Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger

When Pete Seeger was blacklisted in the 50s, after being accused of being a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the Weavers’ career dried up. Pop radio’s loss was my family’s gain. Pete’s wife Toshi booked him in colleges, but he also made regular appearances at the Dalton School in New York City, where my father was lucky enough to have Pete’s brother John Seeger as his geography teacher. Pete taught the Dalton children “Deep Blue Sea,” “Sweet Potatoes” as well as his friend Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” My father’s idea of what a song was, what a song could do, grew from these assemblies. He and my mother fell in love at a Pete Seeger concert in 1961, singing along to “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” They raised their three daughters on folk music in the Pete Seeger tradition. Pete, being one of the most generous as well as courageous musicians who ever lived, had introduced many a young performer to his audience: Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Odetta. We grew up with their albums, but in true Seeger style, we mostly learned them straight from my dad, who metabolized the LP versions of the songs and made them his own by singing them and playing them to us, guitar on his lap, us at his feet.

In college, I founded a folk group called Tangled Up in Blue, and we covered many a Pete song. One early spring day in the late 80s we all trooped over to the Shubert Theatre to see Pete play with Mikata, a local salsa band. After the show, there was a VIP only meet-and-greet. We stormed the cordons, surrounded Pete and sang him our version of “Wimoweh.” He beamed at us, sang along and afterwards said, “I’d love to have you all come up to Beacon and help me lead a workshop on rounds. I’ve been thinking a lot about rounds….”

I’d read David Dunaway’s 1981 biography How Can I Keep From Singing when I was seventeen, and it was as if I’d been handed my How-To guide. How could I be anything other than a folk singer working for a better world, using the power of song and voices joined together in community to effect changes in people’s hearts and attitudes and actions?

But I was also a teenager, a poet––hungry for what my other heroes, Bob Dylan and the Beatles had achieved: fame, money and influence. Also, I am a woman, and in the late eighties, all I saw was how hard it was to get attention if you didn’t possess the trifecta of being young, thin and beautiful. And so I lobbied my beautiful sister, Katryna, to join in my quest, to let go of her long term dreams of becoming chief Justice of the Supreme Court and her short term dream of getting a fellowship to travel and study in Nepal, and instead become the next Beatles with me.

"I am not going to spend my life trying to get a number one hit,” she said. “I don't think I could be happy trying to be a famous pop star and not getting there, but I could spend my whole life striving to be the next Pete Seeger and I'll love it even if I fail. Pete's work is all about the journey. I want my life to be about the journey.”

That woke me up. We had indeed gotten a lot of attention in the early nineties for being “young, hip and hot,” as the Boston Globe termed us. We were pretty girls, or pretty enough. I’d studied how to write an alt-rock song full of alt-rock angst and irony and noir. We wore black motorcycle jackets and boots to match and scowled at the camera and coaxed feedback out of our amps. We’d gotten signed to the same label as the Beatles and procured a publishing deal from Madonna’s imprint. But when the labels went belly up, Katryna’s mission statement shone strong: fame and fortune are ephemeral. What matters is the kid dancing at the front of the stage, or the one singing along in her car. Did we inspire these kids? Are they going to make music, pass along the message of peace, love, self-worth, courage? If so, we’ve done our job.

We wrote a different kind of song after that. We dug into our own communities. We became parents. We started making music for kids. After all, that’s what Pete had done. We continued to perform and travel and produce CDs and books, but the focus was less on vainglory or even some humble ambition, and more on gratitude. We are lucky enough to be musicians. We are lucky enough to serve with song. We won the lottery.

Over and over again, when Pete was questioned by HUAC about whom he knew—they were of course trying to get him to name names—he’d say, “I won’t tell you who I sang to, but I’d be more than happy to play you the songs we sang. Don’t you want to hear a song?” He so believed in the power of song to change a person, and I love that he knew that those congressmen would soften if he sang them “Wasn’t That a Time.”

Today, I sing “If I Had a Hammer” to the second graders at Jackson Street School (it is, for some reason, heavily requested). We talk about courage; we talk about justice and freedom. And we sing about love between our brothers and our sisters. In singing, we practice love. It’s all we have. And it’s all we need.

Photo c/o Amy Meltzer. Katryna and Nerissa teaching "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" for Monday's Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration at Edwards Church in Northampton MA.

The Nields are performing at the Iron Horse February 8 with their band.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

New Year's Pep Talk for Writers

It's January 3--a month since I last posted. Too much time has gone by, and as the days moved along on the calendar, it seemed harder and harder to get back to this blog. I am all about the daily, as you know, and when I lose my regular momentum, I struggle mightily to get it back. Plus, I have to admit, I've felt guilty about even having a blog lately. I am trying to finish my novel The Big Idea (a book I have been writing on and off for 13 years now, albeit with a long hiatus), and every novelist I know says to kill your blog.

But I like my blog. In my head, anyway, I am always writing to you, whoever you are.

I started to write a post in mid-December that went nowhere. (But you can find its remnants here.) December was full to the brim of red Christmas lights staying "Stop everything and just make sure your Santa list is complete." We played a bunch of shows, jumped onstage with Dar on the solstice, celebrated my mother's 70th birthday in Florida, missed flights, cursed Winter Storm Hercules, got the stomach flu, and now my early January retreat which was supposed to start this evening at 5:30 has been cancelled.

