Music of resilience

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
May 14, 2017 / 0 comments

Resilience is a many-faceted quality. More than bouncing back, more than making it through, more than stepping up to face a difficult situation, yet resilience may include aspects of all those things. It is a quality needed in day to day life. Events on the world stage and how they may impact that day to day life also call for resilience. It's a quality affected by one's resources, background, and perception. One way to increase those resources is to hear stories of how others confront such disquieting and challenging circumstances. 

Singers and songwriters know this. Take a listen as three musicians tell stories which include different ideas of resilience.

Music of Resilience

Here We Go 1 2 3, the title of Heidi Talbot's recent album, suggests that change and courage are two things that she'll be thinking about, and indeed that is true.

Talbot grew up in Ireland, hearing both traditional Celtic music and popular songs from the music her brothers and sisters brought home, and studying singing in Dublin. What was meant to be a short visit to the United States turned into a five year gig traveling across the world with top Irish American band Cherish the Ladies. In her solo albums since leaving Cherish, Talbot has drawn on all these things, as well as the vibrant folk music scene in her adopted home of Scotland. Along the way, Talbot's interest and background in these strands of music have merged into her gifts as a songwriter. On this album, she's written eight of the ten songs, whether lyrics or music, and though the songs were written over the course of several years, all  was recorded in just ten days in the studio nearby the home Talbot shares with her husband and musical partner John McCusker. "A lot has happened since my last album," Talbot says, reflecting that not only had they built the studio and started a label, but the couple had had their second child and Talbot's mother had passed away. "So it feels like -- okay... get ready to jump..." she says.

The song The Year That I Was Born is a meditative looking back that suggests questions without prescribing answers, framed in a country pop melody and given a touch of gravitas by the quiet depth of Talbot's soprano. There are hints of traditional  love ballad ideas translated to present day in The Wedding Day and Tell Me Do You Ever Think of Me. There is an actual traditional song, The Willow Tree -- a story of a woman rescuing herself from a hard situation -- set to new music. There's gentle reflection, confronting of memory and of grief, in Song for Rose. "I wrote that about when my mum was sick," Talbot says, "and you know what's going to happen but you'd do anything to change it, so you make all these deals with God or whoever you believe in, to have this not happen. I did all my crying while I was writing it," she continues, "so now I can sing it. And talk about it it. That helped a lot." It's not, really, a grim song -- and it ends on a note of hope, with a lullabye, which one of Talbot's young daughters got to sing on. "When we played it back she was like -- I can't hear me! Turn me up!" Talbot says, laughing.

The title track holds layers of emotion, too. It was inspired by an old gospel song, Talbot says. Like many of the enduring spirituals, it holds both rejoicing and sorrow, change and recognition of what is lasting. "I loved the idea of it being quite uplifting, of it not being a funeral hymn, even though it's about death," Talbot says. In the lyrics, the music, and the voices, through all the songs on the album, there is both sorrow and hope. "It is as sad,"Talbot says, "as you want it to be."

Massachusetts-based Lindsay Straw has long been interested in ballads since growing up in Montana in the western US and later while moving east to immerse herself in the thriving music community of Boston and New England. As she sought out songs to learn and sing, one thing Straw noticed was that things did not always turn out well for the women in traditional music. "It started with one song, Geordie," she says, "and me thinking to myself I wonder if there are more traditional songs like this where the woman saves the day," Straw says. Turns out there are, though she had to search to find them, and she points out, keep context in mind -- "What might be a win in 1800s folk song terms might not be a win today!" The result of all this is Straw's album called The Fairest Flower of Womankind. There are stories of women getting what they want, of escaping tough situations, of finding creative ways around drawbacks, of saving themselves or someone else. The Maid on the Shore, for instance, gets kidnapped by a rough crew of sailors but before dire consequences can ensue, she sings to them so beautifully (using her singing skills or witchcraft, you choose) that they fall asleep and she makes her escape back to her shore. The Basket of Eggs finds a woman choosing a wily and witty way to make a lover face up to his responsibilities. The Female Rambling Sailor is an Australian variant on the woman dressing in man's array. For each of these and the ten other tracks, Straw, who plays guitar and bouzouki, carried on folk tradition by combining verses from different sources and arranging melodies in ways that serve the stories she's chosen.

Caroline Herring, who has traveled the world from England to China with her music, grew up in Mississippi and is currently based in Georgia. It is to her native south she turns for the stories in her album Camilla. The album's title track takes its name from a small town in Georgia, where, during the civil rights years, a woman went to visit a friend's daughter who was in jail, and for singing and standing too close to the jial was beaten and miscarried her child -- and later went on to hold elected office. There are gentler stories, too, such as the one about a child catching fireflies which turns into a succinct meditation on fleeting time, and a reworking of the old spiritual Flee as a Bird, the only song in the collection Herring did not write herself, which among other things speaks of seeking refuge. There are other stories in the songs, both personal and drawing from history. One called Maiden Voyage seems rather poignant now. It arose from a trip Herring and her young daughter made to the inauguration of President Obama in Washington DC in 2009. In the lyrics, Herring weaves in poetry, history, weather, parenthood, love for family and country, and being in the present moment. For the chorus, " It goes like this," Herring sings," you take your hand. You lift it up, you put it on your heart, and there you stand — singing This land is your land, this land is my land..."

Consideration of the various faces of resilience, from living with grief to finding ways around hard situations to staying true to ideals, are qualities the music of these three very different artists share. Heidi Talbot, Lindsay Straw, and Caroline Herring are all fine and thoughtful singers and gifted storytellers, telling stories that make good companions for these times.


Read other stories in this series:

Asking Questions, Telling Stories: Music for Times of Change

Music for Unsettling Times: Conversations and Questions

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