If you knew rhubarb like Kevin Walsh knows rhubarb, you might be inspired to sing, too.
Since the inception of the CHUM annual Rhubarb Fest 10 years ago, Walsh and Steve O’Neil performed many different “rhubarb songs,” parodies of well-known tunes, improbably tweaked to be about rhubarb.
This year, as a tribute to O’Neil — community activist, county commissioner and Rhubarb Fest founder who died on July 16 — his extended family will join Walsh on stage.
“Steve always enjoyed very much writing rhubarb songs and singing them on stage at the fest over the years. He got a big kick out of him and Kevin being on stage,” said Angie Miller, O’Neil’s widow.
Last year O’Neil wasn’t able to sing at the fest due to thyroid cancer, but Walsh said he pantomimed along to the songs.
“He was such a trooper. Every day when I pedal past the Steve O’Neil apartments (on 4th Street on the way to work) I sing to him,” said Walsh, who is also a Duluth Playhouse performer.
What’s the secret to writing a good rhubarb song?
“It’s a kind of humor that doesn’t make fun of people, but celebrates the foolish things about life,” said Walsh. “You really need a hook, meaning a tune that sort of fits.”
Some tunes that “sort of fit” have included “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5, which became “I Want Your Rhubarb.” “Guantanamera” by Pete Seeger translated to “One Ton of Rhubarb” (check the Budgeteer’s website to hear Walsh singing that one). Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” morphed into “The Rhubarb Connection.”
“It’s got to be catchy, it’s got to get people’s attention. It can’t be offensive. And for my purposes, it’s got to tie in with the mission — songs that entertain, but also remind people of why we’re doing this,” Walsh said.
Walsh said the most well-known song is the rhubarb blessing song.
“That’s the one that people sing along to,” Walsh said.
This year Sister Lois Eckles from the St. Scholastica monastery will give the blessing and encourage all those gathered to sing together.
You can hear Walsh sing at CHUM’s Rhubarb Fest on Saturday, June 28. In the meantime, Walsh will keep writing and searching for the “rhubarb connection.”
“Someday we’ll find it, our rhubarb connection, and then all will share in the pie,” Walsh sang.
What: CHUM Rhubarb Fest
Where: 11th Avenue East and London Road
When: June 28, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: Admission is free