Bill Staines, folk music mainstay, dies at 74

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Bill Staines, folk music mainstay, dies at 74
In an undated image provided via Red House Records, Bill Staines. Staines, an old-school troubadour whose compositions included “A Place in the Choir,” which has been covered by Peter, Paul and Mary and many others, died on Dec. 5, 2021, at his home in Rollinsford, N.H. He was 74. Via Red House Records via The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Folk singer Bill Staines used to tell a story about the oddest line in his best-known song, “A Place in the Choir,” whose lyrics celebrate the diversity of the animal kingdom and, by implication, the human one.

Thanks to numerous cover versions and a bestselling picture book, countless children and adults could sing you the chorus:

All God’s critters got a place in the choir,Some sing low, some sing higher,Some sing out loud on a telephone wire,Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got.

But what about the line that ends one of the verses? “The otter hasn’t got much to say, and the porcupine talks to himself.” What’s up with that porcupine?

The line, as Staines often related, came from a camping trip he and his wife, Karen Elrod Staines, took to the Tobacco Root Mountains in southwest Montana. Lying awake in their tent at 4 a.m., he heard an odd chattering outside.

“And I figured, Well, they’ve landed,” he told the story to an audience in 2009. But when he peered out the tent flap, it wasn’t extraterrestrials; it was a porcupine talking to itself.

Staines died Dec. 5 at his home in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. He was 74.

His wife said the cause was prostate cancer.

Karen Staines, who works in special education, said the song, which first appeared on Bill Staines' 1979 album, “The Whistle of the Jay,” didn’t leap out at either of them as a career highlight.

“When Bill wrote ‘P.I.C.’ and played it for me when I got home from school, we both shook our heads and said, ‘I don’t know if this is a keeper or not,’” she said by email. “Obviously and luckily, we were wrong.”

The song has been covered by Peter, Paul and Mary; Red Grammer; Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy; and many others. A rousing live performance by Irish group Celtic Thunder on YouTube has been viewed more than 7 million times.

“Songs are like children you care about,” Staines, who recorded almost 30 albums, told The Register of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, in 2013. “You write a song and it’s born and you have to nurture it awhile and it grows up healthy and strong and then it develops relationships with people who don’t have anything to do with you. ‘A Place in the Choir’ has a life of its own. It’s like a child that’s grown up and gone away.”

William Russell Staines was born Feb. 6, 1947, in Medford, Massachusetts, to William Henry and Dorothy (Trask) Staines. He grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and two boyhood friends, Dick and John Curtis, were the catalysts for his performing career.

“When I was around 11, Dick got a guitar, so of course I had to get one,” Staines told The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts, in 2018. “It was a Sears Silvertone three-quarter-size guitar with a cowboy painted on it. I sanded the cowboy off the front, and Dick and John and I started a little rock ’n’ roll band, with contact pickups on our acoustic guitars.”

Before long, he had gone solo and begun writing his own songs, upgrading to a full-size guitar, which he played in an unusual way: upside-down.

“When I got my first guitar, I picked it up and held it the correct way, the right-handed way,” he told the Quincy newspaper. “But I’m left-handed and it just didn’t feel right. So I flipped it over and figured this must be the left-handed way of playing. You know, a D chord is still a D chord, so I just had to get to it differently.”

That approach gave his picking a somewhat different sound, since he was hitting the high strings with his thumb. At least one fellow guitarist was impressed.

“About four years ago I met this fellow in California who was a wonderful guitar player, who said, ‘I really like the way your style sounds,’” Staines told The Wenatchee World of Washington state in 2009. “And I saw him a year ago, and he’d went out and bought a left-handed guitar and was playing it right-handed. So that’s even one step to the weirder.”

Staines wrote countless songs. Many evoked the natural world, like “River,” one of his best known, with its wistful refrain:

You rolling old river, you changing old river,Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea.

Others were character sketches — “pensive, probing narratives made especially memorable by their ability to translate the common details of common lives into songs of uncommon eloquence and beauty,” as L.E. McCullough put it in The Austin American-Statesman in 1986. There was, for instance, “The Roseville Fair,” about a couple’s first meeting and their enduring love. Among those who covered the tune was Nanci Griffith, who called Staines “the Woody Guthrie of my generation of songwriters.” Griffith, who died in August, credited Staines with encouraging her in her own career.

Staines, an old-school troubadour who traveled tens of thousands of miles every year to perform, started out in coffee shops and other small venues. Early in his career, he was emcee of the Sunday hootenanny at the famed Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He was still a road warrior half a century later. His most recent album, in 2018, was called “The Third Million Miles.”

In addition to Karen Staines, whom he married in 1976, Staines is survived by a son, Bowen Keith Staines, and a brother, Stephen.

Staines had another talent: yodeling. He sometimes gave workshops on the skill. In 1975, he won a yodeling contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas — “defeating some crestfallen Swiss yodelers,” The Christian Science Monitor reported.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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