Archive for the ‘Singing & songs’ Category


In January of this year, a coal-cleaning chemical leaked out of a tank less than mile from the intake for West Virginia American Water Company. Some 300,000 West Virginians lost their water for drinking, cooking, bathing or cleaning. For quite a while, the liquid flowing through our taps had a weird, licorice-like odor. Even after it was declared safe, many people did not trust that it was, and continued using bottled water. (Some of us still are using bottled water.)

Politicians—including many who collect big money from their coal investments, and including our governor—skittered to distance themselves from any responsibility to protect West Virginia’s environment or the citizens who depend upon it. As I took my daily walk around Charleston in the weeks following the chemical spill, my thoughts were angry as well as sad. A melody and some words began to take shape in my mind: a from-the-heart, straightforward message.

In early February, there was a public hearing in the West Virginia House of Delegates. Although the prospect terrified me, I decided to “speak” at the hearing by singing my song. Many legislators were absent, but I sang my song anyway. Many other citizens also stood up to express their outrage and to beg our so-called public servants to quit serving extractive industries at the expense of public health.

Now my friends Julie Adams (producer), George Castelle (guitarist), and Paul Flaherty (sound engineer) have helped me record the song, and yesterday I successfully uploaded it to CD Baby as a single (for download only). It’s deeply satisfying to me to send my song out into the world on the same day that the EPA proposes new, stricter standards for water and air quality. Our politicians will no doubt scream bloody murder over the new standards, the way they should be decrying the mining and fracking methods that are fouling our state. They will declare the new standards as a “war on coal” instead of what it really is, a plan to protect public health and safety from the ones who only use us for the riches they can steal.

You can download or listen to a 30-second snippet from the song at CD Baby. You can read the lyrics right here:

If you love my West Virginia, you will keep her waters clean

If you love my West Virginia, you will keep her mountains green

If you love my West Virginia, love her Wonderful and Wild

You’ll respect her like your mother and defend her like your child

If you love my West Virginia, you would suffer for her sake

If you love my West Virginia, you will give more than you take

If you love my West Virginia, you would grieve to see her kneel

To the ones who only use her for the riches they can steal

If you love my West Virginia, you will hold her in your soul

If you love my West Virginia, you won’t let her mountains fall

If you love my West Virginia, you will fight to see her stand

With her summits bathed in glory like our Prince Immanuel’s Land

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For the third year, Michigan State University professors Anita Skeen (wearing the red shirt) and Chris Scales (the tallest one) have brought some of their students from MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities to West Virginia for a long weekend of all things Appalachian. The Appalachian Immersion Weekend is designed and hosted by Michael Davis at Water Gap Retreat, his campground along the Shavers Fork near Elkins, WV. This year the two professors were joined by their colleague Deidre Dawson (top row, second from left) and seven students, most of whom are studying Appalachian folk music this semester.

I was engaged as the Friday evening entertainment (contemporary Appalachian singer/songwriter!) along with my guitar player George Castelle. Luckily, I got to stay around for the whole weekend. I think the students must have learned a lot; I certainly did!

Here’s a quick rundown of the rest of their itinerary:

On Saturday morning, we all took a geology/nature hike with retired Davis & Elkins professor Jim Van Gundy, who helped found WV’s Master Naturalist Program and is one of the best woods guides I can imagine. On Saturday afternoon the students went to the Randolph County Fair, where they saw fiddle and banjo contests, a talent show (one of them took second prize!), and more. They also visited Laurie Gundersen’s dyeing/spinning/weaving headquarters at the Goff House. On Saturday evening, organic farmer and chef Scott Weaner treated us to a sit-down dinner of homegrown, traditionally Appalachian ingredients prepared in surprising and very tasty new ways.

Sunday morning was spiritual in the best sense: we spent it with Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s poet laureate. I am always transported in this woman’s presence: by her beautiful, lilting voice; by her wisdom and courage; by her humor. I think some of the students felt the same. One told me, “This was the high point.”

