Interview with John Hetland, Director of the Renaissance Street Singers

By Alden Roosevelt

One day I was ambling down the old historic Greenwich Village neighborhood sidewalk on Commerce Street with my family. The air was cool. The smell of Brazilian food was wafting down the street from Casa restaurant. The sound of birds chirping was in the air. We kept walking, as we were going to the Cherry Blossoms in Central Park uptown. I strolled steps further, when I heard singing. That was my new good friend John, a local musician. I noticed his passion for music. He kindly agreed to an interview after I first saw him that day. Our conversation is below:

Alden: My first question is: How long have you been performing Renaissance music in New York?

John: I started in 1973, so that would be about 50 years.

Alden: Did you come from a family who encouraged your love of music, or disliked it?

John: I’ve been into music since I was a little kid. There were four kids in our family when I was growing up, and my father started a small quartet in the car on road trips, so we could sing simple songs. We were always a treble quartet until the boys’ voices changed, and then everything changed. We were a really good quartet, and I sang in church choirs for years.

Alden: I found while people walked by when you were performing, a lot of people stopped and a lot of people were captured by your music and really enjoyed it and just stopped and thought about it. What was your intention with your music, as in what were you intending for people to feel?

John: Well, that’s kind of what we’re intending. I suppose the first urge of our part is that we love the music and we love to share it. Singing it on the street is a surprise and people aren’t used to it, and they do react that way. Sometimes people have said we made their day, or they thought there were angels singing, and there have been a lot of reactions like that. That’s exactly what we intended.

Alden: What got you into specifically the Renaissance music?

John: When I graduated from college, I wanted to join some sort of singing group, and my brother heard about a group called The Renaissance Chorus, and I joined that and they sang Renaissance music… Renaissance sacred music to be specific, and that’s how I started, and I just fell in love with it.

Alden: How did you end up singing specifically in the West Village?

John: The West Village is our favorite place to sing. In fact, Commerce Street as well, we also like Hudson and Christopher Street where we sang last Sunday. We really like that, but we sing all over, mainly Manhattan. We have also done Brooklyn, and at one point we have been in all five Burroughs, but it’s usually Manhattan and sometimes Brooklyn. Different places.

Alden: From fairly far away I thought your jacket had paint on and you were a painter too, but then you told my mother it was your lady friend’s handiwork that she embroidered… is she inspired by the Renaissance too? Like those elaborate tapestries?

John: I don’t know if she’s inspired by the Renaissance. She’s a member of the Street Singers. She’s not singing with us now because she’s not well, but she loves to sew, and crochet, and she doesn’t like me to wear things that are worn, so she has gone over all the worn parts of this rather old jacket and sewed little colorful things on them.

Alden: Very cool, when were you born?

John: 1941.

Alden: Interesting. Where were you born?

John: Muskegon, Michigan. I lived there for two years, then we moved to Wisconsin, then we lived in Oakland California for five to six years, and then I went to college, and moved to New York, and I’ve been in New York since 1965.

Alden: Who is your favorite artist in music?

John: My favorite artist?!?

Alden: Yeah.

John: I think it would be a group rather than an artist, and I think it would be Pomerium. That would be perhaps the ideal, as they also do sacred music a cappella. We are not the Pomerium of the Street, but we aspire to that. That’s my favorite group.

Alden: How do you decide where to perform each time?

John: Every Thursday we get together and decide where to perform next Sunday.

Alden: That’s really cool and interesting. Now, I’m not sure if this question will be used in the interview, but it would be interesting for me to know what is your favorite octave?

John: Well for me it would be the easiest octave to sing so that would probably be middle C to the C below it.

Alden: Do you play any instruments?

John: When I was very young, about your age, I used to play the clarinet.

Alden: Wow, a lot of my friends play the clarinet. Now this is my last question. Do you like modern music?

John: Oh, some of it.

Alden: Well, thank you for talking. Have a good day, bye!

Here is the website of John Hetland’s group, The Renaissance Street Singers.

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