Jamie Marshall sang tenor while studying choral music at St. Olaf College a few years ago. He still does—still sings the highest male part, that is—only now at church, and in community choirs across the cities. He grew up with musician parents, and he assumed that he, too, would branch into professional musicianship. Instead, Marshall’s been running the St. Louis Park Friends of the Arts (FOTA) for almost half a year as executive director. He’s the organization’s only paid, full-time employee. And lately, he’s been rallying together a motley lineup: a jazz artist who blends Jewish music with R&B; a Somali singer and poet alongside the Somali Museum Dance Troupe; a gospel choir; an a cappella group that covers world music—to fill the Wolfe Park Veteran’s Memorial Amphitheater with not just song, but “the one art form that anyone can do at any time, without any tools,” Marshall says: singing.
This is “Our Town Sings,” a formerly biennial event in June and July that has exulted one art form every other year—from photography to drumming—since 2008. This year marks its shift to annual thanks to Marshall’s full-time addition.
Last year, “Our Town Sings” drew 1,300 attendees to Wolfe Park around the theme of singing. FOTA’s board decided to repeat that theme this year to ease the event’s first consecutive-season rollout. Also, as Marshall points out, singing “has been present in all cultures for the history of humanity.” Everyone can relate to singing somehow. For example, rather than writing down law, Somalis once sang it in rhyme to remember. Musicians in the lineup will educate as well as instruct sing-alongs—instruction necessary for those who don’t speak, much less sing, Somali.
For more than 20 years, FOTA has organized such educational art-centered events and offered artist grants. But the board, and now Marshall, have had no rest proving to potential funders—who include the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, donating $5,000 this year—that art matters. This year, Creative Minnesota stated that artists and art organizations push $2 billion annually in the state economy. A payoff FOTA has noticed: art creates community, too. “The two biggest ways to bring people together are food and the arts,” Marshall says.
Still, “Our Town Sings” can be a tough sell. “How do we convince people to come out of their homes, sit in the grass next to people they don’t know and listen to music they’ve never been exposed to, and participate in an activity they might not be comfortable participating in?” poses Jason Marchiafava, board chair.
“When you sing, it can be scary to have somebody else hear something that’s so personal: your singing voice,” Marshall explains, adding, “I think people see singing happening, and it makes you want to join. It’s why, if you play music in the car, you’ll probably start singing along.”
When the Westminster Justice Choir leads a community sing on July 18, featuring some songs written and submitted by St. Louis Park residents about unity and justice, Marshall will join their ranks.
“It’s a great place to be vulnerable,” Marshall says. “It creates an unspoken connection…If you sing with another person, you’re showing them a part of you.”
Our town sings in July:
Tuesdays, 7-8:30 p.m., with food trucks setting up around 6 p.m.
Wolfe Park Veteran's Memorial Amphitheater
July 11: Safiya Tusmo and the Somali Museum Dance Troupe
July 18: St. Louis Park Unity Sing with the Westminster Justice Choir
July 25: Mark Bloom’s Markavanah with the Hurst Family Experience, a collaboration of Jewish and gospel music.