Saturday, November 06, 2010

This Is Our Gulf

I sing "This Is Our Gulf" at Woodview Coffee House on Nov. 5, 2010. At left is accompanist Donna Palmyra. At right is Woodview director and host Jim Davis, who also coordinated Woodview's first song contest.

Whenever I can, I get to the monthly open mics at Woodview Coffee House a few miles down the road. This past summer, Woodview held its first song-writing contest, inspired by the Gulf oil disaster and in the tradition of Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl ballads. Woodview's aim was "to document in song the threat this oil disaster poses to our Gulf Coast way of life; to celebrate the beauty that is threatened by this manmade disaster; and to encourage alternate means of producing energy which are safer, cleaner and renewable."

I've composed pieces in the past, but had never before entered a song-writing contest... (click below to continue)

A concept came to me shortly after I saw the announcement -- to be precise, while I watched So You Think You Can Dance -- and, even more precise, as I watched and was brought to tears by Robert Roldan's and Allison Hoker's performance of "Fix You" (by Coldplay), choreographed by Travis Wall.

During the first commercial break after that, I rushed to my studio, grabbed a small pad, and spent that and subsequent commercial breaks scribbling bits of lyrics while working out the tune in my head. By about 3 a.m. the following day I'd gotten my draft lyrics down and had a pretty good handle on the tune, with a couple of rough spots still to hammer out.

The hardest part for me was writing the actual music. I get a disconnect when I try to translate the sounds in my head into symbols on the page -- for as long as I can remember I could play things by ear pretty easily, but my sight-reading has always been lousy. I had to re-educate myself about things I'd long forgotten, like dotted rests. About halfway through I also decided I was using the wrong time signature. I rewrote the sheet music a couple of times as I worked out the piano accompaniment.

After about a week of writing the melody and piano accompaniment and practicing the piece, I felt ready to record and submit -- somewhat. Due to my own emotional reactions and my rusty piano playing, I recorded the piano part first and then sang to it in pieces, singing the last section first and working my way to the beginning.

This is the recording I submitted to the contest (click here if the widget doesn't work):

Get this widget | Track details | eSnips Social DNA

Originally I didn't expect to hear about the contest results until February, but earlier this week I received an e-mail from Jim Davis saying that "This Is Our Gulf" had won an award, and could I perform it on Friday, Nov. 5?

I e-mailed Jim back with a call for help. With enough practicing I could play the piano part from beginning to end, but I still had trouble singing the song from beginning to end without choking up. Trying to keep emotional control and play the piano while singing was, at this time, more than I could handle.

(I wish I could blame my difficulty on menopausal mood swings, but no such luck; I've been like this for as long as I can remember. Decades ago I sang a spiritual, I forget which one, in my college choir -- or, rather, I sang most of it. Several measures before the end we hit an extraordinary, poignant chord in eight-part harmony, and it made my throat close up Every. Single. Time. I couldn't sing again until we started the next song, and the other first altos basically covered for me while I stood there all choked up with tears in my eyes.)

Jim contacted Donna Palmyra. I e-mailed him a .pdf of the score to forward. As backup, I made a CD of my piano track, so that I could sing to that if necessary, and spent the next few days rehearsing and blubbering to the point where I was embarrassing myself. But at least I did so in the privacy of my studio, blessed by Mary's patience with me.

I met with Donna for a couple of run-throughs on the afternoon of the performance, and she set about learning the score in short order while also preparing to accompany other performers that night. Woodview began the evening with an open mic, followed by the donation by Rodney Cole of a cornet to the Citrus Springs Middle School. Below, Rodney is at right, Jim is at left, and the cornet rests in the case on a chair.

There followed Woodview's featured act, the awesome Castlebay.

Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee of Castlebay (photo is from their website).

I knew that two song contest awards (out of four) would be given after intermission, then learned my song would be the second one performed. The other two awards would be given out at next month's coffee house. I assumed next month's awards would be for second and first place. I was wrong.

Gary Pane received second prize for his song "Crude Attitude."

I then performed with Donna on the keyboard (click here if the widget doesn't work):

Get this widget | Track details | eSnips Social DNA

Only after singing did I learn "This Is Our Gulf" had won first prize in the contest.

Here are the lyrics:

This Is Our Gulf

This was our Gulf, meeting the sky.
Water sparkled like jade
As the dolphins played.
But the dolphins -- are starting to die.
How can they go?
The turtles burn. Can they ever return?
Oh, when will the fishes come back?
I need to know.

Here was a marsh. Here was a bay,
Where minnows swam. There were pelicans.
But the marshes -- are slipping away.
How could they go?
There's tar on the soil and it smells like oil
As feathers turn black.
Can the estuaries come back?
I need to know.

What will become of the boats?
Of the people who pull in the nets?
Of communities clinging to hope?
Will their stories fade? Will the world forget?
Can we fix what has fallen apart?
Broken lives. Broken hearts.

This was my beach. This was my shore.
We took shells in our hands,
Made castles in the sand.
But the castles -- aren't here any more.
Where did they go?
Can they ever come back?
I need to know.

Let's turn the tide.
Let's make it so.
This is our Gulf and its waters flow far and wide.
Crossing the sky, falling as rain,
Feeding the seas and the ocean in currents
And circling again.

So let's use the sun!
Let's use the wind!
Let's use the heart and the wisdom of humankind!
Because to the ends of the Earth,
On every coast, we'll find

We all live on the Gulf.
We all live on the Gulf.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
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