At the invitation of my friend Timmy Riordan, we each wrote a new song inspired by January’s shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona. Several of my friends joined us with songs and a poem of their own. I share them all in this month’s Kitchen Musician. Come in, fix yourself some tea and catch a glimpse of several works in progress.
Tom and Mally at The Burren, January, 2011
Photo: Tom Bianchi via mobile phone
Here in New England, we have had weekly major snow events for months, accompanied by cold weather. This adds up to a lot of snow that stays on the ground and piles up so high that many areas have run out of places to put it. Our local Shaq-o-meter shows that as of last week, Boston has received over 70 inches of snow. Our normal winter is 41.8 inches. Imagine my disappointment when my trusty snowblower died during the first ten minutes of clearing the second snow storm of the season. By my calculations, my wife Margo, son-in-law Doug and I shoveled over nine tons of snow that day! I discovered that there was not a single snow blower for sale in all of southern New England. Being a thoroughly modern New Englander, I ordered one on the Internet. I was a little worried by the fine print that read “some assembly required”, but I held my breath and clicked “Buy now”. Happily, my new snow blower arrived by freight truck in about a week on the day of the third major storm. I found my old Craftsman tool set (which I hadn’t used for about 10 years), and the snow blower was complete and ready to go with the snow falling around me as I put my tools away. Timing is everything in this world. My new snowblower has since handled several more major storms, including the snow that has fallen in my neighbor’s driveways. Happy me! Happy Neighbors!
Yesterday, the temperature outside turned dramatically upward and the mud ruts are showing where I park my car on the dirt in my back yard. It has me prematurely thinking of spring and New Hampshire maple syrup season. We New Englanders love to talk about weather. A winter like this one brings us together. Neighbors who might not otherwise tip their hats to each other wind up leaning on their snow shovels and talking and sharing stories. I called my New Hampshire neighbor on the phone to ask how my little cabin is doing this winter. I couldn’t take the time to drive up there, and I was worried about the flat roof collapsing under the weight of snow. When I asked about the voracity of that last storm, in typical New Hampshire fashion he paused for a bit and drawled “Yup, it was a bit windy. It took me a couple hours to shovel out the snow that blew through the keyhole in the front door.” It reminded me of the time I heard Judson Hale (Judson is the editor of Yankee Magazine from neighboring Dublin, NH) tell of a summer resident who asked a local townsperson how the winter had been in New Hampshire that year. “Perfectly cussed” the townsperson replied. “In fact, it was a damn sight worse than we expected, but we expected that.”
This Month’s Music
My Mark Upon My Son
© 2011 Tom Smith
Click the image above to play the video.
My Mark Upon My Son (Click to play audio)
Scroll down to the comments to see the lyrics to this song.
My friend Timmy Riordan is a “power songwriter”. From time to time Timmy hosts “Fearless Songwriting Week” sessions where he and friends write a song a day for seven days in a row. For the last several years he has also challenged himself to write twenty eight songs in twenty eight days during February. This is the second year that he has invited friends to join him in this creative adventure that he calls The Song Bomb. (Click on the Song Bomb link to hear his progress and see the great list of songwriters who have joined in on this project.) I agreed to be part of this project provided we decide upon the topic (or the “prompt”) at least a couple weeks ahead of time. I can’t possibly write a song on assignment in a single day. Thankfully Timmy agreed. We decided that we would each write a song for February 19th with the prompt “The Tucson Arizona Shootings”.
For my song “My Mark Upon My Son” I reflected upon the media coverage of the event and the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric that followed. Arizona appears to be a “whipping state” in the conversation – characterized as fostering the right of individuals to use guns to enforce rugged individualism and violence against minorities. I thought about how we parents play the primary role in passing along our prejudices and ways of dealing with differences among people. My song imagines an Arizona father speaking to his son and his fellow fathers, encouraging them to take a different path.
Unlike me, Timmy Riordan wrote and recorded his song in a single day. Even more incredible is that this is only one of twenty eight songs that he will write this month. Timmy said he struggled throughout the day to wrap his song in a metaphor. In the end it came together as something much more personal, but I think also a very effective statement about what is happening in Arizona.
Arizona (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Timmy Riordan.
I took Timmy Riordan’s example and invited members of my mailing list (click to subscribe) to join us to write a song or poem using the same prompt. Happily several folks took me up on this suggestion. In a very short time, they wrote and recorded a brand new song and a poem using the same prompt. These works are “in progress”, but for the sake of the community challenge my friends are happy to share them with us. How brave to share unfinished work publicly! It is typical of our healthy artistic community.
Some of My Creative Friends Writing to the Same Prompt
Trisha Knudsen has been writing poetry for thirty-five years and is in the midst of publishing her first book entitled Step, Stumble, Step. She is also a singer, and hosts the open mike at The Center for the Arts in Natick, along with her husband singer/songwriter/musician, Phil Knudsen. Trisha is a former teacher of special needs and gifted students and a magazine copy editor. Just ‘retired’ as long-time Director of Operations and Communication for a non-profit organization, she is about to launch her own business as a freelance writer. Check Trish and Phil’s website to track her progress and find links to her poetry and business website-to-be.
