The Past Is Close Behind: A Holocaust Story-to-Song

This past week, I began my first post-doc Story-to-Song. I spent a few hours on a Tuesday afternoon working with a woman (I will call her Amy) who was the sole member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Her daughter (I will call her Dana) had attended a program offered by Lowell National Historical Park during Lowell Women’s Week this past March, for which I performed a few songs about Lowell factory workers that I had written using the STS method.

Dana came up to me after the performance and asked about working on a song as a birthday gift for her mother, who would be turning 90 in May. With my dissertation in full swing, I asked that we begin working together post-doc.

Post-doc arrived, and my experience with songwriting continued. Tuesday afternoon, I typed up 9 pages of single-spaced, size 12 font verbatim spoken story. The next step would typically be to shape the story into prose. I would sit with the participant and work with them to use the carriage return key at the end of each line they envision singing. Imagine a poem or a song on a written page.

Inhale, speak or sing words, exhale.

[Repeat for each line]

After speaking for over an hour, Amy expressed a desire to rest. While Amy rested, Dana and I shaped the story into a format reminiscent of a poem.

The next step was to make a recording of the participant reading through the text. Amy said she could not sing, that she was hoarse.

The singthrough stage of songwriting is one that participants, including myself, find uncomfortable and difficult. It is a vulnerable and scary experience to sing something without a tried and true, familiar melody. What often happens is that the participant sings in a safe range of notes, repeating many of the same notes again and again. For some reason—maybe a certain line of words has particular emotion—here and there a completely unique string of notes come out. It tends to be a variation of those notes that inspire the beginning melody for the chorus.

I hit record and spoke the date, place, people with whom I was working, and the songwriting stage I was capturing.

Dana began singing.

Within a few phrases, Amy interjected.

“That is not right,” she said. She began humming a series of minor notes over and over. I instinctively hit record on my ipod touch and moved it toward her. Dana stood up and carried it over to her mother, holding it by her shoulder.

I was so very moved. Her voice and the notes she was singing were haunting. Where had they come from and so suddenly? What inspired to begin singing after expressing a reticence to share that part of herself?

What I had thought was a unique melody coming from deep within Amy turned out to be a Yiddish song from youth. Regardless, she had been moved to sing that song. And I wanted to honor that inclination. In recording her singing, I could use those notes and the key she was singing in to begin shaping the melody of the song.

I found it strange that when I left Amy and Dana that afternoon I felt empty feeling and like I was moving through a fog in slow motion. I wondered if I had completely failed as a composing guide. Some songs reveal themselves quickly and others over time. I had anticipated spending 2 hours and creating a short song. At the very least, I imagined that I would create a chorus. After more than 2 hours, I did not have a chorus or an original singthrough from the participant.

I am a very sensitive person, kind of an emotional chameleon. I take on the emotions I sense from the people around me. I also take on the role of caretaker, trying to help alleviate sadness and suffering. In so doing, I often internalize the emotion and energy.

I had felt very little emotion as I sat typing Amy’s story. How was it possible, especially given my own family’s Holocaust stories? My childhood was thick with Holocaust films, readings, and discussion at the Hebrew school I attended. When I was in college, I watched a film about a Jewish pianist. At the moment in the film when officers lifted a wheelchair, sending an elderly man over the balcony plunging to his death, I burst into uncontrolled sobbing and swore never to watch another Holocaust film as long as I lived.

When I arrived home, I poured a glass of wine, sat down, and opened my laptop.

There was so much in her story, which followed many events over a number of years during the Holocaust. I spent two hours trying to reduce the 9 pages of text into 1 page with 2-3 verses, a chorus, and a possible bridge.

By the end, my stomach ached, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I edited so much of the story and was so immersed in the words that I could no longer look at it objectively to know if the events that made it to the 1-page story made any sense at all. I sent the document to my Story-to-Song partner for an objective eye and guidance.

Malcolm and I connected two days later and talked about the song. He had not seen the 9 pages, but he instantly felt the power and emotion coming from the story.

A challenge with songwriting using the STS method is to figure out the deepest emotion from the story and to create a chorus that expresses that emotion in words, melody, and groove. There were so many strong emotions through this story that I created an entirely separate document so I could refer back to them as I shaped the verses and decide which was the most relevant to the storyline. The chorus I chose was one about what it was like to be a young girl going through so much darkness:

Young, so very young
For the things that I went through
I would have never have survived.
But the dear lord was with me.
And I survived
Yes I alone survived

The verses create a foundation: setting, action, and the most intense part of the story is either the final verse or a bridge. In this story, the most intense part of the story was toward the very end of the war. She had survived this long only to have her Star of David discovered and to be sent in front of the commandant. At this darkest of possible moments, something good appeared. The commandant, whose first inclination was toward the dark, hesitated and then let her go.

For this story, the deepest emotion Malcolm sensed was the desire this woman expressed in wanting to believe in people. So I changed the stanza I had envisioned as a bridge and shaped it with Malcolm to become a chorus:

I want to believe in people
I want children to know the truth
What one person can do to another
And what one person can do for another
I want to believe

It is from these words, along with a recording of the participant humming a Yiddish song from her youth, that I will begin looking for a melody.

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