Hope Sings – An Interview with Sarah Pirtle

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Hope Sings is a free collection of songs for Work That Reconnects workshops and beyond.

Sarah Pirtle is a life-long activist, musician, Interfaith minister, teacher, award-winning author, and award-winning songwriter. She directs the Discovery Center for Peacebuilding which she founded in 1992, and among other things was involved in the origins of the Work That Reconnects, assisting in some of the first trainings for trainers in the 1980s.

Sarah has just launched a new part of her website (sarahpirtle.com) called Hope Sings, a collection of over 60 songs of inspiration offered freely for folks to listen to, download and use. What follows are excerpts from an interview Aravinda Ananda had with Sarah on December 13, 2017 – the day Hope Sings was launched.

What is Hope Sings?

It’s a website where you can look at the basic topics in the Work That Connects spiral, and find at least 10 songs on each topic. When you click on the song, you can listen, learn lyrics, read background information, and you can download songs. I wanted to make a resource that can be easily shared.

How did Hope Sings come to be?

I feel that songs are seeds. They carry packets of understanding. I wanted to find a way to pass these seeds. I know how songs can live at your shoulder giving encouragement and connection. One goal is to reach a person who is feeling isolated or discouraged with a song that can accompany them.

I realized I wanted to share a wide range of songs, songs about social justice movements, songs about loving the earth, and songs about courage. There are songs about Black Lives Matter, about the Women’s March, and one of the three songs I didn’t write is Náměšť by Jaroslav Hutka which marked the success of the Czech non-violent revolution.

When I got the idea of “I’m just gonna give them away for free,” the whole thing opened up.

Has your song-writing always been related to social change?

I’ve been a lifelong activist singer since I was 12. In 1962 I began going to Rowe Camp which is Unitarian Universalist. Our camp was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I got imprinted. When people said we can have solidarity and work together to change substantial things that are wrong, I believed it, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life in solidarity. It was my first experience of feeling inside of the web of life. Songs sung by Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs and civil rights songs were part of Rowe.

I think that empowering your singing voice is directly related to empowering your activist voice.

Is there a song you learned at Rowe that had a long impact on you?

We Shall Overcome. It brought us into solidarity. When a friend named Stuart Stott wrote a book on the history of the song, he quoted from my experience:

“I learned it at age twelve. When we sang it, the world changed in that very minute. As we sang it strong with our eyes closed, we were singing that truth into being, each word had power and insistence. We were telling each other that this world we can feel in our bones is coming to be.”

How far back did you start writing songs?

When I was three, I would go out and swing and I would make up songs for the oak tree and could feel the oak tree hearing and responding to the songs and it was just something I knew was happening.

In my early twenties when I was part of a feminist poetry troupe I wrote for our performances.

But from a young age I began to see how words carry a charge and point a direction. As a teenager I put words from Teilhard de Chardin on my bedroom wall that my UU minister Jacob Trapp said in a sermon: “Resonance with the all.” Those words were fuel.

The closeness we feel when we’re singing together eye to eye and the messages we are passing are part of the social growth that is happening in our hearts which is crucial.

Songwriting is a primary avenue of meaning making. The way I integrate new information is to write a song about it. At a gathering after 9/11, I heard important words by Arthur Waskow and his thoughts inspired me to write the Tree of Life song, saying, “If I hurt my neighbor, it will come back to me,” and I added, “If I hold your story like a trembling branch, new leaves come to be.”

If I’m having a hard day, I say, “I’m in a web of life with other people,” and when I relax back into that web, this shifts it. I go to the library in the children’s section and sit there reading biographies of African American women. This went into the song, “Strongest Light.” It begins, “The work they did, the Change Makers, they gave us hope to build tomorrow.”

Hope Sings includes both songs recorded throughout your life and also some new ones?

That’s true. Twenty new songs are included in the collection and I also drew upon songs from most of my ten recordings to make Hope Sings. For example, the 2006 song “House of Hope” is from Everyday Bravery. When I was pregnant with my son back in 1984, I released Two Hands Hold the Earth. One song from that is “Here’s a Hand Pulling You On.” We used to sing this song a lot in Interhelp* coming back from pairs into a closing circle.

I’ve written over 500 songs in my lifetime. I write songs continually. Once I stopped at a convenience store near midnight and said, “I am having a songwriter’s emergency. I don’t have my cell phone and I have a song in my head that I want to save. Can I use your phone to call home and sing it into my machine so I won’t forget it?”

A lot surfaced when I was studying to be an Interfaith minister and Peace Chaplain and I wrote seventy songs during those years. But it’s like boiling down a big vat of maple sap to make maple syrup. From that seventy, there are three included in the collection. 