I love Trisha Knudsen’s poetry. She has a way of using words that say several things at the same time. I get new meaning every time I revisit one of her poems. Her poems are beautifully economical with words, so I read them slowly – savoring each phrase. I was very touched by how this poem matches the sentiment of my song well. Like my song, it is told from the perspective of a parent – a very specific parent in this case, but with a universal emotion that all parents can relate to.
© 2011 Trisha Knudsen
Sweet ball of innocence,
manifest dream of our loving,
our happy lives are over
as yours is soon to be.
You have taken our good name
to your grave.
Who peers haply into the cradle
to find a gun?
Who wipes the gruel from your laughing
and imagines a madman?
We did our best by you –
kept you warm and safe,
gave you all we could give.
But we are left with only questions
and hearts fully broken.
You have taken the lives of the barely begun,
the wisdom and counsel
of lives well-lived, well-loved.
You have maimed everyone in the middle
and around the edges.
We are left here, empty shells,
to accept your faults as like our own.
To weep our sorry for the rest of our days.
Randall Kromm and I have become good friends over the last year. Randall is a prolific songwriter, often writing a song per week. I enjoy the videos he shares of new songs, occasionally assisted by his family. His approach is very compatible with the Kitchen Musician. Randall just released his debut solo CD, “Water Wheel“, and it is a real winner. The title track is also featured on Don White’s new CD, “Winning Streak”. Nationally known folksinger, Christine Lavin has described “Water Wheel” as a “modern classic” and “a new folk standard.” I agree!
Randall’s songs of common life, love, family, hopes, and uncertainty are presented like a conversation with a friend over a dinner table. Intelligent yet fun, relaxed yet musically interesting, introspective yet universal â€“ I find my thoughts returning to his music long after each performance. Have you ever seen a performer who’s relaxed stage presence, conversational style, ease with his instrument and honest songwriting give you the feeling that he is talking directly to you? That is how I feel when I am at a Randall Kromm show. Follow Randall and his musical journey at RandallKromm.com.
In Randall’s “Arizona” song, he grapples with some of the issues that are the canvas behind the shooting incident in Tucson – kind of a conversation with himself, but one that the rest of us should listen in on. In Randall’s words, “This particular topic gave me a push I was looking for to address some issues about the human tendancy to simplify and polarize — and the dangers of it. The song and the writing of it have already sparked some interesting conversations with my older kids about the delicate balance between believing things strongly and shutting other views out.”
For Just One Day (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Randall Kromm
I met Marc Bridge nearly four years ago in a storefront open mike in a Framingham strip mall. When I arrived I had low expectations for the evening, but the appearance of the venue couldn’t have been more deceiving. This was an early iteration of what has since become the very popular Amazing Things Arts Center open mike, hosted by Dan Cloutier. At this particular evening, I listened in amazement as over a dozen performers sang high quality original songs. Marc instantly impressed me, and since then has become someone I look to for inspiration. He is a rare example of a songwriter who with great personal integrity, intelligence and humor can both entertain and also get me thinking about new ways to see the world around me. Marc’s debut CD, American dReam was released in 2009 to great critical acclaim. Several of the songs on that CD have received national songwriting awards and recognition. It gets radio and Internet play all around the country. Marc is currently planning his second CD, and I can hardly wait to hear what he comes up with. Follow Marc Bridge at SonicBridgeMusic.com.
Marc says “I suppose you would call me a Folk Singer/Songwriter which is a fancy way of saying that I’m a story teller with a guitar who uses modern day society, politics and relationships to weave an entertaining view of life through my twisted lens.” When Marc sent me his song inspired by the Tucson shooting, I instantly heard it as vintage Marc Bridge. The song takes the event as emblematic of a societal problem that is much larger than any single event.
Gonna Buy Myself An Uzi (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Marc Bridge
I met Kim Jennings on the same day I met Marc Bridge. What a day that was! I love Trisha and Phil Knudsen’s description of Kim. “In her unassuming way, Kim Jennings enters the stage, opens her mouth to sing and a bird flies out, offering lilting melodies and words powerful enough to rip your heart out, give it a kiss and place it gently back into your chest.” Oh my, yes. Kim’s songwriting output is nothing short of awe inspiring. As a musician, her guitar and piano are the perfect accompaniment for her smooth voice and poignant lyrics. Kim is generous with her talents as she frequently sings vocal backup to make the rest of us sound fantastic. Her energy level and commitment to supporting local music goes well beyond her own performance. Along with Dan Cloutier (whom you can hear on Timmy Riordan’s Song Bomb for February 20th), Kim co-founded Birch Beer Records to both support their own music and the music of deserving local talent. Another side project is Kim and Dan’s blog We Support Local Music. Buy Kim’s great debut CD, “My Own True North” or catch one of her many live shows. Learn more about Kim at KimJenningsMusic.com.
