June 8, 1997, Sunday
Singer's Music Evokes Idealism
By THOMAS STAUDTER
THE idealism associated with the 1960's was evident a few weeks
ago when the singer-songwriter Maryellen McCabe and the folk-rock
band Phoenix Rising performed at the opening of the Riverfolk Coffeehouse
in the Irvington Community Center here.
More than 125 people, including parents with small children, gathered
around candlelighted tables to hear Ms. McCabe in her semi-theatrical
song cycle ''Heroes and Heroines.''
The songs recall leaders who directly or indirectly have led the
country and shaped its values. In a strong, insistent voice, she
evoked Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Francis Bacon, Hiawatha,
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. ''These are all human beings who have sacrificed their individuality
for the common good,'' she said.
The music was accompanied by short introductions in which Ms. McCabe
explained how the heroic archetypes fit into American history. Her
17-year-old daughter, Erinnisse, and a 21-year-old acting student,
Lawrence A. Bassin, offered dramatic recitations and soliloquies
to underscore the evening's theme.
''I'm striving to give an audience something that will make it
feel inspired,'' said Ms. McCabe, 45, who has lived in Hastings-on-Hudson
with her husband, John Michael Heuer, since 1986. ''But I'm also
very interested in energy and seeing people experience greater connections
in a community,'' she added. ''Performing, for me, is always a learning
experience -- a chance to see what works.''
Many of the ideas presented in ''Heroes and Heroines'' grew out
of research that Ms. McCabe has completed on the spiritual basis
of the United States, a subject that has interested her for nearly
After studying theater and acting at the University of California
at Berkeley, Ms. McCabe, a native of New Jersey, moved in 1972 to
Boulder, Colo., to join the World Family, a counterculture community
led by Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago Seven defendants. The World
Family combined the antiwar movement with a growing interest in
Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
''We were the responsible element left over from the 60's that
believed in changes that would be educational, political and spiritual,''
Ms. McCabe said.
While with the World Family, she said she became ''a deep student
of ancient wisdom and esoteric teachings.'' By joining in singing
and chanting, she said, she discovered how she could fully express
''Singing, as a form of art, allowed me to say what I wanted to,
and it also connected me to a heart place that is very spiritual,''
She moved to New York in the mid-70's to work as a theater therapist
at the Queens House of Detention and gradually began to focus on
her singing and songwriting, occasionally playing in bars and clubs
in Lower Manhattan. By 1979, though, marriage and motherhood had
taken precedence over her music career.
In 1984 she started writing the songs for ''Heroes and Heroines,''
and by 1986 she had shaped the material into a multi-media program,
presenting it at colleges and high schools.
''I feel educational settings are good contexts for what I'm doing,''
she said. ''It's important to be reaching out to kids, especially
apathetic ones, with a message these days.'' On April 7 she performed
at the College of Mount St. Vincent's Peace Week celebration. Shows
are planned later this spring at the New York Alternative High School
and the Waldorf School in Garden City.
Ms. McCabe took a five-year hiatus from her own music career in
1991 when she began to oversee the Sacred in the Arts program at
the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, along with helping
to plan the 1994 Women of Vision Leadership Conference in Washington
and producing a benefit concert for the International Campaign for
Tibet. ''That was, in a way, an art form, too -- producing artistic
events that were also political in nature,'' Ms. McCabe said. ''I
felt my mission was to raise the level of consciousness, or change
Even though she enjoyed producing artistic events and political
conferences, Ms. McCabe decided in 1994 to record ''Heroes and Heroines,''
renting studio time with her savings and self-producing the recording
sessions, which featured members of Phoenix Rising and other prominent
professional musicians. Last summer the recording was completed,
and a privately pressed CD of ''Heroes and Heroines'' was released
Jai Bria, a well-traveled musician who has played lead guitar in
Phoenix Rising for more than two years, said: ''Maryellen is really
an artist, a storyteller. She really has a contribution to make,
and we all believe in what she's doing.''
Tom Charlap, the group's bassist, said that Ms. McCabe ''believes
that if you hold up something good to people you may inspire them
to do better in their lives.'' He added, ''That's why I'm here.''
The current lineup of Phoenix Rising includes Peter Lewy on cello,
Pete Wilson on drums and, not-so-coincidentally, the catalyst of
the Riverfolk Coffeehouse, Mark Jacoby on acoustic guitar. Of her
band members, Ms. McCabe said: ''I'm grateful to work with them.
They don't have to be working with me --they could be paid a lot
more elsewhere, and I don't take that for granted.''
With long, brown hair and wearing a chamois morning jacket over
a white ruffled blouse and jeans, Ms. McCabe looked like a folk-rock
singer and at times her style was reminiscent of Grace Slick and
Patti Smith. ''There is a destiny to help humanity,'' she sang,
and later, ''Love must guide the mind on its way.''
Between the stage and tables holding urns of coffee, Mary Berke,
tall and dark haired, interpreted the songs in sign language and
dance movements. Children danced together by the side of the stage
to the delight of Mr. Jacoby, who said he hoped the monthly gatherings
would make the coffeehouse ''a place for people in the Hudson Valley
to hear contemporary songwriters and independent artists in a place
that's family friendly.''
After an intermission, Ms. McCabe handed out sheets of lyrics and
led the audience in a sing-along. ''This is the kind of community
event we need,'' said Judith Seixas, a septuagenarian from Hastings.
''It's refreshing to see a community trying to make this a good
place to raise children.''
Appearing at the coffeehouse on Friday at 8 P.M. in the last show
of the season is the Dirty Folk Revolution, consisting of Fred Gillen
Jr. and Chris Black, with a special guest, Katherine Pritchard.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company