Mary Ellen Wessels
Toastmistress OVFF IX Oct 22-24 1993.
It's always a bit of a risk to undertake biography, especially if the subject of the exercise is the lead singer in your band (i.e. the Black Book Band, about which more in a moment). If she happens to take umbrage at anything you say, well, band practices have all kinds of blunt objects readily to hand - microphone stands, bar stools, solid-body electric guitars, drumsticks (I daren't antagonize the drummer, either)... so it is (all such kidding aside) with admiration, vast respect, and enthusiastic camaraderie that I'll attempt a sketch of the musician fen know as MEW.
Mary Ellen Wessels hails from Michigan (giving her voice a Northern lilt that makes you suspect she's a Canadian recording artist incognito); she's been an indispensible volunteer at The Ark folk club in Ann Arbor for many of the concerts most raved about by folk-style music fans. That was, in fact, her primary musical background when fannish friends brought her into the filk rooms of Midwestern cons in the late 1970's and early 80's. Though reticent at first in this new scene (as was I upon first sighting the immense filk books filled with songs I didn't know), she was still one fo the people who truly "lives for the joy of singing" (in Joey Shoji's phrase, and often in stunning harmony with his voice). Her voice -- clear, powerful, versatile and lyrical - soon became a prized presence in the filk room, and a unifying thread that lent distinctive colors and strengths to an impressive array of fannish recording projects, from both the West Coast and Midwest filk scenes. Never anyone's regional chauvinist musically, she has logged numerous hours in cars and airplanes, shuttling between states to rehearsals and recording sessions in the name of good music (her main critereon).
But lest you think she's just another tall blonde with a superb voice (who also knows Lots of Things about Lots of Things, despises petty tyrannies, enjoys performing for kids, and has a more satirical way with a "blonde" joke than anyone I've met - damn, there goes another stereotype), she is also one of the most thoroughly musical people I know - record-player, percussionist, and (just between you and me) a notably more adept guitarist than she'll admit. Her current musical ventures include a filk-oriented children's tape (for those of you who've been waiting for it, have patience - she sets demanding standards for her work) and concertizing with the Black Book Band (with Michael Kube-McDowell, Gwen Zak, Sally Childs-Helton and some ex-basketball player with an electric guitar) since 1991. On stage she's a natural catalyst for the band's chemistry, presenting a mix of vocal precision, multi-instrumental support, and gonzo humor. Whether performing solo in (ahem) and ensemble, a cappella, acoustic, or electric, madrigal, folk, filk, rock, or jazz (her most recent field of exploration) - she is continuously expanding her repetoire (I suspect it would overflow a CD-ROM already).
Best of all for habitues of the filk room, she's often as likely (and as happy) to sing with as she is just to sing. Whether at a fannish hootenanny, filksing, concert, rehearsal, drumming rave-up, or jam session, she's not too hard to find at a con. If you're passing by in the hall, and find your ears and attention arrested by what you're hearing, my advice is; go along quietly, follow the music, and when you find it, enjoy!
By Barry Childs-Helton