Kim’s approach to this songwriting invitation was to respond to the story of Gabe Zimmerman, who was one of the six who were killed in Tucson. In Kim’s words, “When I started reading about all the people who were killed, I learned that Gabe was engaged – and digging deeper I read that his background was in social work and his fiancÃ©e was a nurse. Very tragic. The song is from what I imagine to be her perspective.” Thank you for giving her a voice, Kim.
Forever Home (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Kim Jennings
Rich Eilbert is another one of those prolific songwriters. He holds the copyright on well over sixty songs, and those are only the ones he has bothered to formally copyright. In 2009 Rich released his first CD of original songs, entitled “Back From the War”. When I hear Rich, I am reminded of the songs and performance of topical songwriter Phil Ochs. In Rich’s words “My songs are an outlet to observe and comment, but hopefully, not to judge (some exceptions apply).” Rich hosts an open mike in his home town of Lincoln, Massachusetts where he encourages members of his local community to participate in the joy of self-made music. Rich has recently retired from a long and illustrious career as a physicist. You can hear this intelligent and somewhat scientific approach in some of his songs. In others you will find a puck-like sense of humor and satire. You can learn more about Rich at RichEilbert.com.
In the song Rich wrote for this prompt, he combines his skill as a documentarian and social commentator… kind of like reading the front page of the newspaper, then flipping to the editorial page.
Put That Gun Away (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Rich Eilbert
I had a good chuckle when I asked Jane Fallon if she wanted to write a song for us. She replied, “I don’t think I can do it. I am not commuting very much this week.” You see Jane is one of those people who writes songs while driving her car to and from work. She couldn’t resist the challenge, so she quickly whipped up a song in between gigs and a busy day job as a college professor. Another “power songwriter”, Jane seems to have a new song each time I see her at a local open mike.
Last October I had the honor to join Jane and a few of her musical friends at the Bull Run as she recorded songs for her forthcoming CD “The Seven Song Project” – seven songs she wrote in seven days while traveling around Oregon with her dad. My daughter Mally Smith contributed harmony vocals to her 2010 CD “Gemini Rising in a Patchwork Sky“, which has been getting a lot of radio play lately – a wonderful representation of Jane’s songwriting and beautiful voice. I think that makes a total of five CD’s so far, but I may have missed one or two. Follow Jane at JaneFallon.com.
You never know whether a new Jane Fallon song will take a humorous twist or will touch on a deeply emotional topic. In the case of her “Tucson” song, Jane looks at the dark side and makes some observations that are difficult to think about.
The Thrill of the Steel (Click to play audio)
© 2011 Jane Fallon
I love the way music can bring complete strangers together. Ruth Hertzman-Miller attended my show last month at The Midwinter Coffeehouse. She signed up for my mailing list just in time to get my invitation to write a song. We know each other only through that single performance and perhaps a quick greeting during intermission. I am so pleased that she was moved to give the assignment a go. Ruth writes, “I’m a primary care doctor and an amateur pianist/composer. When I first read the songwriting prompt, I thought about what I could connect with in relation to the Tucson shootings. I recalled a course that I took in medical school about rehabilitation for people recovering from traumatic brain injuries. I have been rooting for Gabrielle Giffords and following the process of her recovery. So I imagined what her experience might be like.”
Great empathy for Representative Giffords is in Ruth’s song. I love how it culminates with a verse that enlarges the initial theme from “I’m Still in Here” to “We’re Still in Here” – a healing theme for both Gabrielle Giffords and the rest of us. Brava Ruth!
I’m Still in Here (Click to play audio)
2011 Ruth Hertzman-Miller
I am very fortunate to be part of the thriving musical and spoken word community in New England. Self-made music and poems are the best. It doesn’t matter if they are pretty or Grammy-worthy (though many are). It just matters that they are honest and true.
~ Make your own art!
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March 5, Saturday, 3:00 pm, Framingham, MA Help me celebrate my birthday at a family show at Amazing Things Arts Center. Family shows are a bit rare for me these days, so I am looking forward to sharing my “Pete Seeger side”. Contact me for special pre-concert pricing. HALF-PRICE!
March 7, Monday, 8:00 pm, Concord, MA I rejoin the Chadbourne Chanticleers for what has become an annual Saint Patrick’s feature at Ellen Schmidt’s open mike at the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts. Kate Chadbourne generously shares the stage with Pat Kenneally, Robert Phillipps, Bill Kehoe, Linda Abrams and me as we bring some of our favorite Irish musical fare. Always a treat.
March 17, Thursday, 7:00 – 10:00 pm, Concord, MA Saint Patrick’s Day at Main Streets Market in historic downtown Concord, MA with the Chadbourne Chanticleers. A great menu, “Irish beverages”, and my loosely knit group of musician friends sharing a round robin of Irish music (often collaborating). You can’t get much closer to the musicians than this.
Click to view all upcoming shows.
Featured Non-Profit: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
CLICK TO PLAY: Paul Helmke welcomes you to the Brady Campaign
I am impressed with the common sense approach of The Brady Campaign to reducing senseless violence that involves guns.
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Join me in supporting The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.