In the 1960s I discovered my working class roots as I learned the folk songs of the labour and civil rights movements. I was proud to take part in passing on these oral traditions. During this time I found my own voice and began to write songs which not only gave me a therapeutic way to express my personal pain and outrage, but helped to support and inspire others in our common struggle for justice and equality. It has always amazed me what power there is in the combination of simple concepts and ordinary music.
I've always preferred music to be a gift rather than a performance, but I've sometimes had to exercise my talents to provide for my family. I've never received much money in royalties for my songs, but I found that working as a street musician or "busker" was lucrative and instructive. Some people harassed me, were sexually aggressive and displayed a strong bias against seeing making music as work. The service I provided was seen as begging as often as it was seen as entertainment. Yet other people appeared to be deeply touched by my music and would applaud even if they had no money to contribute.
I consider my work as a street musician to have been a profound educational experience. I learned how to reach people with music in a way that went beneath prevailing social stereotypes, which I could not have learned in any formal training program.
I' m not sure why some people want to know how I write a song. It seems as if the creative process must be as unique as the individual applying it. Do I just sit down and start writing? The answer is both yes and no. I do sit down and write, but prior to that I'm not sure why some people want to know how I write. A lot of emotional processing takes place. Let me take you with me through a typical experience. This process actually led me to write the song that I performed at the International Women's Day Festival last year. (The words and music for the chorus follow).
This is a day when I know I need to cry. My chest is tight, my jaw is tight even my hair hurts as they say. I go to my tape collection and pick a piece of music that has moved me to tears before. Sometimes the piece has lyrics, but today it's purely instrumental. I turn on the music, lie down and begin to gently deepen my breathing. It feels to me as if each instrument is speaking to me and their voices are somehow familiar. My chest over my heart begins to feel warm. My jaw begins to relax. Not long after that I experience a shift somewhere inside. It is as if a door opens, and there is light and blue sky. The universe appears more negotiable and more spacious. There is a kind of eternity represented in this music that allows me to transcend my fear of deep unknown emotion. Now the feelings come. I'm surprised because what I thought would be pure sadness turns into anger and then fear. I try to ride gently with those feelings on the music. After the emotional releasing, another shift occurs. I am beginning to be able to explain my fears to myself. I am beginning to separate concepts which are false for me from concepts that have personal meaning. I have found my strength again.
Now I can contemplate all the anger I still hold for people who have hurt me, and I know I need to forgive them and to forgive myself, too. I begin thinking of my ex-mother-in-law, now dead, who was a tired, bitter and unempathic person by the time I first met her. I am overcome with a realization that I totally misunderstood her as a teenager married to her son. Now I feel empathy for her, and it seems too late to do anything about it. I remember her story about having to go to work in a cotton mill at the age of fourteen because her father was a drunk and couldn't hold down a job. She had always wanted to take piano lessons so she could play country music and gospel music for her family and friends, but there was never any money. It occurs to me that since folk music is a way to develop oral history and give context to the lives of people whose efforts would otherwise have been forgotten, I should sing about Kathleen's life. As I meditate that evening in forgiveness, the words and music of the chorus of the song below came to me intact, and in a form which Kathleen would have loved -- country music .