On Sunday afternoon we visited the farm of Stan and Sue Jennings, former coal miners who turned to making Appalachian Treenware some years ago, and have made a go of it. Once a year they host a buckwheat pancake party and apple cider-making day for their friends and neighbors; Carrie and Michael Kline got us invited. We ate delicious buckwheat cakes and got sticky making apples and pears into juice. Some of us bought some wooden implements from the Jennings’ shop. Some of the students made music along with their professor and Carrie and Michael.

We hated to see our Michigan visitors leave on Monday morning! But I hope they fell in love with West Virginia and will come back again.

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Colleen Anderson, Julie Adams, and Karen Vuranch, the POTLUCK ladies.

On May 15, we POTLUCK ladies presented our one-hour show at the Randolph County Creative Arts Center to one of the warmest and friendliest audiences we have ever enjoyed. Karen, Julie, and I love to perform this show. It’s about an hour long and consists of stories and songs inspired by and celebrating food, women, community, and the connections between them. It includes some heartwarming memories and songs, some utter silliness, and a lot of love. After our POTLUCK set, we performed a short set of songs inspired by our other favorite topic, West Virginia.

The Randolph County Creative Arts Center (not to mention the artsy town of Elkins!) is a wonderful place. Director Beth King goes all out to make performers feel valued and comfortable. She even accompanied us to a couple of school performances in Harman, WV on Friday, a courtesy we really appreciated. One of her volunteers, Jane Birdsong, cooked us a fantastic salmon dinner on Saturday afternoon, and other board members brought delicious salads and other treats. They even saved us generous servings of Jane’s homemade peach/cherry cobbler for dessert after the concert.

As you can see, we were dressed in finery. The creator of our capes and chiffon jackets, as well as the backdrops made of silk crepe de chine, is Michael Davis, the owner of Shibori West Textile Designs in Elkins.

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One of my favorite places on earth is Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico. To hear why, follow this link to my essay at West Virginia Public Radio:


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Although I’ll be in Taos for a couple more weeks, my thoughts are turning toward home. And, among the things I’m anticipating, when I get back to West Virginia, is watching the progress of a new venture founded by my friend Michael Davis.

Water Gap Retreat is a brand-new series of weekend workshops at Michael’s Shavers Fork riverside property near Elkins, West Virginia. The workshops — led by artists that include Jude Binder, Doug Van Gundy, Anita Skeen, Ruth Blackwell Rogers, Mimi Kibler, Scott Weaner, Jim Van Gundy, Michael and Carrie Kline, Kate Long, Robin Kessinger, and yours truly — will focus on many topics, from mountain geology to mountain music, from writing poetry to baking bread, from origami to organic gardening.

Workshops will begin on Friday evenings and end Sunday after lunch. In between, the time will be filled with campfire gatherings, morning yoga sessions led by Irene McKinney, workshop sessions, field trips, and — this may be my favorite part — fabulous, healthy food prepared by some of the best cooks I know. Even the sleeping quarters are special: riverside camping structures designed especially for Water Gap Retreat by architect Bryson VanNostrand, featuring Michael’s shibori-dyed fabric and Laurie Gundersen’s handmade rugs.

The Water Gap website is brand new. Check it out if you have a chance and let Michael know what you think.

Here’s a picture of the river taken from Michael’s property. It’s a great place for swimming, floating, and fishing, too.


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A couple of days ago I had my fourth voice lesson with Leslie Harrington, a Taos resident and a terrific singer. Among his many singing credits are opera performances that have received rave reviews from the New York Times. He can literally make windows rattle; I’ve seen and heard this happen.

Now, don’t get excited or alarmed: I don’t think there’s any chance I’m going to come back to West Virginia with an opera voice. For one thing, I am beginning to have an appreciation for the sheer amount of dedicated practice that would take. For another, my vocal apparatus, like the rest of my body, is middle-aged.

