Asking Questions, Telling Stories: Music for Times of Change

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Feb 21, 2017 / 0 comments

Music makes a good companion in times of change. Songs and tunes and symphonies, lullabyes and string quartets, music of the griot and the sean nos singer, the classical violinist and the street corner busker all have ways of connecting us to one another, of giving space for reflection, of lifting spirits, offering hope, adding perspective and building courage. 

As we live through these times of change, come along and take a listen to a fresh take on songs from Scotland's historic bard, a lively dialogue between Highland fiddle and Nordic guitar, and a set of songs from a top Americana storyteller.

Asking Questions, Telling Stories: Music for Times of Change

Robert Burns was living through times of change himself, in 18th century Scotland. He wrote about that, and about love, and friendship, and the landscape of his beloved Scotland, and quite a few other things in the hundreds of songs he penned and adapted from folk tradition. Robyn Stapleton comes from the area in the southwest of Scotland where Burns grew up and lived most of his life. It was his work, in fact, which inspired her to follow a career in music. She's chosen twelve of his songs for her most recent recording, which is called Songs of Robert Burns

It is a varied selection, including familiar songs you'll recognize to ones you may not have heard before. Stapleton has a lovely voice with many colors to it, and she well knows how to use it as she gives fresh voice to songs which remain as engaging and relevant as they were when written. She's supported by a range of talented musicians, among them Patsy Reid and Jenna Reid on fiddle, Signy Jakibsdottir on percussion, and Innes White on guitar. 

There is the light hearted Comin' Through the Rye and the passionate Ae Fond Kiss. John Anderson My Jo celebrates love over time while Parcel o' Rogues calls out public servants who sell their country short and The Slaves's Lament gives point to human consequences of such attitudes. Westlin' Winds finds Burns and Stapleton in reflective mood considering the beauty of the landscapes of Scotland. A lively light hearted set that begins with I'm O'er Young includes a Cape Breton tune from Jerry Holland, bringing an aspect of the Scottish diaspora. Stapleton sends listeners on their way with the well known celebration of friendship, Auld Lang Syne.

At times, that way includes needing music without words. Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola have that covered for you. Juhani is from Finland and plays guitar, Sarah-Jane is from the Highlands of Scotland and plays fiddle. On their album Widdershins, they've created new music and re invented traditional tunes. There are quiet reflective pieces such as Juhani's composition Sydanyo, a title which means midnight in Finnish. There's lively stuff such as the Brevig Reel set, in which they take on tunes which originate in the Scottish pipe tradition. There are full out fast paced tunes such as Spike on a Bike, a tune which Sarah-Jane wrote. There's the title track, Widdershins, in which the duo walks the territory across and between and among all those styles -- fittingly enough for a tune whose name means counter clockwise -- it is an old Scots word Sarah-Jane first heard from her grandfather.

These are two players at the top of their game, who are creating original, engaging music based on tradition yet moving it along, too. What comes through even more clearly than that is their joy in making music, and in sharing it. 

Carrie Newcomer comes from Indiana, in the American midwest. She's taken her songs across her own country and to places as distant and different as Kenya, India, and the Holy Land. "What I've found," she says, "is  that there are threads that pull through, emotions that connect us." On her recording The Beautiful Not Yet she was thinking about, as the title of the album and the title song itself might suggest, how life is lived in the here and now -- and how that here and now is infused with and infuses past, present, and future. 

Across the years she's been making music, Newcomer has written songs which tend toward asking questions and opening perspectives rather than offering answers. The songs for this project were written well before the current political and social situations arose (I write this in late winter/ early spring of 2017) but they speak to situations both immediate and timeless. Cedar Rapids 10AM is a spare, poetic love song. A Shovel Is A Prayer offers wry humor along with encouragement and thoughts on connection. Haunted looks at the darker and bleaker sides of life, while You Can Do This Hard Thing and The Slender Thread offer, in differing ways, hope and connection as counterpoint and lifeline. Sanctuary gives poetic voice and respect to the healing power of connection and rest, and the need for both, in hard times and good ones.

Newcomer's alto is one of the best voices around and she knows how to use it as a true story teller. She's joined on this project by longtime musical collaborator pianist Gary Walters, Natalie Haas on cello, Jayme Stone, who also produced the project, on banjo, singers Krista Detor and Moira Smiley, and others.

There are threads that pull through these three diverse recordings, threads of hope, of courage, of trust, of the peace and the connection music can bring. Give a listen as you live through these times, and take the refreshment offered by the creativty of these musicians. It will stand you in good stead. 


Read other stories in this series:

Music for Unsettling Times: Conversations and Questions

Music of Resilience

Songs of Friendship

Songs of Hope

Songs of Hope, Gracias a La Vida

Songs of Courage

Songs of Friendship

Music in Times of Change

Music for Reflection

Three Feet or So: Music and Creating Positive Change in the World

Music: The Power of Connection


Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road