As the singers reached that part in “Norwegian Wood” with the sitar, Dan Chouinard’s voice grew reedy: “Yannng, yang-yang-yang-yonnng, ying-ying-ying yannng, yang-ying-yang-yonnnng.”
The singing resumed raggedly, undone by laughter before the crowd gathered itself to finish the Beatles hit. It was a far cry from the opener, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but that’s how Chouinard’s singalongs roll.
Chouinard, 56, has for years been Minnesota’s eclectic accompanist.
He often joined Garrison Keillor on “A Prairie Home Companion,” regularly backs up talents such as Maria Jette, Prudence Johnson, VocalEssence and Kevin Kling. He creates song-based history programs for public radio and TV.
Chouinard leads the music for St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community. He founded Lush Country, a lounge band covering music of the Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette era.
Yet it’s his hosting of two free monthly singalongs in St. Paul and Minneapolis that most sets him apart. It also enables him to deal with his consternation about people who listen to music through their ear buds.
“I can’t imagine the experience now being any more insular,” he said, more sad than angry. “Never has music been so stripped of its function as a tool for building cohesion.”
Lisa and Paul Von Drasek are regulars for what she calls “the sing” at Luther Seminary in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
“He’s a natural resource,” said Lisa, who’d lived for years in Brooklyn before moving here with her Minnesota-born husband five years ago. Never did she expect to encounter a singalong.
“Dan makes everyone sound better,” Paul said. “What’s interesting is that he’s clever and thoughtful at the same time, which draws people out.”
On Chouinard’s website, he calls himself “an enabler of community singalongs,” which became even more important after Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis closed, spelling the end of old-style piano bars. He understands why.
“It’s a matter of economics,” he said. “It’s tough to monetize a space where people linger and sing and nurse a drink.”
Still, the culture has changed.
“There’s a disappearance in participation,” Chouinard said. “Now we’re more concerned with private listening with our ear buds.”
“What gives me joy … ” and here he paused a beat, then began again: “Among the things that give me joy is the element of participation.”
His restart is illuminating. Chouinard chooses his words with great care, treating them as seriously as notes. He comes across as easygoing, but one suspects there’s always mastery in mind. As any musician knows, the jazziest riff can be undone by a clunker of a chord.
Chouinard does not speak in clunkers.
Learning to play with joy
Years ago, Chouinard wrote an essay for MPR News about wanting to become a dairy farmer.
He was 14 when his family moved from Richfield to a farm near Lindstrom, Minn., where his father had a new job. They didn’t farm, but rented the fields to neighbors, limiting their own agriculture to vegetables.
“I fell head over heels for that farm and the dream it awakened in me,” he wrote. “The dream that one day I, too, would be a dairy farmer and that I would restore this place to its former dairy farm glory.”
Turns out it wasn’t cows he loved, but history.
“I instantly felt a deep, deep connection to the old barn, put together with mortise and tenon, with dates carved into rafters and license plates nailed to the walls,” he said.
His mother drove the kids the distance into Minneapolis for piano lessons, balancing her own classical recital upbringing with her in-laws’ more raucous singalong influence.
“My dad’s parents were the couple who plays ragtime at the piano for parties,” he said, darting toward the piano in his living room to plunk out some classic Joplin. Again and again during an interview, Chouinard returned to the keyboard, his ally in making a point.
He was 12 when he won a stereo in a church raffle. Mail-order record clubs brought the Carpenters, Elton John and “Jesus Christ Superstar” into the house.
“Do you remember Bread?” he asked, playing by ear: “I found her diary underneath a tree./And started reading about me./The words she’s written took me by surprise./You’d never read them in her eyes.”
“I always had a particular predilection for songs with a tragic bent,” he said.
He began doing “piano bar-ish gigs,” learning the old songs from house bands. At St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., he’d play background piano for donor events. Faculty jazz buffs began giving him recordings.
“I had mentors along the way who modeled not only a real knowledge, but also a joy in playing — a genuine sense of fun,” he said.
The gigs made money, “but then there were those parental conversations about how to really earn a living, so I majored in French, figuring that teaching would be a sensible path.”
“I had a sort of romanticized view of the task that had yet to be deconstructed by on-the-job experience — which happened fairly quickly,” he said with a wry smile. Fortunately, his piano gigs were growing steadier and more lucrative.
He played at the Gay ’90s for six years, which led to more gigs as an accompanist.
“Dan was kind of everyone’s go-to guy, and still is,” said singer-songwriter Ann Reed, who partners with him for the St. Paul singalong. “He’s a very thoughtful musician. He’d never say, ‘Just give me the chart and I’ll play it,’ but comes in intending to do a creative job.”
Reed says Chouinard has inspired her to include one or two singalongs in her own shows. (Her 24th album will be released Nov. 12.)
“As long as I have known him, he’s been doing things that bring people together,” Reed said. “As much as you might think, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to sing in public,’ you get together and it’s just marvelous. There’s nothing like it.”
Telling history through song
Fifteen years ago, Chouinard spent five months biking through Europe with his accordion and a tent. It was, he said, a midlife crisis.
He busked on streets, with a hat out for donations. “And I found I didn’t like busking,” he said, smiling. “It’s mostly about rejection. So I came back wondering why I had left.”
He’s since carved a niche of developing compilation shows that use songs to illuminate a particular time in history, performing at various theaters.
“Café Europa” draws on his visits to World War II battlefields and cemeteries. “Civil War Homecoming” explores the war from a Minnesota perspective. He annually leads a concert for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
His most recent project is “Urban Farmers Almanac,” which he describes as “a variety show about raising food and living earthy in the city,” bringing together beekeepers and cheesemakers with musicians and writers. After a sold-out run in August, it will return to the Capri Theater in Minneapolis in March.
The monthly community singalongs often are arranged around a month’s birthdays. So along with John Lennon, October’s set list included Julie Andrews, Don McLean, Groucho Marx, Paul Simon, Dale Evans, Chubby Checker and Marie Osmond.
With lyrics projected on a screen, Chouinard lets fly with inventive, often playful, accompaniments, rarely glancing at the keyboard — a feat that Jerry Hartlaub considers “magic.”
“It’s kind of his calling,” said Hartlaub said, who’s attended these singalongs for 10 years. “I mean, you know he could be playing with anyone, but here he is with us commoners. He plays with the music like he’s known it his whole life.”
In some ways, Chouinard has become something of a farmer after all.
“I’ve created a rich routine here,” he said. “Part of this simply is related to how my feelings over the years have resulted in a deeper affection for this place.
“The music is as much a place to come back to as patch of dirt.”