Q&A: Martha Keith Farrelly, director of the Shannonham Singers

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As director of the Shannonham Singers, Martha Keith Farrelly will lead this all-volunteer senior citizens chorus when they present a choral suite, “The Blue and the Gray,” at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Admission to the Civil War-themed program is free.

What inspired the theme for the program?

This is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Back in the spring, we started talking about it. I went to some lectures, too, at the McClung museum. When it came time to plan our fall program we thought, “Why don’t we do a Civil War program?”

How did you choose material?

I started searching music companies and found a suite called Blue and Gray. Part of it is narration, and that’s where my nephew comes in. He’ll narrate, and others are doing the voice of Abraham Lincoln and this sort of thing. It grew from there. I thought, “Let’s bring in some re-enactors” and both the Union and Confederates brought folks. In the chorus, the men wear Civil War ties and the women are wearing white long-sleeve tops with cameos and brooches at their throats, which was the style of the time. We start with three songs for audience participation, singing “Nelly Bly” and then “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”—that’s really “Old Folks at Home.”

What’s the third?

“Aura Lee,” with the original words. It’s really pretty. The tune is Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” and we talk about that, too, how that tune was resurrected. I had read that the favorite song of both Union and Confederate soldiers was “Home Sweet Home.” Each side had bands that went along with the regiments to play concerts in the evenings for the soldiers, so we have one of the chorus members sing “Home Sweet Home.”

A male or female?

A fella, Kenny George.

Did you form the group just for this show?

No, no, no—the group actually started out as an activity for the Shannondale Retirement Community, and its director was a resident there. It’s been around 23 years, and now people from the community come to sing with the Shannondale residents, too, about 45 altogether. When I took over as director three years ago I changed it from all religious music to secular music with a few religious tunes thrown in. Like for this one. The choral suite tells the story of the Civil War and the heart and soul of the songs the men would have sung, and it ends with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then we sing three hymns that were popular and still are.

What’s your musical background?

I minored in music ed at UT, and was a classroom teacher for 30 years. I always directed my church choir, too, for 38 years. When I retired, I joined the O’Connor Center’s Singing Seniors. I ended up being their accompanist, and later organized a group of about 22 of us, all women, to sing from the Strang Senior Center.

What’s that group called?

We named ourselves the Golden Tones—we got tired of being called the “Strange Senior Singers.”

Your nephew, David Keith, what’s his role?

He narrates the Choral Suite, and he does most of the talking. He will be up front, and he keeps the whole thing moving.

The program is at TVUUC on Kingston Pike Sunday, Jan. 22 at 2:30 p.m. For more information about the group or program, e-mail Farrelly at tnfarrelly12 at bellsouth.net

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