprocket – whom we hung out with after they did a show at ND’s SU, which was very cool ;-), and John Denver’s “Jet Plane.” We also threw in some traditionals from time to time, like “Red Is the Rose” (Irish traditional) and “Scarborough Fair.” So yeah: it pretty much ran the gamut; we were interested in all kinds of music. If there was a song that struck our fancy for one reason or another, we figured out how we could play it and make it our own. Good times, for sure.

But alas, as I mentioned, graduation and our impending end was inevitable. Here’s how it all shook out—that is, if my memory serves me correctly (God, I’m getting old – please pardon me folks if I get any of this wrong – I know that I will be duly corrected ;-) :

After graduation, Meg & Kate went back to Pittsburgh, continuing to perform as a duo, and eventually, looking to expand their sound, joined up with some other folks, including Tom Emmerling, the drummer of ND’s Palace Laundry, who is also a Pittsburgh native. We christened ourselves “Dolorous” (naming your band after a female was popular in those days; see “emiLy”). After about a year or so, Meg left the group to get married and go to Japan to teach English, which is right about when “Dolorous” took off, after re-naming themselves “Bitter Delores” and adding some other members. Bitter Delores became pretty big on the Pittsburgh scene, and stayed that way for awhile. After several years, that group also met its end. Kate is now happily married, still in Pittsburgh, and I think, now has her master’s in music education. At any rate, I know that she is still doing music in one form or another. We (meaning myself, Meghan, & Kate), have even played out together a couple of times over the last couple of years – doing both old stuff & new – primarily in the Morgantown, WV area (WVU music scene). This is primarily because I, Meghan, have been living in West Virginia for about 10 years now.

Oh, what am I doing you ask? ;-) Well, whilst in Japan, I continued to play and write music, even gave a few lessons. Upon returning, I spent four years in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, continuing to hone my skills – even took some guitar lessons in Dinkytown (cultural area of the University of MN), where a young Robert Zimmerman happened to hang out awhile back. My husband and I moved to Mpls-St. Paul largely because of the great, grassroots arts scene (which we were both familiar with), and while there, I expanded my “performing” to include acting as well, which I have continued to do, along with my music. Suffice it to stay, I’m still playing out. I have a MySpace Music page as well as a Facebook music page if anyone’s interested in checking it out. In fact, in addition to some of my more recent, independent stuff, I think I’ve also posted a song or two from my Sister Chain days that I penned there as well.

Let’s see... the other girls... I know Erin Grefensette (now Henninger) went to Ann Arbor, MI for a little while after graduating, along with Kate Beck Clark and Bridget McCourt, at some point. I think part of what prompted that move was also the music scene that was there. (Probably they were following the lead of ND’s Sea of Words, with whom we used to hang out with/play music with quite a bit as well). I already told you about Kate BC’s present day happenings... so on to Erin GH: she is now in Denver, CO primarily involved with being a mother to her beautiful little girl, Marlo, and living the good life with her über successful husband (you know lots of globe-trotting... nice, eh? ;-) We’ve all lost track of Bridget McC, one of our trusty managers. (Bridget, if you’re out there reading this somewhere, look us up, girl!). Our other manager, MB, is back in her home state of OH, also very involved with being a parent.

Michelle G also ended up in Michigan, her home state, after graduation, though not in Ann Arbor. She’s out in Denver, CO now as well, raising her two fine sons, doing some counseling, and happily married.

Erin Hardin went back to her home town of New Orleans, spent some time in TX, and recently relocated back to NOLA. I think she’s done some teaching over the years, but I’m pretty sure her main focus at this point is her family, which includes her lovely hub, Bob, twin boys (Walker & Murphy), and adorable little Lola, whom they adopted about a year ago from China. I’m pretty sure a little boy named Bennet will be joining them from China soon, too.

Dang, I didn’t intend to make this so long – but, I guess it’s because The Sister Chain was definitely a big and extremely positive part of my time at Saint Mary’s. I hope that we helped to have a positive impact on others in the ND/SMC/SB scene at the time as well. I think we did, based on the various responses that we received.

