Three women create musical memoirs in "Songstories"by Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
As bestseller lists will attest, the memoir is an extremely popular way for writers to delve into their personal lives and create an interesting read at the same time. Three Twin Cities writers are taking the form in a more audible direction by bringing it off the pages and into the studio. Their new CD, "Songstories," consists of what they call "audio memoirs" accompanied by songs sung by the women themselves.
St. Paul, Minn. — "I'm going to tell you a story about how time moves across the landscape of a song, the way the sun moves across the landscape of a place."
That's how 64-year-old Agnes Smuda begins her story, "The Long, Long Trail," which opens "Songstories." Smuda recalls a somewhat repressed childhood in a family that guarded its secrets. Music was the way her family members lifted that veil, and the way Smuda related with her mother and her father, who was a concert pianist.
"I knew him through his music," Smuda recalls. "I knew my mother through her singing. I knew things about her through her singing voice that I never knew by her speaking voice. Never knew. I heard a vulnerability and a beauty that I couldn't see otherwise, so I think that is true for all of us."
"The Long, Long Trail" is a song that's been woven into Smuda's life. Her grandmother sang it to her mom. Her mom sang it to her and her siblings. When their mom died, they sang it at the funeral. As a child, Smuda heard the song as a nursery rhyme set to music. Over the years she's come to understand it as an aria of her mother's life and her parents' romance.
"Songstories" turns the lives of three Minnesota women into mini-musicals. Agnes Smuda is joined on the CD by fellow writers Joan Calof and Nancy Fox. All three have performance backgrounds and strong musical traditions in their families.
The three met years ago in a group called Twin Cities Women Poets and Writers. Their creative kinship grew when they realized they all were integrating songs into their writing. According to Calof, 78, it was Smuda who came up with the idea of "Songstories."
"Agnes gave it the name and the name makes all the difference 'cause it makes it something new," Calof says. "But I've been doing singing with my stories for 14 years and one of the reasons is not very poetic. I always wanted to be a girl singer with a band, and there was little call for 'superannuated' girl singers with a band so I thought I'd put stuff in my stories."
"That means old," Calof explains with a chuckle.
On the CD Calof sings songs from her past and tells warm colorful stories about her upbringing in Winnipeg. There's a tale about how she held on to bits and pieces of her Jewish identity in the face of her father's rejection of that heritage. On another track she tells of how as a teenager she became consumed by the glamour and later the addiction of smoking. Her most personal piece is entitled "Portrait of Sylvia." Calof felt closer to her aunt Sylvia than she did her mother.
"Sylvia can sit happily in her house for days, playing her music, doing her sculpture, her painting. My mother complains that Sylvia doesn't call, doesn't come see her. They are two such opposites; Sylvia the slumberess, and my mother pouncing on her piano like a predator, rhythm being all, audience all. Sylvia doesn't give a damn if she has an audience, and her work is very good. I wish I were more like Sylvia."
Calof is a retired psychologist, which informs her perspective on her writing.
"I think life is an identity search and I write to pursue my identity and bring things kind of full circle," she says. "But I also want to give voice to people who weren't able to give their own voice. My Auntie Sylvia, I loved her very much, and I just needed to say that about her."
Other audio memoirs on "Songstories" sound like tender testimonials to loved ones who've passed on. On "Legacy," 68-year-old Nancy Cox traces her life as a voice teacher and singer back to her father's roots in Kansas. Cox writes that as a college student, he paid his own way, playing for dances in barns and roadhouses:
"His mom played the piano and he played the sax. And now, in the Great Depression, every day, Daddy taught farm kids to play clarinet, saxophone, violin, flute and piano. He conducted the marching band, the school play, the chorus. And when he came home, he sat in the overstuffed chair with three-year-old me under his arm, and when we sang together, out of his school teacher's book."
During the war, Cox's father joined the army. When he was stationed in Italy, Cox sent him a song she recorded just for him. The song is also on the new CD.
Cox, Calof, and Smuda are so taken with their audio memoir approach that they want other people to adopt it and write their own musical autobiographies. "Songstories" will be the basis for a class they're teaching at The Loft in Minneapolis this summer. Calof believes certain groups would be especially receptive to the format, female prison inmates for instance.
"I think there are women there that need to express themselves that way," she says. "I certainly think for a senior population it would work. So I see it as very...I don't know the word...pass-onable."
The three women will hold a CD release party Saturday from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. in the Open Book/Loft Literary Center. It will include a few performances of their songstories. After a proper rest, they plan to do another recording. For Smuda, "Songstories" is really an act of historical preservation.
"It's so gratifying to know that my children and my grandchildren, and Nancy's family and Joan's family will hear these things, and that they won't leave when we do."
- All Things Considered, 06/16/2006, 4:38 p.m.