A (probably too long) MUSICAL BIOGRAPHY
Toronto Early Music
Shelley grew up in Toronto during the 1950s. As a wee lad, he avidly took in the glorious mishmash of music that was in the Posen family phonograph cabinet: Madam Butterfly and The Weavers, “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and The Lonesome Train, songs from Snow White and Paul Robeson. He adored the 50s hit parade, especially if there was harmony—the Everly Brothers, Dion and the Belmonts, the Kalen Twins, the Diamonds, the Mystics. His mum made singing a natural part of everyday life and Jewish holidays.
Shelley began singing in public early and, typically, in dissimilar circles and styles. He performed as youth cantor at a neighbourhood synagogue and attended National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, where he majored in choir and operetta, singing everything from Handel and Haydn oratorios to chorus and solo roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. He made his pop debut in another camp show singing “Teenager in Love” with some buddies while he strummed the ukulele. Guitar came a little later.
In high school, beguiled by Pete Seeger’s banjo, Shelley learned to play from Pete’s book, then added concertina and autoharp and, thus outfitted, took part in the Toronto folk boom of the 1960s. He performed in hootenannies at the Riverboat coffeehouse and led singsongs and campfire programs at summer camps. As an undergraduate, he toured with the University of Toronto Chorus and Hart House Glee Club, and continued performing folk music in an ever widening circle of North American coffeehouses and festivals. Shelley was the featured performer on opening night at Toronto’s soon-to-be-famous Fiddler’s Green folk club.
Newfoundland Trad and Bluegrass
By then, Shelley’s encounters with traditional song at festivals and folk clubs had refocused his career priorities. In 1970, he began graduate studies in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. As part of his studies, he absorbed the music of fishermen singing in their kitchens, and of the Irish and country music entertainers in popular St. John’s nightspots. He earned part of his school tuition performing in local pubs, and was a founding member of the Newfoundland bluegrass band, Crooked Stovepipe. While writing his Master’s thesis back in Toronto, he served as Director of Mariposa in the Schools in the pre-dawn of the Canadian children’s folk music boom.
Philadelphia Sacred Harp and Ottawa Valley Trad
Pursuing a doctorate in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Shelley performed at U.S. clubs and festivals. He also became involved in the burgeoning northern revival of choral singing from The Sacred Harp, an early American hymn book: he attended regional singing conventions and formed choruses in Toronto and Philadelphia. For his PhD. dissertation, he took up eighteen months’ residence in an Ottawa Valley village where he studied Irish-Canadian singing traditions. In 1988, he turned his thesis into a book, For Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun, which has been used as a textbook at Memorial University.
Ottawa Shape Notes, Synagogue Choirs, Finest Kind
In 1983, Shelley moved to Ottawa and worked as a professional consulting folklorist and museum curator. He also took on a variety of musical activities. In 1984 he formed the Ottawa Shape Note Chorus which he led for the next 15 years. (Under his direction, the chorus won Runner Up in the CBC Choral Contest in 2000.)
He also taught shape note and harmony singing at the Ottawa Folklore Centre, performed on various folk recordings, initiated a tradition of singing Yorkshire carols in neighbourhood pubs, and directed the Congregation Beth Shalom men’s choir.
In 1990, he helped form the close harmony vocal trio, Finest Kind, with Ann Downey and Ian Robb. For the next 25 years, the group recorded some 7 CDs and performed at clubs, folk festivals, and concerts in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. They reunite now every Christmas to perform seasonal concerts in the Ottawa capital region.
At home in both academic and folksong performance worlds, Shelley wrote “The Songfinder” column for Sing Out!, the venerable American folk music quarterly, and as Dr. Sheldon Posen, served as Curator of Folklore and Folklife at Canada’s national museum.
Songwriting and Solo CDs
Shelley began writing songs seriously in the 1990s. He writes in a wide variety of genres and styles, reflecting his musical interests over the years. He has recorded five solo CDs of mostly his own material. You can read about them, and listen to clips here.
Other Singers, Shelley’s Songs
Besides being featured on his own CDs, Shelley’s songs have popped up in the repertoires of performers at home and abroad, and on playlists of radio programs in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Shelley was proud to learn that “Fa-Sol-La,” about a novice’s encounter with shape note singing, circulated informally on tape and by telephone among singers throughout the southern United States, the home of the Sacred Harp tradition. His song about the end of the Newfoundland fishery, “No More Fish, No Fishermen” has been sung in concert by such folk legends as Lou Killen and Gordon Bok and was a favourite of the late Helen Schneyer; his Cole Porter-inspired “Having a Drink with Jane” has been recorded by Eve Goldberg, Claudia Schmidt, and Jane Voss.
Songwriter for Hire
Shelley also writes songs to order. Three songs commissioned in the 1990s by superstar children’s performers Sharon, Lois, and Bram—“I’m Terrific,” “At the Five and Rhyme,” and “When I’m Dressing Up”—were featured on their hit show, Skinnamarink TV, on the Nickelodeon network. And answering calls for canoe songs from Portage Productions, he drew on his years at summer camp and wrote “When I First Stepped in a Canoe,” a slyly humorous song about the misadventures of a newcomer to the world of paddles and portages; “Canoeing My Troubles Away,” about the pleasures someone must have paddling a canoe; and “S’mores,” in praise of the gooey canoe-trip treat. All three can be heard on Shelley’s fourth solo CD, Roseberry Road.