WELLFLEET – Jodi North Birchall, the charismatic lead singer of the popular powerhouse band, the Rip-It-Ups, can often be seen on weekends with a microphone, a trombone and an audience in her hands.
“She’s having fun on stage,” said Tom Conrad, the Superintendent of Nauset Public Schools. Conrad was the Principal of Nauset Regional High School when he hired Birchall 25 years ago to be a special education teacher.
“She has fun in the classroom too,” said Conrad. “She has fun with the kids because she has a passion for helping kids.”
“There are just some people you meet in life, because of who they are, that you want to be around,” said Conrad about Birchall. “She represents everything that’s good in people.”
The current Principal of Nauset Regional High School, Ed MacDonald, said, “She’s a loving, caring individual… she makes such a great connection with the students.”
And Conrad said there is definitely a connection between Birchall’s on-stage Rip-It-Ups persona and her work life inside the school. “When we had pep rallies, she was always our MC. She can work up a thousand kids in all kinds of different ways and then calm a thousand kids in a frenzy down in ten seconds,” said MacDonald.
“She’s a maestro,” he said.
“I love to look in the audience,” said Birchall, 60, of Wellfleet. “I like the venues where I can see people and make eye contact. It’s such a high.”
As anyone who has seen her perform can attest, Birchall’s charisma, joy, and immense talent resonate with the audience when she is on stage. “It’s what I love. I can’t imagine what else I would be doing for fun.”
Liam Hogg, the drummer in the Rip-It-Ups, described Birchall as “a complete goofball,” who is able to make him smile on stage. “My wife tells me I look like I’ve got ‘mean face’ when I play,” said Hogg. “But when Jodi notices that, she’ll turn around and make some kind of goofy face to make me smile.”
Hogg, a common denominator in several popular Cape bands with mostly male members, described Birchall as “totally one of the guys.”
For example, he said, “I think the first time I met her, I was filling in for their drummer at the time. I had never met her and when I did, she stuck her finger out and said, ‘Pull my finger.’ “
“She does things you don’t exactly expect from a girl,” said Hogg.
“She’s a hoot,” said Nancy O’Connell, who met Birchall in 1988 and serves with Birchall on the board of the nonprofit Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting Inc.). O’Connell said, “She’s smart, she’s talented, and she brings people together.”
“She is a natural front person.” – Joey Spaminato, founding member of NRBQ, and the Rip-It-Ups
Joey Spampinato, an original member of the Rip-It-Ups, as well as of NRBQ and of the Spampinato Brothers, said of Birchall, “She is a natural front person. She has a great sense of humor, and she’s fearless.”
“The first time I ever heard her sing,” said Gary Locke, her husband and the songwriter and lead guitarist in the Rip-It-Ups, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this woman has it all. Charisma, talent, and a great voice.”
She can literally take over a room, walking through the crowd for half a song, singing to individual audience members and working up middle-aged folks on a dance floor as if they were high school students at a pep rally. And she plays the trombone.
“She is astounding,” said Spampinato. When he first met her, “I didn’t know she could play the trombone,” he said. “She can improvise a solo, a well-constructed solo… Her phrasing is so great.”
“Anything she picks up, she can do pretty well,” said Spampinato.
And, said O’Connell, “what you see on stage and that sense you have about her is really who she is. She’s highly connected, really funny, and really loyal. As much fun as she has, she’s dedicated to what’s really important in life.”
Conrad said, “She is that rare individual that can connect to any type of student.”
One reason for that ability to connect to so many kinds of students, Conrad suggested, came “from her background. She’s had a rich list of experiences during her life. She learned to appreciate differences in people in many cultures from her dad’s military career and moving around to numerous locations.”
“Her background was unique,” said Conrad.
“I was a military brat,” said Birchall. “My father was career Air Force.”
Birchall, the second oldest of four sisters, was born in Chappaqua, New York, but her father was stationed several places, including Japan, Hawaii, and New Mexico. Birchnall’s grandfather was the vice president of General Electric, and he had a “nice house in Wellfleet,” that they often visited.
