‘Passion’-ate about Folk Choir
Devin Humphreys | Tuesday, March 15, 2022
“The night is dark, and I am far from home / Direct my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me / So lead me onward, Lord, and hear my plea.” These words, taken from Steven Warner’s interpolation of the classic St. John Henry Newman poem “Lead, Kindly Light,” were what I used to open my admissions essay to Notre Dame Law School. I explained that while I was then (and am now, to a lesser extent) uncertain as to what the “distant scene” of my legal career would look like, I knew that Notre Dame Law was the “one step enough for me.”
Steven Warner was the founder and original director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. While his songs, like “Set Your Heart on the Higher Gifts,” “All Will Be Well,” and “Make of Our Hands a Throne” have been personal favorites of mine from the time of my conversion in seventh grade, my love of the Folk Choir began when I was an undergrad at Michigan State University (MSU) and my parish there, St. Thomas Aquinas/St. John Student Center, sang the Our Father from the Folk Choir’s own “Mass of Our Lady.” As I began learning more about the Folk Choir through my time at MSU, I only fell more in love with its mission and its repertoire (it’s possible that the Folk Choir took the #1 spot on my Spotify Wrapped for a couple of years in a row), and it became apparent that this would be an organization I would want to be involved in if I ended up doing law school at Notre Dame.
A law school admissions process and a global pandemic later, August 10, 2020, I had the great honor of receiving “the email” from J.J. Wright, our current director. My audition had been successful, and a Folkhead (yes, that’s our nickname) I would be! Folk Choir in the time of COVID-19 was certainly a challenge, but I was so immensely grateful to have the opportunity to continue singing twice a week at our (masked and distanced) rehearsals, and we even recorded a full album (“They Tell Me of a Home”) amidst of last year’s COVID-19 craziness! Last fall, I had the privilege of singing in the loft of the Basilica for a noon Mass (the Folk Choir’s main ministry) for the first time. I get to renew my gratitude for this opportunity, shared with my 50 closest friends, every single week. And as I’ve referenced elsewhere, it doesn’t end in the Basilica loft. Every Thursday evening, a convoy of Folkheads makes the short trip from Coleman-Morse (where we rehearse) to Dillon Hall to sing in the weekly Milkshake Mass Music Mob.
But perhaps the most involved aspect of my time in the Folk Choir thus far came to a head over spring break. Last Friday night, I returned from an adventure to the cities of Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York City and Hudson with the Notre Dame Folk Choir. We were on our east coast tour, premiering our original composition of “The Passion.” In collaboration with our director, J.J. Wright, our librettist, Tristan Cooley, guitarist Franky Rousseau and bassist Ike Sturm, a multitude of students in the Folk Choir have been composing and arranging this piece since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve completed various workshops on the piece during school breaks to bring this piece to life — from staying on campus for a week after graduation last year to a fall break retreat and a January tech week. The opportunity to perform this piece to our supporters in these cities was the culmination of two years’ work.
This is the first time in its 40 years of existence that the Folk Choir has done something quite like this, and what “this” is kind of evades clear articulation. “The Passion” is not just our typical Folk Choir album; it’s a full-fledged production with narrative and staging. Our choir splits up three ways for the performance, with a group of lead roles (Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Blessed Mother, Peter, John the Evangelist, Judas, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife Claudia, Mary of Bethany, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, our narrator “Memory” and our soloist “Spirit”), our main chorus and the Apostles’ Chorus, of which I have been so blessed to be a part. The libretto for our piece is grounded in Scripture. “Memory” recites various key Gospel narrations, while other characters reference the Psalms, other Scriptural texts and original poetic compositions from our students and collaborators. The result is a 90-minute piece of music with a 154-page score that this choir has rehearsed, in its various iterations, for the past year and a half.
I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which this piece has changed the lives of all who have had the opportunity to play a role in its coming to life. It’s something you truly have to see or hear to understand, and on that front, I have good news: the Folk Choir will conclude its domestic tour of “The Passion” with a performance at the Basilica on April 10, which is Palm Sunday. This is truly a must-see event, and I look forward to the Folk Choir being able to share its fruits with the wider Notre Dame family to kick off Holy Week. That will be our last performance of this piece on this tour, although the Folk Choir is going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land soon after graduation, where we will record “The Passion” as our next album.
It is here, dear reader, that I leave you for these two weeks, with this final word of advice: If you’ve been on the fence about joining the Folk Choir, there’s no time like the present and you too could get “the email” in due course. Please feel free to reach out to me (check my byline) or, better yet, skip the middleman and email our director at [email protected] for more information. May the rest of this Lent prepare us to enter into Holy Week like never before and please, do consider coming on April 10 to see for yourself what the Folk Choir was up to this Spring Break.
Devin is a member of the Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. Inquiries into his surplus of law journal articles and note ideas can be directed to [email protected] or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.