When songs arrive in dreams or when I’m hiking or driving along and the seed of a song starts, I decide to receive and love what arrives as an expression from my inner life and a message from the broader web. I don’t judge it. I hear it. They don’t have to be shared or recorded to be valued. When I wrote, “My Roots Go Down,” I didn’t share it for three years until I was driving with my affinity group to the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment and realized it was a song that others might like to sing. This is likely now the most traveled song I have written. I encourage people to create their own verses with their love for the earth. There’s a version of “My Roots Go Down” on YouTube with a father and young daughter singing that has been watched by a million and a quarter people.

* Editor’s note: Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, many people active in Interhelp were involved with the origins of Despair and Empowerment Work, an earlier name for what has now come to be the Work That Reconnects. In these early days, Interhelp was sometimes used interchangeably with the workshop methodology itself which has now evolved and is commonly referred to as the Work That Reconnects.

I know you write songs to honor people’s courage. What’s an example?

Juanita Nelson near her Deerfield MA home.

Juanita Nelson and her partner Wally were leaders in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s. They lived at Woolman Hill in Deerfield where Interhelp leads yearly gatherings. It’s where I’ve been leading Journey Camp, a social justice and nature camp for 25 years. One of the times I brought campers over to talk to Nita she said, “Well, let me think of what I was doing when I was your age.” The Ballad of Juanita Nelson tells what she did at sixteen when she was changing trains in Cincinnati with her mother and the conductor pushed them to sit in the last car — but she wouldn’t sit there.

We rushed to the train at the station in Ohio.
We landed in the back car, the worst car that was plain.
Spider webs and dust piles. All the seats were torn up.
Only for black passengers, a segregated train.
I was just 16, it was in the 1930’s.
I stood up because I knew what I did know.
I looked at my momma, she looked back at me
My heart was beating hard, I knew where I had to go.

To make the chorus, I had to ask – how can I bring out the fact her whole life long, again and again, she made principled choices? It wasn’t just something she did at that one moment. In her 80s she started Free Harvest Supper in our county where farmers contribute and people cook and we eat in the town square. That was her idea. So, if you can show what’s possible, then people can make their own possibilities a reality.

Whatever age I be, I will follow what’s true for me.
Oh, the world outside can’t change me
The truth inside has claimed me.
I must do what I feel is true.

You were involved with the origins of the Work That Reconnects, before it had that name. Was there a lot of singing in the first workshops?

Yes, it’s always been a glue. The People’s Music Network — called PMN — was one of the streams that informed us. Pete Seeger said in PMN that “we used to be a singing nation.” If we take away informal singing, we are taking away an ancient way people bond. I think that one of the things that keeps an oppressive society going is to twist the avenues for solidarity. Having song contests, stratifying musical ability, erodes the basic communal function of singing. If we see singing at demonstrations as frivolous, and are afraid that bystanders won’t take us seriously if we sing, then we are losing a force we need.

I taught a graduate course on music in the classroom for fifteen years, and I urged people to feel that music belongs to everyone. Most people have a time in their life when their voices were made fun of. This is political. It stops us from using our voices to speak up in other ways and talk about what is not okay. I love the new songs by young activists that are used in demonstrations. Dineen O’Rourke and I led a workshop about this at PMN. I get so much inspiration from those songs.

Would you highlight a few other songs and how folks can use songs in the collection in Work That Reconnects workshops?

One song called “The Marrow of My Bones” is about sharing despair. The refrain has two phrases that we use in WTR, “I hear you, I am with you.” It says that hope grows in the marrow of our bones when we are deeply heard. When we share painful feelings and they are received, connection is restored. I wanted to make a song about that basic foundation of WTR.

Another type of songs are the history songs like “Women’s Pentagon Action.” In 1980 I was one of two thousand women who surrounded the Pentagon. Can you imagine that ever happening today? We had scarves in our hands so we could extend further. We made it all the way around. I’ll never forget the affinity group from Vermont using yarn to spin like spiders in front of the front gate of the Pentagon. Guards didn’t want to touch the yarn, so they got bolt cutters.  The women would return like spiders, and reconnect the yarn after it was broken.

I wrote the song to keep the story going.  Once you know that it happened, then you can visualize it and keep it as a force. Every action of nonviolence, if we keep the story going, whether or not we were there, we send ripples out and the power fuels the restoration of the web.

I feel it’s important to give people a chance to identify what’s their touchstone for feeling into the basic interconnection of life. The song “Eagle’s Back” in Calling Us In asks, “What is the place that connects us?”