Kenneth W. North, Birchall’s father, was a fighter pilot who later retired as a Brigadier General. In 1966, the family was living in Okinawa, Japan but her father was on duty so her mother took the family to stay in Wellfleet.
“We never knew my father was going to fly missions over Vietnam,” said Birchall. “My father told us he was going to do training missions in Thailand. The Air Force had promised my parents that his next assignment would be stateside.”
But Captain North – he was eventually promoted all to Brigadier General – had, in fact, flown 33 missions in his F-105D over North Vietnam before he was shot down on August 1, 1966.
“When he was shot down, I was in third grade.” – Jodi Birchall
“When he was shot down, I was in third grade,” said Birchall. “I remember the chaplain coming to our house. Back then, when a chaplain’s car came in your driveway, you assumed your loved one was dead.”
The family saw the car. “My mother asked me to answer the door so she had time to prepare herself,” said Birchall.
It turned out that “he was able to eject from the plane,” the family was told. “They couldn’t perform a rescue mission, but they knew he was alive when he went down.”
For three and a half years, he was listed as Missing In Action, she said. There had been no word. He had not been found.
“My mother was very strong, and she had very strong faith that he was going to come home and he was going to be fine,” recalled Birchall. “That’s what we (the four daughters in Wellfleet) were told every single day.”
The family in 1966, said Birchall, “was like Leave It To Beaver.” But after her father went missing in Vietnam, she said, ‘My mother had to step away to become this huge renaissance woman.”
Her mother, Carol North, with four young girls, could have gone and lived on any base,” said Birchall. “But she wanted us not to be part of the general information of the Vietnam war on a daily basis.” So they stayed in Wellfleet.
“There were all these letters,” said Birchall of what she has since found. “Her asking questions.”
There was no information. “Never anything remotely definite,” said Birchall. “There was we think we might know, maybe not… we could never prove that he was still alive. There were a lot of ups and downs.”
In the family, there was zero skepticism about his fate. “She would just say, “I would just know if he was dead,” said Birhchall of her mother.
In the family, there was zero skepticism about his fate. “She would just say, “I would just know if he was dead,” said Birhchall of her mother.
Birchall could recall a “strict, but playful and fun Dad. My mother would remind me about things all the time.”
For more than three years, while keeping her family’s hopes alive, Birhchall’s mother tried to get information from the government, but she heard nothing. And then one day, said Birchall, “a letter from him arrived at the Wellfleet Post Office.”
Birchall’s mother “got a phone call from the postmaster. Wellfleet back then had maybe 600 residents.” A letter had arrived from North Vietnam.
“I was in middle school when the letter arrived,” said Birchall. “Cindy (Birchall’s sister) and I got called into the office.” Folks in the school office were emotional, crying. They picked up her other sisters and went to the Post Office, where some of the people from town had gathered. Word had spread that a letter had arrived.
“It was a thin letter, thin light blue tissue paper,” said Birchall. “Air mail was a big deal back then so it had to be made light.”
So they opened the letter, the first communication from her father in more than three years and “it was a letter that sounded like he had been writing all along.”
Her father was alive, just as her mother said.
Birchall’s mother became a leader of the National League of Families, formed in 1969, advocating for the return of the prisoners as well as for their humane treatment.
“They put pressure on other countries to get the North Vietnamese to follow the Geneva Convention. They were supposed to be able to write and receive a letter every month,” she said. “She worked with Nixon and Kissinger.”
“My mother used to tell us that Kissinger used to rub coins in his pockets, in his trousers when he got nervous,” said Birchall.
“One time, she had challenged him about something and he had been rubbing them so much that he rubbed a hole in his pocket and the coins fell out of the bottom of his pants while she was meeting with him,” said Birchall. “She kind of felt vindicated, kind of like she had made her point.”
Her mother was part of the group that created the POW/MIA bracelet campaign, selling bracelets with prisoners names on them in order to publicize the issue. It worked. The bracelets spread across the country. This reporter, as a school child in Ohio, wore one for three years. Birchall said she has a drawer full of bracelets, as well as letters from people who wore the bracelet with her father’s name.
