[My COVID-19 symptoms still haven’t gone away. I, and thousands others, have been debilitated with the prolonged effects of COVID for almost six months. Amidst that, I had the great pleasure of speaking on the phone with two remarkable singers and mentors, about singing: Meredith Monk, in the Catskills, and Peggy Seeger, in her living room in Oxford.]
Meredith grew up singing around the house. She became interested in folk music in high school, connected partly to a visit paid to her school by Pete Seeger.
Peggy, in her 80s, does not consider herself one of the real folk singers. Perhaps this is one of the requisites of being a real folk singer. (Though, let’s not gloss her meaning—she grew up educated, in D.C., amongst composers, her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger; a distance, she’s referring to, from the hardship in a lot of the old songs.)
I like singing unaccompanied, though my voice is not as good as it used to be. I sing a lot around the house. It helps with memory. One of the ballads I sing every day, I automatically slip into it . . . I can just hypnotize myself into it while I’m chopping carrots or ironing or something like that.
i sang today, for the first time in almost 5 months.
i’m going to try to make it through a song a day.
just went on a night walk, no stars tonight here. quite cloudy in brain too, walked down the drive into the middle of the woods and turned the flashlight off.
sang one of the ballads i’ve been learning, for the article, and then i made up some melodies. it felt like i needed to give myself a lullaby or something.
there are so many crickets and cicadas in the forest, the sound so high pitched it feels like it’s above my head, just circling above me, a layer of sound like ascending.
i forgot how much i love night walks in the woods. it’s so comforting, to be in the dark and surrounded [by trees? by sounds of the woods? by?], it makes me feel like i belong on the planet, that i am of it, just like all the other noise makers around, rustling in the woods.
it feels different to be sick, and outside. tree fights a fungus.
night on a beach or a shore or a cliff or a desert or a mountaintop, sometimes those places make me feel separate, like my head is too far from the earth, that i can see too much almost.
the blindness of the woods in the dark feels like the blindness of me not knowing what is happening to me right now. a few times i heard a rustle that made me flick on my light. but, i trust the darkness. i was swaying back and forth.
The old ballads . . . they were like the bones, the bare bones [of a story]. So that you can put your own flesh on them, in your imagination. As you sing it you see the action happening, yet again.You have to keep your own imagination going—as you sing it, you see [in your mind] the action happening, yet again.
sang again, in the night. my body felt more feverish, more like wanting to breathe. i let my legs bend, i feel my battled chest. and when i sing the notes out, i am not really listening to their sounds so much as i am listening to or rather noticing how it feels to push something through, noticing things that feel easy or rather open or sometimes it sounds like relief and sometimes thin notes that almost sound like my heartbeat is poking them, my heartbeat is so heavy as i am exerting like this, and my voice feels thin so thin that my heartbeat is touching it. i can’t imagine a steady sound, making something, but there are notes up high that feel possible, outside of my speech. they are a relief and a woman sound in the night, round and clear and there is a low hum somewhere in the woods, amidst all the high insects and the wind comes.
I was at the piano, one day, and I realized that the voice could be an instrument, and I didn’t have to use words. And that I could find all kinds of different qualities within it. And that it had male/female, different realms, it could be landscape, it could be character. I could find different ways of producing sound in my voice. And that it was also a very ancient kind of instrument.
I was sitting at the bus queue, sitting on a stone wall in Oxford, and it was cold. So I just started singing the ballad to myself, and there was a woman sitting about two feet away and she stood up and she came and sat closer and I just continued singing the ballad, and when it was time to stand up and go to the line, I just kept singing the ballad to myself. I slid my bus card, and I went and sat down. she came and sat next to me, and I finished the ballad—I can’t bear to stop in the middle.
sang again tonight, but in a small room in the basement.
getting through this ballad is hard, it’s so many verses and i find my mind wandering, but there is something to be said about executing something and making it to the end and knowing that i can enter it deeper when i have more energy, like in my exhaustion i can sing only the surface of something, i can give you the sketch of it, but i can’t paint yet at all, but i feel satisfied enough in drawing. my voice croaks, like the key i chose is both too low and too high all at once, sounding like speech and then i manage some notes.
little moments in the story flit out, and i am not doing the work these songs require, to follow it in my head as i go along. i am doing less than half. i am tired by the time i finish. i make some more sounds that sound like yawns at first and then back to hearing my heartbeat in the holding of a thin note.
