15th annual Gil’s Hootenanny and the power of singing together

From left, Steve Richer, Chris White, Debbie Rubin and Tamara Levine sing a tune from Rise Up Singing, Annie Patterson’s group-singing songbook.

Photo: Shawna Laing

Hope, health and harmony


By Kathy Kennedy


“I go because I love to sing” is a frequent testimonial from folks who have been participating in Gil’s Hootenanny for years. And no wonder! The Hootenanny is at its heart a celebration of the collective power of song to change the world.

Gil’s Hootenanny is an annual sing-along event inspired by the legacy of Gil Levine, founding director of research at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Levine was a peace and social justice activist and a folk music enthusiast. When he died at 85 in 2009, three words in his obituary, “plan a hootenanny,” inspired the launch of this remarkable, annual, musical get-together. With a focus on songs of hope and protest, Gil’s Hootenanny will celebrate its 15th anniversary on May 1, May Day.

Singing is not only fun, it also helps us cope with physical and emotional pain. It strengthens the immune system, enhances memory and helps manage stress. It also builds community.

Gil’s Hootenanny organizers coined the term “singalongability” to describe ideal Hootenanny songs with easy lyrics and catchy choruses. This year’s headliner, Annie Patterson, is expert at that concept. As one of North America’s premiere interpreters of song, Patterson has been singing around the globe for over 40 years. She is well known as the co-creator, along with her husband Peter Blood, of the popular songbooks Rise Up Singing and Rise Again, which share lyrics and chords for over 2,400 songs.

Patterson, accompanied by Blood, will be leading the audience in singing songs that inspire hope and teach about social justice. As she says: “Singing can knit communities together and touch peoples’ lives in a unique and amazing way. It has been an enormous privilege to lead groups in song and feel the power of hundreds of voices singing in harmony.”

The Glebe is a hotbed of people who share Patterson’s enthusiasm for bringing people together to make music. Four of these musical personalities – Steve Richer, Chris White, Tamara Levine and Debbie Rubin – have also helped build the Gil’s Hootenanny community.

Singing plays an important role in giving voice to protest movements. For Glebe resident and Carleton University professor emeritus Steve Richer, songs of protest and freedom have been a life-long field of study. Until recently, Richer taught sold-out courses on the history of protest music, featuring songs of the civil rights, labour and peace movements. A folk singer since he was 18, Richer has led sing-along musical tributes to legendary folk musicians in Canada, the United States and Mexico, including a tribute to Pete Seeger at Gil’s Hootenanny in 2019. Along with a group of local musicians, Richer currently leads monthly hootenannies at Abbotsford House. He is also writing online articles on the history of protest music for The Journal of Wild Culture.

Glebe resident Chris White was on the Gil’s Hootenanny organizing committee until 2016. A singer-songwriter, choir director, radio host and event organizer, White loves to lead sing-along sessions for people of all ages and abilities at retirement residences, schools, churches and summer camps. He has founded numerous community singing groups over the years, including a group for home-schooled children and one for people with dementia and their partners. White has recorded three albums of his songs, many of which include sing-along opportunities.

Tamara Levine’s earliest memories include singing with her dad Gil, mom Helen and sister Karen around the campfire and on long car trips. The longest serving member of the Gil’s Hootenanny organizing team and its chief fundraiser, Levine has been bringing together formal and informal sing-along gatherings and events for years. Levine and Debbie Rubin help coordinate the Abbotsford Hootenanny where local musicians lead the audience in singing and playing along to new and traditional songs.

Gil’s Hootenanny is honoured to have financial support from organizations such as CUPE, PSAC/NCR and Ravenlaw. Sponsorship ensures the artists are paid decently, keeps the ticket price low and allows Gil’s Hootenanny to create an archive of AV and print materials.

But most of all, Gil’s Hootenanny is a joyful, fun event that celebrates the power of singing together to help make the world a better place.

Gil’s Hootenanny will take place at 7 p.m. on May Day, Wednesday, May 1, at 30 Cleary Avenue, the campus of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa. The venue is accessible, has ample parking and is serviced by OC Transpo. Tickets will be $20. Kids are free.


Kathy Kennedy is on the organizing team for Gil’s Hootenanny.

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