Humbly Courting a Song

I have been slowing savoring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Among its many charms, the book opens the world of plants through both traditional indigenous wisdom and scientific inquiry. In many of the exquisitely crafted essays, Kimmerer refers to the indigenous way of approaching other living beings in a respectful, listening way.

In the last few years, I’ve been approaching songs in much the same manner.

I am sitting at my piano late at night playing a favorite song from my childhood, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon.  I play it over and over in different ways, listening for something to “click.”

It’s not clicking, so I try something else. Nope. Still doesn’t feel right. I keep trying different approaches, listening deeply with “the ears of my ears” (to quote e.e. cummings). It feels as though I am in a negotiation with the song itself. The song feels alive, full of preferences and desires that deserve my respect.

On my next attempt, I make the song as tender, simple and quiet as I possibly can. At long last, I sense the song saying “yes.” Something clicks. And in that moment, I finally understand why I am compelled to sing and record the song: it reflects my commitment to seeing my aging mother through whatever comes. She is getting wearier and times are often rough. She is the silver girl I am sailing right behind. It seems that the song “knew” this all along.

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down…..

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind

© Paul Simon

When I finally record the song a few months later, I do so late at night with a candle burning in the darkened studio. I bring that tender, quiet spirit to the singing of it. I do what the song taught me to do.

Now I bring this “courting” process to many other songs, my own compositions as well as those composed by others. I come to every song with humility, curiosity and deep listening – much the way Robin Wall Kimmerer describes asking wild leeks permission before harvesting them.

I have absolutely no scientific proof that songs are sentient beings. I can say, though, that invaluable gifts come into my singing by assuming they do.

(Most of my blogposts about songs include a link to the song on SoundCloud. Because “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is copyrighted to another songwriter, I am unable to do so. To hear my version, you’ll need to purchase it on iTunes or some other platform. It is also on my “Yes” CD.)

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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4 Responses to Humbly Courting a Song

  1. Sue Rodli Astin says:

    Barbara, I LOVE this story for two reasons: one, it reminds me of my mother and the love I had for her as she aged and her body became more fragile; two, I can relate to your claim of the value and importance and power of music and how it can change/impact lives. (my interpretation of your words). I admire your talents re: music and how it enables you to communicate your thoughts and feelings – what a gift. Thanks for your story of such a famous song, sung your way.

  2. Lois Albrecht says:

    Love this approach to song writing, Barbara…and the inspiration! When Northland College awarded Robin an honorary degree she gave a wonderful graduation address. I also loved her book and had the privilege to drive Robin from Ashland to Minneapolis and talk to her 1:1.

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