Mary Ellen Wessels by Roberta Kennedy
Mary Ellen Wessels
By Roberta Kennedy
Some write-ups of Guests of Honor are measured, scholarly
reviews of the GoH's work; some are thoughtful critiques or
amusing roasts.  I have no formal training in music and I'm not a
quick-witted critic or punster, so you'll have to settle for a
thoughtful appreciation of ConTraption's Music GoH.  You see, I
was caught in the spell of Mary Ellen's music and personality
years ago and am constitutionally unable to be objective about
Friends or loved ones.  I can, however, share some of her
background with you in hopes that you'll want to learn more, in
person, this weekend.

Mary Ellen was born in 1963, grew up in Michigan and got her
MEW nickname in elementary school.  Surely someone must've
made the connection to MEWsic even then.  She seems to have
grown up with singing and music--at home, at camp, in Girl
Scouts and school.  She also grew up with a basic trust of
people and sheer joy in living which, combined with her
intelligence and eclectic curiosity, probably made her a lively
handful for all the adults around.  Somehow, despite the
traumas all intelligent kids are subject to, she kept talent and
trust and joy intact.  She also began playing guitar and became
involved in theater and performing arts.

Now skip forward to the Fall of 1981, to Oakland University in
Rochester, Michigan.  I met a young giantess (well, bear in mind
that she is 6' tall) at a student event who seemed ready to burst
or boil over with life.  Mary Ellen at barely 18:  anyone who could
resist such joie de vivre would have
to be considerably more jaded than I!  She swooped through the
institutional-style classroom like the windgusts outside: 
laughing so infectiously one couldn't help joining in, speaking
with passion and compassion.  We walked back to her dorm
later and found we shared a fondness for Girl Scout songs and
splashing through mudpuddles, as well as political tastes.  I
think I probably started losing my heart to Mary Ellen that night,
and finished giving it as we worked together in student
organizations (including the Order of Leibowitz, OU's SF club)
and shared late-late-early Dick Cavett reruns and popcorn and
runs to Denny's.  Imagine taping paper beards on the TV and
hooting as the "talking head" news announcer appeared again
and again in the same spot.  Imagine MEW as the O of L's
"Visiting Professor of Silly Sensuality!"  Imagine listening, after
hours of deep conversation with friends and blackberry brandy
and snuggling under blankets around a fire, as she sang
lullabies and love songs to the dying embers and the pre-dawn
stars.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who sometimes blinked back
tears, and I'm sure it wasn't just the brandy.

Music was deep in her soul and firmly wound throughout her life
by then.  She was formalizing it through majoring in OU's vocal
music program, and training with excellent vocal groups at
various colleges and universities.  By the time I met her she'd
already been playing guitar for about five years, and somewhere
in there she started playing recorder and lap dulcimer and tin
whistle.  Since then she's learned doumbek and bodhran, some
keyboards, and I-don't-know what else, but her first instrument is
her truest and best, I think:  her voice.

I'm not a musician myself and don't know the technical terms for
how or what she sings.  I have hung out with musicians for most
of my life, though, and I know her voice is special.  Whether
whispering a lullaby or filling a room or field with sound, Mary
Ellen can craft and project a simple tune or a complex melody
directly to each person who listens.  It's not just talent, though
she has that, undoubtedly.  It's not just technique either, though
she's worked hard for years now to perfect her musicianship
through vocal and instrumental lessons and Alexander
technique and sheer, repetitive practice.  It's all of the above, plus
charisma that can reach out and spellbind an audience so that it
forgets to breathe for a while, plus the heart and fire she pours
into her music.  I've seen her weave that spell many times over
the years, and it's even tighter and the design more complex

Many of you have enjoyed hearing MEW at filksings, house
parties, drum jams or concerts.  She's not just a "local talent" any
more, you know:  she's performed at four World Cons, been a
featured music guest and toastmaster and received awards at
cons throughout the Ohio Valley/Great Lakes region, and
entertained audiences on the East and West Coasts and
Canada.  (In fact, she was Music GoH at FilKONtario last
weekend, and she'll be singing at MarCon next weekend.  The
lady's in demand, folks!)  MEW is credited with back-up vocals
and instrumentals and arranging on numerous tapes through
Off Centaur, Thor Records, Wail Songs, Unlikely Publications
and Love Song Productions (as well as a film school
soundtrack, an egg commercial and a pizza commercial!).  She's
been in several groups too; the SF-music-related groups include
Compass Rose, The Android Sisters (oh, those wigs and
cat-eye sunglasses!) and, more seriously, the Black Book Band. 
It's fortunate that she likes singing and playing with others
because she's very, very good at it.  She knows how and when to
blend with and support others, as well as when to step out and

Now you can finally hear her first solo tape/CD, "Current
Obsessions."  The songs she covers give some idea of the
range of her musical interests and influences:  The Beatles,
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, Cole
Porter, Kathy Mar, John Prine, Ferron....  You could add Pentangle,
Arcady, Dick Gaughin, Pete Seeger, The Bobs, CSN&Y, The
Indigo Girls, Sarah Vaughan, Jethro Tull, Janis Joplin, Duke
Ellington, Emma Kirkby, Bonnie Raitt, and Michelle Shocked, as
well as SF-music performers and composers.  "Current
Obsessions" will certainly get radio airplay, if only on public radio
and college stations.  (MEW promises an unfortunate accident
will befall anyone who sends a copy to "Young Country.")  The
Black Book Band's first tape/CD, "First Contact," came out in
1995 and I recommend it too, if you haven't heard it yet.  "Current
Obsessions" is the perfect tape to play for friends who are
skeptical about fannish production standards, just as "First
Contact" is perfect to play for family/co-workers/other mundanes
who wonder, "What is there to sing about in SF?"

What is there to sing about?  Well, how about joy, the complex
and sometimes-unfortunate varieties of human interactions,
hope for the future and trust and love in the present?  Do yourself
a favor:  find Mary Ellen this weekend, listen, and sing with her. 
Or take her "Everyone Can Sing" workshop, if she finds time to
offer it again before she moves to New Hampshire later this
year.  You may even find yourself singing about... well, about life. 
It's what she's good at, and it's what she sings about.  Hold fast
to your heart, though.

by Roberta Kennedy (# 1996)

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