Below is a piece I recently wrote that describes "Grace", a song I wrote in the late '80s and which has had many incarnations. I've been writing about some of my songs over the last six months and submitted this story last week to a publisher who is putting together a book of stories about music. Many of you know this song so I thought you might enjoy reading it. A copy of one of many recorded versions is attached. This one was recorded in Woodstock, New York in June, 2002. Grace, from Sweets for the Soul mp3 (Just click on the link. This is from the album called Sweets for the Soul)
I was twenty-eight when I bought a small house next to West Laurel Hill Cemetery outside Philadelphia. It was 1986. My grandparents had been buried there a couple of years earlier, so every so often I’d walk to their spot to say hello. Their son William was buried there too. He died when he was two from complications of spina bifida. There’s only one stone for the three of them. William’s name is carved on the side. You wouldn’t see it unless you knew to look. I like that they’re all there together. It tells me something about the longevity of love. My mother was born shortly before William died so probably only remembers the absence of him.
While I was living in that house I bought a small Casio keyboard to see if I could sing and play at the same time. It was small enough that I could carry it around, so one summer afternoon I took it up to my bedroom and lay down with it on my belly. I cycled through the sounds it could make to see if any of them would inspire me to sing along. I was just starting to write songs back then. Like most keyboards my Casio had a synthesized vocal patch that sounded like a hundred voices singing in unison. With the push of a key a choir would sing “Ah” for as many seconds as you were willing to hold it down. A low D-flat sounded good to me that afternoon so I held it and started to sing.
When I was in high school I sang in the school and church choirs. Those were medium-sized – 25 to 30 people. In my senior year I was invited to audition for the Pennsylvania State Choir. I say “State,” but I don’t actually remember if it was State, County or Regional. All I know is that it was big and we were good. There were 200 of us. I was an alto. With all those voices singing together we could produce a lot of sound. What was more amazing, though, was that we could create a profound silence too. We sang so quietly at times that I could feel my body lift away from my feet. During one of our concerts, I sang a solo on a spiritual called “Deep River”. As 199 singers hummed quietly behind me, I stepped forward and sang as earnestly as I knew how.
There are moments in my past that I’m sure have brought me to where I am now. That solo was one of them. Standing in front of an audience with a choir of singers behind me was both exhilarating and humbling. The sound of sustained human voices in harmony is one that has always moved me, but that night was the first time I was aware of it.
So when I turned my Casio on and played a D-flat for what must have been twenty minutes, it was natural for me to sing something that sounded like a hymn. “Grace” is the song and melody that came out of that bedroom experiment. The song is a chant with a Celtic feel. It has only one line of lyrics: Thank the world for giving me all the reasons that I have to sing. The rest of the melody is vocalized on various vowel sounds depending on my mood when I sing it. The first time I sang it for anyone else was for my extended family. I asked my father in advance if I could say grace at our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Saying grace had always been his job, but he was glad to have me do it. Looking back, asking for this change in routine was a testament to my need to be heard.
When I started to sing my grace, forty-five family members sitting at uneven tables pushed together, stared back at me. I was scared. There was so much to lose. If they didn’t like my song, or if they were uncomfortable with the time it took me to sing it, or if I would sing out of tune or lose my place, they’d cast me out. Reject me forever. But they didn’t. When I started to sing they got quiet and lowered their heads.
I’ve sung Grace in some remarkable places since that night. On New Year’s Eve in 2005, I sang it in the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York City – the largest gothic cathedral in North America. The place was packed with over 3000 people. The spotlights were bright and the space was so big that I couldn’t see faces beyond the first row. There was no reason to be afraid. The lyrics were easy to remember and the melody was mine to improvise. I was more excited than scared. I stood in the center of the sacristy as the organist began to play a low D-flat on the pipe organ behind me. I’d learned during my sound check that whatever I sang lingered in the room for a long time – “eight seconds,” the sound engineer told me. Because of that, I sang my lines slowly and waited for each phrase to disappear before I sang the next one. Controlling the time like that was thrilling: the silence between phrases, the harmonics that lingered and bounced off the masonry walls. It was as beautiful a sound as I’d ever heard. It was hard to believe it was coming from me. Yet somehow I knew there was more to it than that.
In late February 2002 I got a call from a filmmaker named Rick who had heard me sing at a concert in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania a few years earlier. After he introduced himself, he said, “I’m doing a film on the healing power of music. I’d like you to be a part of it.” As he described his project my eyes filled-up with tears and my heart felt bigger in my chest. I felt as though I was being rescued. My son Forrest had died two weeks earlier. He was three-and-a- half. He’d been diagnosed with liver cancer when he was two. I was still in shock. His call reminded me that I would be ok.
Two months later when his film was finished, Rick introduced me to a woman who’d lost her husband on 9-11. She was planning a concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City to thank the 2500 first-responders who had tried to find her husband in the rubble. Phoebe Snow, Beth Nielsen-Chapman, Delores Holmes, and I were asked to headline that event.
A week before the concert, we were invited to Ground Zero. Escort vehicles and Port Authority Personnel who had worked in the pit for months met us at the upper gates. The clean-up had finally ended. It was July. The sun was bright and beginning to set. We climbed into police vehicles and drove into the deep, gray-white earth. The trip was slow and reverent. So many lives had been lost there. At the bottom one of the policemen told us to wander around to get a feel for the place. He wanted us to understand what they’d felt like down there. We took off one by one. It was a time for solitude and reflection. The ground was uneven and hard. I was aware that I was walking on bedrock. The 65-foot concrete walls that had supported the towers were sheer and covered with rusty cuts and scrapes. The subway tunnels looked like giant conduits that could empty into the vast concrete pool we were standing in. I felt like I’d drown if someone turned the water on. Stairwells led nowhere. A fine, moist dust from pulverized computers, phones, light fixtures, and everything else that had died there covered everything. It was silent despite the busy streets above us.
When our group gathered again forty-five minutes later, Rick said, “do you think you could sing Grace for us?” I dropped my eyes to the ground and said yes.
After a moment I took a shallow breath and started to hum. I looked over at Dolores and her sisters and encouraged them to join me. Once they were humming I took another breath and started the melody. I thought of Forrest and smiled. I looked around at everyone there, then looked up at the sky. I thought about the day the towers fell and all that had happened since then and I could feel my tears. Yet there I was singing, my body filled with joy and sorrow. How had all of this happened? How could it be that I was singing in this incredible place? Or that my song created with a Casio keyboard on a summer afternoon would be a comfort to people who had experienced such loss?
When the concert started the following week, the lights went down and the show began with a short film. The opening scene was of me singing Grace in the pit. I hadn’t realized I was being filmed. What I noticed as I watched was that the Port Authority policemen who had taken us down there were crying while I sang. These were men who would not have cried before 9-11. I call that Grace.
Grace, from Sweets for the Soul mp3 Click this link to hear "Grace." This version was recorded live at the Colony Cafe in Woodstock, NY, in June, 2002, around the time of this story.