I always think of bones, in Thelonius Monk’s music, too. This is the bones and the listener fills in the flesh. The bone quality of folk music . . . That has been always what I have tried to achieve in my own work. Down to the bone. Essentializing a form down to the bone. I’ve said it for years [that] for people to really know how to perform my music, they need to embody it and make it part of their bones.
i am remembering something aaron copland wrote about listening, how the first note is enough to change a room. with this 0 or 1 binary code of note-making, my sound into this room is a triumphant 1! where for many many months i had rarely uttered a noted sound, here was a note, flying out of my lips! i am alive, it turns out! watching so much tv makes me feel vampiric, existing only to consume things. and conversation, talking, is one sort of way to be in conversation with the world but i swear that singing feels a whole other way, catapulting. because, i am realizing how much intention it took for me to utter notes from my lips. how many weeks after meredith suggested i sing, how much force was needed to gather up that sort of intention in this ill me. I wonder how coherent this is.
Then after 16 Millimeter Earrings, I had a year or two where . . . I think I was feeling, depressed. I had worked my way into a corner of my intellect. My work was getting sort of dry. And then after that I started singing again.
I was just remembering Peggy Seeger singing “Wagoner’s Lad,” [from a record I had from college] and that kind of nasal sound. And I started exploring that. Go back to the voice, stop thinking about everything. Go back to the heart. Go back to the primal vocal vocabulary of your own. To work on myself, to develop myself. And that was as if my whole heart opened up, and I just knew that was going to be the center of my work. And that was the beginning of my real deep exploration.
I first heard “Wagoner’s Lad” when I was five. [sings] Controlled by their parents until they are wives, then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives. The first verse always got me, you know.
You connect with so many things when you sing a ballad.
You must be true to the idea of a ballad . . . There’s one song I sing from Aunt Molly Jackson. About somebody who robbed a rich person, because he had no money, no clothes, he had nothing. He was sent off to jail. I’ve never been in that condition. But there’s a huge number of homeless people on the street, in Oxford. And you talk to them. You see them. You read about what their lives are like. You kind of think of that while you’re singing.
i sang from bed tonight; ever since this afternoon, with the exertion of trying to write, i’ve had a fever feeling all over my body. eager for sleep but stubborn to not stop the streak of singing. and so i’ve been sending out a few lullabies to friends. i wish someone would sing to me over my bed some days. a song sung to me right now would be the best kind of impossible gift.
i tried to sing tonight and all i could do out under the stars was just weep and weep and weep and i sat there rocking trying to get through all the verses of amazing grace and i couldn’t get it out for crying and so i just sang it on the inside in my head and sometimes getting words out of my mouth. maybe if someone was there to listen i could pull it together. the stars are bright tonight and i sway.
and nothing feels helping. and i am too exhausted to remember releasing and and and
i am sick of crying over myself i am sick of crying over my own fear it is nothing nothing to other people’s daily struggles and yet i feel so far from anything else i don’t know
the world outside seems like a dream or something to me sometimes, lately
i keep repeating what the acupuncturist said, which is that all my emotional and mental things are symptoms of what is going on.
so i can be gentle with this form of vomiting, as i would, automatically, if i had to be on my knees in front of a toilet
Meditation is not that you’re going into this bliss sort of state, or transcend yourself. It’s more that you’re just present and present includes everything. Present includes your pain, it includes your resistance, it includes your joy, it includes your feelings, it includes your thoughts, it includes your body. It’s not this idea that you’re going to be like tweet tweet some angel flying away. And I think it’s the same in performance. you’re more present, rather than less present. You’re not in some state or in a trance. You’re really, really present.
Lynott’s Pub was warm on Friday night in November. Come in after a foggy drive on Achill Island’s main road. One small stone room. The fiddler moved here a decade ago, so she could play; tonight just her and a piper. I was sitting at the table by the fire, as I remember, also at the table are some kids from further into Mayo, rented a house for a full-on weekend of partying. So, the sounds of talk and laugher and the tunes and the fire and the smells of peat and beer all at once. Group of local guys sitting on stools at the bar, football jerseys and jeans, and the Irish countryside version of slicked back hair. Night gets longer, fiddler gets to talking, time for a song. One of the men started singing.
But—do the scene again, I don’t want this to feel so far away. Take away the stone and the peat, can I put this anywhere?
A Friday night before the plague and a crowded bar, and late into the night a man in a sports jersey starts singing, surrounded by his friends, and everyone in the bar falls quiet and everyone listens. He holds things tensely, fist clenched on the bar and his mouth never opens wide, and his face is mostly down; in the sound there is the feeling of something large pushed out with great force and great resistance, a strain; the hands of his friends on his shoulders.
Not the finest song or singer, but that is a detail you notice only afterward, if at all.
The song is something about love; and the feeling of a man in deep pain, a man going through it. Just listen for him. The guts of what’s happening feel solid, deeply private; but the words won’t ever let us in on any of the details. Not his song, in that sense. But his song for this moment on Friday.
And then it’s over, and the sense of spell breaking and the sound of the bar resumes.