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Portland’s joyfully nerdy new Multimodal Singers quartet brings poetry to motion

Posted by on April 1st, 2015 at 9:02 am

ellen arms up 600

Retired PBOT staffer Ellen Vanderslice is one of four vocalists (all with architecture degrees) behind the new Multimodal Singers quartet.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Read more of our coverage from the Oregon Active Transportation Summit.

Imagine there’s no gridlock
It isn’t hard to do
People always walk to work
And bike and transit, too
— lyrics adapted by Laurence Qamar from “Imagine” by John Lennon

National treasure Ellen Vanderslice — co-founder of Oregon Walks and America Walks; project manager of the Bike Plan for 2030, the Old Town festival streets and East Portland in Motion — is also a gifted jazz singer and composer, and this week at the Oregon Active Transportation Summit the retired city transportation staffer took a couple opportunities to use her musical powers for good.

Tragically, we didn’t plan ahead enough to have video of either performance. But the lyrics from one of the projects she was part of, the Multimodal Singers, are worth printing in themselves.

Update! The quartet has provided an audio recording from their rehearsal.

This new Portland quartet of vocalists, writers and urbanists, all with architecture degrees, includes Vanderslice, Michael Mehaffy, Laurence Qamar and John Czarnecki. Accompanied on Monday by the three-man instrumental posse of the Ellen Vanderslice Jazz Quartet, they sang three songs about transportation, two with new lyrics set to familiar tunes by Czarnecki and Qamar and one with original lyrics and music by Vanderslice.

multimodal singers

The singers: Mehaffy, Qamar, Czarnecki and Vanderslice.

“We’re all believers in biking,” Mehaffy told me afterward. “I bike all over the city. … We wanted to celebrate the change in transport from a single modal way of travel to multiple ways of travel.”

“I started out in music before I switched over to architecture,” Mehaffy added. The quartet met through a combination of professional and musical connections.

The group performed over the closing reception to the first day of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit at Portland’s Sentinel Hotel. Later that evening, Vanderslice also performed a collection of songs and poems about walking at the OATS pecha kucha slideshow session.

“It’s good to have Ellen back in this,” Vanderslice’s husband Scott Parker, an impressive walking advocate in his own right, told me. “She stepped back for a while after her retirement.”

After the reception, I managed to swallow my increasingly obvious crush on Vanderslice and ask her for a copy of the Multimodal Singers’ lyrics. Here they are.

multimodal singers smile

Eighteen Tons

(adapted by J&M Czarnecki from “16 Tons” by Merle Travis)

I awoke one mornin’; the sun wouldn’t shine
It looked like snow, but the children were cryin’,
The sky was grey; it was gettin’ late,
Got to change our ways so we can habitate.

Well, it’s your good Earth, and it’s my rock too,
We’ve dug ourselves deep now, what can we do?
It’s carbon we’re spewin’ … those particulates,
They’ll drive us to ruin, let me illustrate.

chorus:
You burn 18 tons, and what do you get
You’re hung up in traffic, and deeper in debt
Walk; ride the streetcar … take a bike to roam
To save us all, leave your auto at home.

By the end of the day it had been snowin’ a while,
The drive made me stressed I guess; needed to smile
I got on my treadmill, then realized
Could’ve skied to work; been more satisfied.

(chorus)

It’s my town yes, and it’s yours we know,
We can plan it well so we know how to go,
We need good neighborhoods, nurturing ways,
Need places to love for all the nights and the days.

(chorus)

Some people say it will be all right.
It can’t be true, cause try as we might,
We dig ourselves deeper down, into that hole
The way we’re goin’ gonna lose our souls.

(chorus)

Yes … we’ll walk, ride the streetcar … let our bicycles roam
Let’s all keep breathin’ … leave your auto at home.

vanderslice one arm up

Imagine

(adapted by Laurence Qamar from “Imagine” by John Lennon)

Imagine there’s no strip malls
It’s easy if you try
No endless seas of asphalt
And highways in the sky
Imagine all the people live in neighborhoods

Imagine there’s no gridlock
It isn’t hard to do
People always walk to work
And bike and transit, too
Imagine all the people living where they work

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
If each day we walk and bike
Then the world will be as one

Imagine there’s no gated walls
Between the rich and poor
No disconnected cul de sacs
Separation is no more
Imagine all the people sharing neighborhoods

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
If each day we walk and bike
Then the world will be as one

Jim Schlauch

Jim Schlauch of the Ellen Vanderslice Jazz Quartet, on keyboard.

The Way to Go

(words and music by Ellen Vanderslice, 2015)

When the blues have got you down,
Can’t get across town,
And traffic is standing stock still,
There’s a remedy sweet,
Starts with your feet
And soon you’ll be spreading goodwill.

Just jump on a bike,
Hope on a bus, or
Walk! It’s easy, you know.
And soon you will say,
Ev’ry day,
“That’s the way to go!”

(chorus)
Yes, that’s the way to go, friends
That’s the way to go.
The air will be cleaner, our cities all greener,
That’s the way to go.
Oh, that’s the way to go, yo!
That’s the way to go.
And when you get active, you’re way more attractive!
That’s the way to go!

At first, walking seems slow,
But experience shows
Its magical cognitive power:
Evolution refined
The speed of your mind
To four miles an hour.

And who can deny
The virtuous high
Of coasting a bike down a hill?
It isn’t a race,
But you climbed to this place.
Now enjoy the thrill!

(chorus)
Yes, that’s the way to go, friends
That’s the way to go.
The air will be cleaner, our cities all greener,
That’s the way to go.
Oh, that’s the way to go, yo!
That’s the wa to go.
And when you get active, you’re way more attractive!
That’s the way to go!

vanderslice arms out

I’m not sure if the Vanderslice Jazz Quartet got a little cash out of their instrumental performance, but Mehaffy said the Multimodal Singers were paid only in access to the free food. He wasn’t sure if they could have gotten a drink from the no-host bar out of the deal. “I didn’t ask,” he said happily, enjoying a plate of hummus.

You can contact the Multimodal Singers via Vanderslice’s label, Cherry Pie Music.

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One Comment
  • Craig Harlow April 2, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Ditto the crush <3

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