A wise friend once said, "When something goes awry, ask yourself, 'Why is this the best possible thing to happen right now?'" And so I am doing just that. I lost my writing retreat, but I am giving myself this time, right now, to write about my writing intentions for 2014.

I woke up on January 1 with this extremely familiar question:
If you are a writer, what are you writing? Isn't it time to concentrate on one medium, or at least one novel? Can you really write/re-write two novels, maintain two blogs, AND write songs (both kids songs and adult songs), all while running five classes/workshops, and coaching individuals and mothering two children (who need to practice violin every day)? Are you a novelist or a songwriter?

I sat on my meditation cushion and stared at the dry, suffering Christmas tree. I had no answer. But a few hours later, I got one. Tom and I went to Yoga Sanctuary for an energizing and restorative date. Sara Rose, my dear friend and teacher, led a wonderful class. During the "sermon" part at the beginning she spoke about why we begin the year in January instead of the more obvious March or April. She said something similar to what our minister Steve Philbrick says: the seed can only grow in the dark. We need darkness, even burial, to manifest anything. These are the natural conditions of life, aren't they? No one can really develop in broad daylight. We all came from the windowless womb.

We finished the class by setting an intention for the year. We wrote down our themes and intentions on little pieces of paper and hung them on branches that form an arc around the entrance of the studio. Mine was about being open-hearted and truthful, especially in the words I write and speak.

My theme for 2013 was “seeds,” and my intention was "go slow," and as frustrating as this theme proved to be, I recognize the sprouting, even in these hardening, frosty mornings where the sun graces us with her appearance a few minutes earlier each day. (She is coming back.)

Along with my more concrete 2013 intentions (read more, get stronger, practice an instrument daily), I set some other intentions––which is to say, planted seeds (or at least that is what I hoped I was doing)–– many years ago now; so long ago, I can’t even tell you when. The kinds of intentions you whisper to your best friend, or scratch into a journal, or pin to a vision board, fold into a God jar. “I want to be a writer,” was the gist of it. “But you are a writer,” God said back. “Not just songs. I want to write other things too. Books. And I want to make my living from my words as much as from my showing up. I want my projects to have legs. I want them to run, and fetch me some income.”

This wish for works that worked (as opposed to me doing all the work in real time) was practical as well as mystical. I wanted to have a family. I didn’t want to be traveling the continent for 320 days a year anymore, promoting my work. So I did what any good life coach would tell me to do. First, I made my broad strokes; then I made a long list of baby steps for the broad strokes. The broad strokes were easy: an album every year and a half. A first novel. An active blog. Well, make that two. How to Be an Adult finally written. And then make it an ebook and an audiobook. A second novel: The Big Idea, write the soundtrack, publish the whole thing as an interactive web page.

And the baby steps: Write. Develop a daily practice. Learn how to self-publish so you won’t be beholden to anyone, so you can call the shots and design your own book covers. Make a bunch of mistakes. Learn from them. And then the part comes where you market the darn things.

I am a Quick Start, which means I love to jump in and learn from my mistakes. I’d rather get the thing out there, warts and all, while my sister and partner Katryna would rather polish and perfect. But part of my “seeds” intention was to focus on the daily practice: slow growth. And so I am trying to notice the slow growth. I am veering away from the hit I get from posting a blog (or a soundbite on Facebook or Twitter) and even the song, which can be written in a day and performed that evening. It’s a heady hit. Not so with the novel I’ve been working on (on and off) for 13 years. It will have to formulate in the cold darkness.

This fall I started taking piano lessons. I studied classical piano as a child, and I was awful. I still am. But every day, I get a teensy weensy bit better. I also started lifting weights to build strength. I was pretty weak, but when I upped the weight by five pounds every few weeks, I got a teensy bit stronger. I read a little every day, and I might remember one percent of what I read a year from now. But my reading muscles are working. And I see incremental progress. I am trying to polish and perfect. My novel is slowly progressing. I am able to play the piano in church. My Bach Minuets are now fairly smooth, and I am on to the Prelude in C from the Well Tempered Clavier. The ebook finally got published. It took way longer than I ever imagined, but it has happened.

So here I am, January 3, reaffirming that yes, I am a spread-too-thin writer of a bunch of different genres. I have written three books that have been published. I have written 16 CDs full of songs that I (mostly) wrote. I am a novelist and a songwriter. Oh, yeah, also I have two blogs. This spread-too-thinness, so far anyway, is what I am. It's who I am.

I wrote a lot of stuff in 2013, some of which you know about (many songs, many posts, How to Be an Adult), and some of which you might never see (the novel chapters). A lot is in the ground right now, turning around, trying to find which way is up, reaching tendrils deep into the earth and up toward the nascent sun. I am learning to accept that I need to work incrementally these days. I do other things besides write, and because I am balancing being the best mother I can be with being the best writer I can be, that means that things go slowly. No matter--my success and/or speed is none of my business. I say yes to the process, to the reality. I am in.