After that first letter home, all letters were sent to the government for them to examine and her letters would also go to the state department first. “My mother would write what she wanted to say and the state department would say dot the i’s with an open circle instead of a dot. We had no idea it was code.”
The POWs had a microdot reader they had somehow smuggled in, said Birchall, who found out later that the state department could communicate by filling in the circle with microdots.
Birchall’s mother made sure that her children lived a normal life, while, by the force of circumstance, also doing everything possible to bring her husband and the other POWs home.
“She was flying to Geneva and speaking in front of world leaders,” said Birchall. “She was pretty amazing.”
As for her father, the family found out when he returned, “he was tortured every day for seven years.” During that time, he was usually fed only one meal a day of “beans and water. They were lucky to get an eyeball or the foot of a chicken. He was tortured physically and emotionally.”
Her father had been roommates with John McCain, at what was known as the Hanoi Hilton, she said. But, said Birchall, her father spent four years in solitary confinement. “He was a little bit of a trouble maker,” she said.
And while this intense international drama was a very personal part of her life, Birchall, by what she credits as the force of her mother’s will, became immersed in school, sports, animals, the outdoors and life in Wellfleet.
“The house my mother brought us to was very removed from the rest of the town,” said Birchall. “She was very strict. There was not a lot of TV. I immersed myself in sports. I lived on the water with my oyster knife.”
With their father in captivity, and their mother raising four girls alone, Birchall said, “I was the token tomboy. I raked the lawn. I changed the oil in the car. My sisters were all very girly girls. But I love mechanical stuff. Even now. I am the one that chainsaws when a tree goes down. I am the one that fixes the car.”
She also competed in sports. “I loved gymnastics, she said, “but I was not the lightest on my feet.” She was a competitive swimmer, and also a surfer.
At the time, she said, “I was the only girl surfer.” She would surf “mostly at Newcombs”… meaning Newcomb Hollow Beach. “I had to prove myself because I was the only woman surfer. I went out in hurricane surf to prove myself. I was the only woman big-wave surfing. I love surfing,” she said. “I love it.”
In high school, she played field hockey and softball, competed in gymnastics, and she was a cheerleader. “I was really good at softball,” she said. “I could flatten a softball. I was the home run queen. I was on varsity softball as a freshman.”
That is, as a freshman at Nauset Regional High School. Same place she teaches now.
And then seven years after he was captured, her father was released and came home. “He was shot down when I was in third grade, and he came home when I was in tenth grade. I was a girl when he left and when he came home, I was a young woman.”
It’s a lot to miss, and she still thinks about it and can easily tear up talking about their final days, and missing so much then as well, suffering through end-of-life diseases. Her mother had a stroke, and her father had Alzheimer’s disease.
“I was really proud of my father,” she said. “He was such a highly developed man. He retired a general.”
As for her mother, Birchall said, “my mother was my role model.”
After her father was released in the spring of 1973, he remained in the Air Force and “was required to go to War College,” Birchall said. She finished tenth grade at Nauset and then went to school in Newport, Rhode Island for her junior year, and Tampa, Florida for her senior year.
And then it was four years at Florida State University, where “I dabbled in many careers before I decided on teaching.
She thought about being a veterinarian. As a young girl, Birhcall said, she wanted to be a veterinarian. “I love animals,” she said. “To this day, I still help local veterinarians.” She has two horses, and a dog.
When she had raised the idea of being a veterinarian, “My parents said if you’re going to be a vet, you’re going to be a doctor.”
In school, she considered the very different paths of nursing and interior design before realizing she wanted to be a teacher. “I’ve always loved working with kids,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the summers, she came back to Wellfleet. She returned full-time after graduating from college. “I was the head lifeguard for eight years in the town of Wellfleet,” she said.
She came back because, “For me, Cape Cod had everything to offer. The beauty and the water. I love surfing and nature and the woods. The Cape is unbelievable,” she said.
When Birchall returned to town with her degree, she said, “I started out in the school system as part of the Wellfleet preschool, and I loved it.” She substituted for a year teaching kindergarten but had married and had two children. “I coached every sport in town when my kids were little,” she said.
