How to commence a series of articles on songwriting and performing? I think I’ll start it out with a little background.
I grew up in the mountains of eastern Shasta County CA — a remote community where neighbors were spread many miles apart, yet managed to hold a sense of togetherness.
My mother played flute, piano and more, and was active in the music offerings of our church. I spent many evenings sleeping on pews during music rehearsals, or running my hands over the woodwork in the choir loft, where she practiced organ. The family’s old upright piano was housed in my bedroom, and sometimes she played soothing songs for us as we went to sleep. I wish I could say I learned piano but I never got that far. I did, however, do great numbers of comical, musical skits with my sister around that piano.
My mom will tell you I wrote songs from an early age. Once, she produced a scrap of paper she’d saved where I’d written lyrics to a song I’d created about a jailbreak — we figure I was about 9. “Mr. Jailman, Mr. Jailman, look at me, I’m a runnin, I’m a runnin free!”
Every Christmas my father and grandfather would have my sister and I sit quietly (i.e. “sit down and shut up”) and listen to an old vinyl 78. It was a 1940’s recording of our Cornish great-grandfather and his co-workers singing deep in the gold mines of Grass Valley, CA. As our dad and grandpa stood at attention next to me and listened to the rich male voices, they added their own, and gazed at the snow out the window with tears in their eyes. They were recalling our family’s emotional inheritance through music, and teaching it to us.
Much to my chagrin, we weren’t allowed to join in because we were girls. It was then, and as my own life’s story began to unfold, that I knew deep inside I needed to sing my own songs.
Our school cook, Pauline, belonged to an old-time, mountain jug band, made up of local elders of the trapping and logging ilk. They were called The Mountaineers. Besides church, they were our community’s sole source of live music. (I had no idea that they were playing “old time” music till I heard Kenny Hall playing off at a distance at the Nevada County fairgrounds. I said “Hey! That’s what I grew up with!” My husband promptly informed me, “that’s called old-time.”)
Pauline decided it would be good to teach the kids music, and she organized a youth band that my sister and I joined — I was about 13 or 14. We were called The Farmerettes, and I played washboard. We played everything from “Ya’ll Come” to “This Old House” to songs off the amazing country records we knew from home and the radio. My first solo song was “Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain,” accompanied by Pauline on piano. I certainly hadn’t meant to perform it, but she knew I knew the song, so she just started playing it at one of our shows. I cowered in the back, but she shot me a cold, hard glance of “you get out there and sing this missy, or I’ll have your hide.” So, I slowly crept out front and managed to get through, well, most of it.
PHOTO CAPTION: It's the Farmerettes, on our little inter-mountain community's float, in the Burney Basin Days 4th of July parade. That's Pauline sitting at the piano, and I'm right next to her, in yellow, with a washboard. Another Mountaineer, Bea, sat in on washtub bass, toward the back.
In college, I serendipitously happened upon some wonderful artistic and musical friends who overheard me making up and singing songs about my housemate’s dog, way too often. They pooled together and bought me my first, unsolicited guitar for my 20th birthday. I was stunned, and continue today to be immensely grateful. I started dating the love of my life, who also happened to be a fantastic musician.
PHOTO CAPTION: This is a photo moments after receiving my first guitar -- my dear friends presented it to me at the Blue Mango, a restaurant I worked at in Davis, CA.
Not long after that guitar, my dad called me from highway 299E in front of our home, and told me he was surrounded on all four sides by walls of fire. I was in Davis, and raced up I5 to do what I could. Before finding him, I met up with my mother, who had thankfully chosen to evacuate. In the back of her pick-up was our old, beat-up kitchen table and chairs. It was soon after this that gathering these events into song became even more pressing to me. I wanted to sing our story, not just for my own shaken family, but for our entire hard-hit community.
Fast forward to today, I’m an ex history teacher, professional songwriter, and touring performer known for original country-folk music. Gratefully, I have seen firsthand how people identify with and attach to songs, and how music helps give shape and support to individuals, families, and communities.
Studies show that learning how to tell our stories makes us happier people. And, we know the more art we use to express where we live and how we live, the more enduring community we can build. But why use songs? I think songs are my chosen art form because they live inside of people. And because songs live inside of all of us, there is a deep, heart to heart connection when they come out to breathe and move, to pass from one person to another.
Furthermore, songs (and poems) can be carried anywhere, can be sung differently by anyone, and can have infinite lifespans. As the pre-Islamic, Saudi Arabian singer-poets, poor Appalachian folks, 1960’s civil rights activists, and free-styling, Basque bertsolaris all knew, no one can take away, leave behind, burn, or otherwise destroy a song or a poem. Sometimes, as in the cases of many Alzheimer patients or wildfire victims, it may be all that you are left with.
In the face of fires, viruses, financial hardship, the housing crisis, gun violence, power outages, climate change and more, the need for all of us to pull together as a community is great. It’s my hope that through singing and writing, we can share our voices to create resilient, accessible and everlasting art, get through hard times, and celebrate one another. I want to make us all feel connected, like we’re all living in one little mountain community of 7 billion. We need to do it.
For the next post, let’s get writing!