When you are making a transition between activities and between sections of the spiral, a song makes an invitation back into the circle. Short songs or a chorus give words to have in your back pocket. There is a section on the website that’s called Using These Songs. If you click that, there’s Shorter Songs and Longer Songs. It points to songs like this one that simply says, “Hand by hand, we can hold on. Heart by heart, we can stay strong.” I use that to call us back after working in pairs.

Marija Gimbutas, Ireland, 1989

One of the things that’s amazing about a song is that, after singing it or playing a recording, in that moment the whole conversation is changed and new things to think about are offered. “Seeds of Partnership,” for example, is about the archaeological work of Marija Gimbutas and gives a picture of a time before widespread war was invented.

{Singing} “Oh I build a house of hope where you and I can enter.”

That’s the chorus of “House of Hope” about Richard Sitcha seeking asylum and ending up imprisoned. A song like this could be used in Hearing the Pain of the World. Or the song about seed savers brings out an issue that you want to spotlight. I’ve written sixteen songs about social change movements and issues and they are listed under the section “Music Within This Social Movement” that appears on the page “Social Change: Interhelp and the Work That Reconnects.”*

“We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who can before us,” says the song called “Ancestors.” For Seeing from Fresh Eyes it can introduce the activity of receiving a letter from an ancestor. It talks about the three deep times.

The Drum of Our Calling” can be used to introduce Going Forth. I took one of the basic activities that started around 1985 and put it to a melody while a friend, Ellen Clegg, played the steel drum. “If money and time did not get in the way, what would you do with your love for the Earth?”

One of the songs I wrote for workshops is called “Carry the Candle,” because at the end of a workshop, I’ll say, “Now we’re going to blow the candle out of our time together, but first we’re going to draw in the light of our being together.”

*Editor’s note: The “Social Change: Interhelp and the Work That Reconnects” page can be accessed through the Using These Songs menu of Hope Sings.

Why is the collection free?

Having places in our lives when we don’t have to bring money into the exchange of vital life force matters to me. I want them to be used and be helpful. Marge Piercy has a poem called, “To Be of Use.” One line says, “I love people …who strain in the mud and the muck to pull things forward.” The songs are for us as we’re straining in the mud.  I want to be in the spirit of the first bacteria who passed around their discoveries. “Hey I just discovered this and it is encapsulated in this song, and how does it strike you?”

There’s work in the world that you’ve done that we haven’t talked about. In the 1980’s you taught some of the first graduate courses on conflict resolution for teachers. You worked with Equity Institute and Communitas as a national trainer on unlearning racism starting in 1981. You were the central founder of the Children’s Music Network over thirty years ago, and this year is the 25th anniversary of the social justice camp you direct called Journey Camp. What does all this have in common with the Work That Reconnects?

Interhelp File Photo

Interhelp is where I felt the vision of beloved community come alive. It was a template for how to grow inside a community and how to build organizations that can do that. It showed me that in the midst of cultures of violence and oppression we can create places of beloved community that keep us going. We can make circles of trust where we each are empowered to grow and we feel others rooting for us. I am thankful to all the people in Interhelp and the Work That Reconnects who keep this way of being alive.  Back in the 1980’s I learned from Joanna, Fran, Chellis, Barbara, Tova, Kevin and so many others– all the people who grounded this work.

I dedicated Hope Sings to four of you who pulled me back into the WTR network where I am leading workshops and assisting in trainings again — you, Aravinda, Carol Harley, Paula Hendrick, and Joseph Rotella.

Any last thoughts you want to share with the Work That Reconnects community?

I love holding onto questions and then letting them power you. “How do we extend threads of connection?” is one of those questions. “How do we decolonize the work?” is another. “How do we follow Audre Lorde’s insight and dismantle the Master’s House without using the Master’s Tools?” We’ll keep asking questions so that we keep growing and stretching within the community.

I feel a sense of gathered wisdom held by open hands. Each person in the Work That Reconnects goes deeply into the meaning making. We work with the spiral and the activities in the book created by Joanna and Molly, Coming Back to Life. We comprehend the purpose that is there, make meaning ourselves, design new activities, work with the activities that exist, learn what helps bond us. I think that keeps this community very vital.

There is a sensation that I get when I’m leading a group with people who are new to each other. As we start to exchange, trust, and bond, there’s a feeling that I can best describe as, We’ve made soup together. I want us to keep learning how to make soup.

We will talk about oppression and generational trauma, and lean into hard questions. Our work is fueled by the force of Satyagraha – truthful love. We face the truth of oppression while we work together to mend. This truth talk is part of living inside the web of life. We will forge real connection.

Editor’s note: Sarah invites folks to contact her through her website. Perhaps you could suggest a phrase that you would like her to make a tune for, or share a song you want her to know about, or say hello.  

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