When her children, a girl, Ryan Campbell, now 35, and a boy, Ken Birchall, now 33, were in fourth and fifth grade, Birchall and her first husband divorced and she went back to teaching, this time at Nauset High.
“What I saw in Jodi when I hired her turned out to be exactly what I thought,” said Conrad, the Superintendent.
She became a special needs teacher in the high school, a sort of roving jack-of-all-trades who sits in different teachers classrooms on all subjects and helps the special needs students with extra help.
“Even though she is there to help some of our kids challenged in special education, more often than not, she helps all the kids,” said MacDonald, her Principal. “She’s a loving caring individual,” he said.
She is a great advocate for the students, he said. “She’ll come in and plead a young man or young lady’s case,” he said, attributing her passion to the fact that “she makes such a great connection.”
Birchall said, “I understand the kids that struggle… But there’s these things that happen all the time. Little wins. And every now and then you get a touchdown… you can be semi-successful and then all of a sudden you make a real connection.”
She fakes nothing, she is open to everything. “I give them the opportunity to say what they want. I allow them to be frustrated,” she said. If necessary, she allows them to get angry with her. She understands the students anger isn’t actually about her. But they need to let it out, and then sometimes those small wins come.
After 25 years, Birchall said, “every year, the population of teenagers come in with so much more baggage.” On the other hand, she said, “it’s a great high school. It’s not as cliquey as in my day. And there’s been an influx of students from outside the area. Jamaican students, Chinese exchange students, students from Guatemala and more.”
Birchall is able to connect with students in all sorts of areas including science, which she loves. “I like black and white,” said Birchall. “I’m not really good with gray areas of life.”
She teaches, said MacDonald, by making those connections in different ways with different students. Sometimes, he said, “she hooks onto a student with a musical talent.”
Birchall added, “I love being at gigs and seeing my ex-students.”
Once upon a time in a disciplined, essentially single-family home in the 1960s, a young girl sang in the church choir and played the clarinet. “I wanted to play the saxophone, trumpet or trombone,” said Birchall. “But my mother wouldn’t let me.”
Girls don’t play brass instruments, Birchall was told. “Girls play woodwinds, clarinets or flutes. I got a choice. I played clarinet,” she said. She learned to read music.
“When I was a kid, I was in the choir in the Congregational Church in Wellfleet,” said Birchall. “My mother made me because she knew I could sing. But that particular outlet wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t fun enough.”
She knew of fun music. In the house, my mother had all this stuff, and my sister Cindy really loved music. She recalled a teak reel-to-reel tape recorder in the house with artists like Trini Lopez on guitar and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass.
She especially liked trombone. “I always liked the sound of it,” she said.
Then “my sister Cindy began playing guitar and listening to more music,” said Birchall. “It was everything, Jethro Tull, stuff in the 60s.”
Birchall loved all the music but when asked about the anti-war music of the era, she said, “My mother would get upset about that kind of stuff. She said the anti-war stuff to the North Vietnamese holding my father prisoner meant that Americans didn’t care about these people.”
But for Birchall, music became a source of joy. She played clarinet in band all through high school but when her father came home from Vietnam and the family moved from Wellfleet to Newport, she stopped playing in band. She took up guitar. And the idea of trombone never left her.
When she was in college, she started playing a lot of guitar. Someone heard her singing on a porch and suggested that she sing try singing in public, performing. She was in a hard rock band called, BB Jam, and sang some backup, and lead for a couple of songs, she said.
Years later when she was back on the Cape, married, and raising two kids, music faded a bit. But when she got divorced, “I decided to follow my passion, singing and playing music again.”
She met her current husband, Gary Locke when they were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs in the play, “Our Town.”
When Locke first heard her sing, she recalled, “He said, ‘You should try this.’ He really encouraged me. He pushed it. I became the backup singer for a country band… It was really fun in the beginning, something completely new.”
And then she left that band and began performing with Locke as a duo called Jodi And Gary, playing love songs. “Many of them were NRBQ tunes. Most were written by Joey Spampinato. He writes the best love songs.”
