Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Life as a Folk Song

Detail from FDU Wamfest 2015 poster

Growing up in a two-horse hamlet in upstate New York, folk songs as I recall were about long lost loves and heart-wrenching memories of faraway fabled places like Scotland and Tennessee. Yesterday, a singer-songwriter from Texas named Darden Smith plucked a folk song out of me.

“Why’d you join the Army?” Darden abruptly asked, just as I bit into a slice of pizza at a songwriting workshop he was conducting at a Creative Writing Club meeting at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus in Madison-Florham Park, NJ.  

I’d dropped by the workshop to see what I might pick up to use in writing workshops I coordinate in New Jersey for Warrior Writers, an organization that provides an outlet for military veterans to work on ways to write and talk about hard-to-tell experiences. I was also there as a participant in a three-day words and music festival called Wamfest that FDU hosted. The theme of the festival was “The art of healing/ Veterans.” Warrior Writers Kevin Basl, Eli Wright, Sarah Mess and I read poetry as introduction to three well-attended concerts that wove together words and music addressing war and aftermaths.

At Darden Smith’s workshop, I was looking to see how a professional wordsmith works with tight-lipped students who had served in the latest wars. I nearly choked on pizza when he called out to me across the room.  

“Why’d you join the Army?” Damn, he‘s calling on me. I felt like a suddenly trapped student hoping not to be noticed in the back of the room.  I joined the Army a very long time ago, in 1962, after dropping out of college. But that isn’t the full story. My thoughts swirled wildly; actually, the story began long before then.

“I wanted to go to West Point when I was in 7th grade,” I blurted out.

Question by pertinent question, Darden pulled out the essence of my life story, while tinkering with guitar riffs, honing this phrase and that phrase that popped out of my mouth, all the while explaining to the circle of fascinated students how to focus on the “emotional truth” of a story being shaped into a song.

Welcoming suggestions and feedback from David Daniel, the creative writing professor who organized the event, and others in the circle, he demonstrated the process of “collaborating on songs” that he does with fellow songwriters, musicians, and people whose story he helps tell. Smith is the founder of an organization called SongwritingWith: that does workshops with active duty troops and war veterans and other survivors of traumatic events.

Later in the afternoon, he entranced a hall full of students, faculty and visitors with a concert of songs from such workshops. The finale of the concert was the song Darden Smith coaxed out of me and created in the course of a lunchtime workshop. It was the most concise version of what I've been trying to say for decades.

Darden Smith/Jan Barry

Eisenhower went to West Point
I wanted to be like him
I wanted to be a general
I wanted to win
I joined the army went to Vietnam
It’s when I first had my doubts
But I went to the Point anyway
There was something I had to figure out

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that had to be told

 At 21 I put down my rifle
I picked up a pen
I had to tell America
About the secret nasty war we were in
My view of my country was broken
In pieces on the ground
I put the story into poetry
And scattered it around

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that had to be told

50 years later the war goes on
50 years later we sing this song
War is not a game
It shattered man woman and child all the same

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that has to be told


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