In closing, thanks Ted, for the opportunity to reflect on those years and those good times, and for working to preserve those good times for the future—and I’m not just talking about The Sister Chain, of course—I’m referring to all of the great bands, the great people, that came together during those years to make that scene what it was.

If I missed anything (ha!), or if anyone wants to know anything more, feel free to look me up.

All the best!

And keep on rockin’ all!

Respectfully Submitted,
Meghan King Johnson, 6/24/2009

P.S. I have to give a shout-out to some of our fabulous friends who faithfully supported us during our Sister Chain years, people like: Christine Makarewizc, Joanne Gatti, Liz Quinlan, Lisa Philips, Lisa (Claussen) Kommers, Anne Delaney, Molly (McDonald) Peets, Missy (Arnett) Caudill, Melinda “Max” Tierney, Grant Johnson, and Mike Goodwin. And of course, all the musicians that I mentioned above, and some. I’m sure I’ve left some people out, which I’m sorry about, but dang! It’s late! And this thing needs to wrap! So, if I left out your name, I’m sorry—but please know that if you ever came to one of our shows, bought any of our tapes, or even took the time to read this long-winded memoir of sorts, we are grateful, and you are special. :-)

* intentional capital “T.” You’ll find out why when you read the article. ;-)
** it’s OK to leave out the “The” sometimes, just not on official documents, or when Erin Hardin’s around. ;-)


see also:
The Sister Chain on MySpace


Erin said...

Meghan!!!! This is the absolute best!! My brain cells are mostly dead from all my recent N'Awlins drinking binges so it was like reliving those days all over again!! Thanks so much. I will never forget that time we spent in St. Patrick's church singing our hearts out during Mass. We loved adding that tambourine any chance we could!! I also remember Conor Donnelly playing all of our favorite Queen songs on the chapel's organ. Was that during a practice or two?? I have to add that my most special Sister Chain memory was singing "Sunset" for the passing of our dear friend Kate Walsh. Do you remember that beautiful service celebrating her life in SMC's chapel?? It was just such a surreal moment....never has that song sounded so beautiful or been so meaningful. On a brighter note, I suggest a little Sista reunion in NOLA during Mardi Gras next year!! I know Meg was planning to come anyway... what would be better than 4 more crazy women ?? We have plenty o' room and can kick all the kids out, maybe even the husband! Just to add 2 more songs - who could forget our cover of Madonna's "Express Yourself" or my FU song to Mike Goodwin "Southern Sunday Woman"!!?? HAHAHAHA. And as an aside, I am still teaching children with disabilities, working on my doctorate in special education, and hope to be the Director of Special Education for a charter school system in post-Katrina NOLA next year!! Lastly, mom, Holly, and I travel to pick up 5 year old little Hudson in China over Labor Day... yes, we did go through a number of name changes. Thanks so much for the memories. It was a great ride! Erin Hardin

Mary Dirksen said...

Fabulous job Megs! You have such a wonderful memory. I'm sure I won't be the only one to tell you how much this means to all who were involved with The Sister Chain. I love your energy and your passion!

On another note, we're still in the Cincinnati area and I've been with P&G for almost 12 years. Benjamin is 2 now and we're hoping to add to our family sometime soon...will keep you posted. I love and miss you! Keep in touch.


Emily said...

What a great story Meghan! You girls were (are) all fantastic. You were a bright spot for me in the dark months after returning from Ireland in '92 - good times and much needed laughs. Miss you all and hope you're all doing well. Big hugs, peace and love, Emily G.

Peter Dedman said...

probably the only moments of my WVFI radio show that i can still bear to listen to (though i eventually did learn how to speak into a mic, it came slowly and over the course of later DJ gigs on WESU, KZSU and KDVS) was when Sister Chain performed "Green Grass Turn Blue" quite impromptu, during a voiceover break on my show. sounded brilliant (and wish the track was included on this brilliant post, but thanks for the rest!)

megkingjohnson said...

wow. so much to say, but just wow for now. Peter - that is so fantastic. thanks for sharing that - it really means a lot, and I know I speak for the gang when I say that. btw: there's a version of it on myspace page -- though I'd love to here your version somehow someday. x