Spampinato, whose brother Johnny played in the popular Cape band, the Incredible Casuals for more than 30 years, moved to the Cape in 2004 with his wife, musician Kami Lyle.
Meanwhile, Jodi and Gary expanded into a four-piece band called, Skeeter and the Buzztones, which included Steve Morgan, now of Steve Morgan and the Kingfish.
In 2006, Skeeter and the Buzztones had booked a gig but all of the musicians were out of town, said Birchall. “It was a lucrative gig, either a wedding or a graduation party. We got paid good money compared to what you get paid on the Cape.” She didn’t want to cancel.
So she called Rikki Bates, drummer for the Incredible Casuals, and got Johnny Spampinato and Joey Spampinato to come too. “Joey said, ‘Can I bring my wife? She plays trumpet.” Locke and Birchall rounded out the five-piece band.
“It was kind of like, we had this gig, let’s just throw caution to the wind. There was no rehearsal. We never played music together. And it was great. We were just ripping it up.”
So when someone asked the name of the band, Birchall said, “We’re The Rip-It-Ups.”
The band has since changed, evolved and has had many iterations, including a period with her son, Ken Birchall, as the drummer. The current lineup, Birchall said, is herself on vocals and trombone, Locke on guitar and vocals, Ron Siegel on bass, Liam Hogg on drums and Paul Lesniak on saxophone.
The Rip-It-Ups perform originals and covers. “We are just about to finish our next CD,” said Birchall.
“I had mentioned to my husband that I wanted more of a role in the band. I wanted a trombone,” she said. She added, “I know nothing about trombone.”
“I started noodling around on it,” said Birchall. “I taught myself the scales, just by ear. Then I started playing with the band, taking solos. Some were good, some were horrible,” she said.
“But I started getting better,” she said. Birchall called herself “a tailgate trombone player. More like a New Orleans street player with a lot of enthusiasm. A lot more enthusiasm.” She said hers is a style with “a lot more staccato… I can make the trombone talk,” said Birchall.
“Quite frankly, I do it my way,” she said.
She described her own singing in a similar way. “I don’t want to be a perfect vocalist. I have a good ear.. Most of the time it’s pretty good. I hope it’s okay.”
Audience reaction would say it is more than okay. They might even say the band is having fun. And the audience, “is cross generational,” she said.
“We are having fun,” said Birchall. “It’s because we don’t have to do it for a living.” Locke is an engineer.
Spampinato said of Locke and Birchall, “It’s not a hobby with them. They do it as well as people who do it for a living.” Spampinato, who was once complimented for his own musical chops by none other than Keith Richards, knows people who play music for a living.
But Spampinato said that while he was impressed by Birchall’s talent, it is her kindness and generosity that stand out. “She’s become a really good friend,” he said.
Spampinato, who has been battling cancer, said last year Birchall showed up at his house with a garden tiller and tilled his entire garden for him. “I love her,” he said. “I can count on her for anything,” he said.
“You can’t meet anyone more funny, dedicated or loyal than Jodi,” said O’Connell.
The girl who grew up with an oyster knife in her hand is now, once a year at least, the most visible proponent of oyster farmers in Wellfleet. That once a year is when she, as a board member of Wellfleet SPAT, takes the stage as MC of the Wellfleet Oysterfest.
“The event has gotten huge…25,000 people a day over the weekend,” she said. “We are now able to fund scholarships, grants, scientific research, and many other outreach programs,” said Birchall. The Wellfleet Oysterfest is always the weekend after Columbus Day weekend.
She began by doing volunteer work and performing with the Rip-It-Ups, and her role has evolved, she said. She sings the praises of the local oyster when asked.
“The Wellfleet oyster is the best tasting oyster in the world. It’s a delicious, briny treat,” she said.
With that as the draw, the Oysterfest attracts the biggest crowd Birchall has played music for. “It’s an unbelievable thing to play on that main stage,” she said. “It’s incredible, a complete head trip.”
Sometimes, a person’s story is like that too.
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