What I’m learning is more subtle and more exciting to me: That my voice (and yours) is both a physical and a spiritual entity. That my vocal range corresponds to an internal “cello” inside my body, and that I can reach the pitch I want by directing my breath toward a specific place inside me. That pitch is more about “feeling” than “hearing.” That the tongue is a marvelous part of the body — suddenly, the phrase “mother tongue” seems very beautiful and evocative to me.

And, perhaps most important, something I already knew but needed to hear from a great singer: That it’s in the song, not the singer, where the magic and mystery and power reside. That we who make noise or write lyrics do it in the service of something far beyond our understanding. We know this intuitively when we connect with an audience — or with a performer. We know it when we see a great painting, or paint one. When we read a poem that brings us to tears. Whenever we are uplifted by art.

See why I enjoy my voice lessons?

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Evolution of a workshop


From Taos, you can see Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted so many times that she claimed God had given it to her personally. The mountain is the distinguishing landmark near Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s home and studio, and now a wonderful arts center. This year, I’m planning to come back to New Mexico in October to lead a workshop at Ghost Ranch. Two jaunts to New Mexico in one year! Here’s how it happened:

It all started with Anita Skeen — poet, English professor at Michigan State University, free spirit, creative dynamo, and unabashed peacenik. When she learned that MSU’s Kresge Art Museum was mounting an exhibition of 60’s abstract paintings, she contacted the curator and suggested adding music and poetry. Of course, it would be 60’s music and poetry. Better yet, it would be protest music and poetry.

The time was right: Another era of unrest. Another unpopular war. And, as she had learned from her own students, another generation that was clamoring to make a difference.

That’s how Julie Adams and I got the enviable job, last February, of doing the Kresge Museum’s first music performance. Anita put us in charge of choosing the songs; she selected poems and coached the students who would do readings to be interspersed throughout the concert.

We searched the Internet, asked friends for recommendations, and chose our own favorites — striving to balance the folky, the funky, and the downright outraged. We added a couple of songs that didn’t quite fit into the era because they fit the theme so well (like Paul Simon’s “American Tune”) and we included a few that weren’t, strictly speaking, protest songs (“Teach Your Children”) because we loved singing them.

The museum was a wonderful performing space; how many singers can say they’ve had a Morris Louis painting for a backdrop? We were equally thrilled by the audience, and the fact that they sang along, even the students. (“We were raised by hippies,” one of them remarked. “We grew up with these songs.”)


(Okay, it’s not the greatest picture of me or Julie, but I want you to meet Anita, between us.)

Driving home to West Virginia, we said to one another, “Could we do this in Charleston? With more musicians?” Collaborating on a fundraiser with WV Patriots for Peace was a natural. After all, it’s no coincidence that the word “harmony” describes peace as well as musical resonance.

Artist Charly Jupiter Hamilton donated his artwork for a poster. The members of WV Patriots for Peace went all out to publicize the concert. And, on May 19, 2006, many talented friends joined us for a special evening of songs and poetry for peace.

It was another incredible evening. A standing-room-only crowd packed Christ Church United Methodist. Everyone sang. Many people wore vintage tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottoms. Funds were raised for the important work of peace-making. We had a good time. We felt a revival of hope.

Now, back to Anita. In addition to teaching English at MSU, she coordinates writing programs for Ghost Ranch. And, this year, she has asked Julie and me to focus a weeklong singing/songwriting workshop on “words and music that change the world.”

Our workshop — which runs from October 8 to 14, 2007— is just one part of the tenth annual Fall Writing Festival at Ghost Ranch. It will be a celebratory time. In addition to our workshop, there will be many other classes. Participants can focus on poetry, fiction, essays, travel writing, playwriting, bookbinding, and more. Whatever you choose to study, we promise we’ll be singing together in the evenings.

Check out the Ghost Ranch website and my Protest Songs page on the Blogroll at the right side of this page for more information. Think about joining us this fall at Ghost Ranch, and please tell your friends.

‘Cause the times, they are a-changing.

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