My Journey Through Singing in the Great Turning

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by Gretchen Sleicher

Artwork courtesy of

One of the primary purposes of the Work That Reconnects is to help us turn toward each other rather than against each other as we navigate these times of great danger and opportunity we often call the Great Turning, and singing together is one very effective tool in the Work That Reconnects toolbox. This came home to me at the very first workshop with Joanna Macy that I attended in Silver Falls, Oregon, in 2003. I had grown up around a lot of folk singing, so it was a natural thing for me to grab my guitar and help instigate some singing around the campfire in the evenings, which brought the group even closer together, in that heightened state of vulnerability and connection that a long day of practice engenders.

By the time I had my next opportunity to work with Joanna, I had already started collecting songs that could be easily taught and sung together, to bring home the essence of each point on the spiral. I very tenderly and hesitatingly offered to weave some of these into the flow of a five-day workshop at Brietenbush, and it worked like magic! At the beginning of the day and the workshop, a song for Gratitude; in that poignant pause after Honoring Our Pain for the world, nothing like bringing our voices together in grieving; reinforce some Seeing With New/Old Eyes concepts with a song, and summon our courage and commitment with songs to Send Us Forth with our gifts for the healing of the world. Fun, connecting, and an opportunity for me to collaborate with other songleaders and share my gifts as a songpasser!

I believe that we humans were born to sing, and that everyone can sing. Humans evolved singing, we sang before we developed language, imitating the birds. Singing is a primal technology of belonging: to each other in community, to the natural world. And it’s one of the best ways to metabolize emotions.

Singing is a primal technology of belonging: to each other in community, to the natural world. And it’s one of the best ways to metabolize emotions.

 It’s a whole-body practice that can help get us out of our heads and into our hearts, and we can take it with us wherever we go. That’s why it’s so effective when it is woven into other practices from the Work That Reconnects.

One of the things I appreciate most about this body of work we call Work That Reconnects, is that it invites us to uncover what brings us most alive, see how that might contribute to the Great Turning, and it lights a fire under our butts to get out and do that/be that! My journey with this work is testament to the power of its call to wholehearted action, in collaboration with others, especially via resilient teams of two.

Once I started collecting songs that worked to bring people together around different points of the spiral, and experiencing the effectiveness of sharing them in Work That Reconnects settings, I wanted to find a way to encourage others to learn and use these songs. I found strong encouragement from Joanna and Anne, and a fantastic collaborator in Dennis Rivers, my webmaestro and companion in blessing who did the gorgeous design and technical work to create the Songs for the Great Turning website with me. That was back in 2010, and now thousands of visitors from around the world click around the site to learn and teach and sing these tried-and-true songs that help us sing in the Great Turning.

Those early experiences with Work That Reconnects and singing also inspired me to step into workshop facilitation, and over the past decade I have led gatherings I often title “Singing in the Great Turning”, everything from a 1 ½ hour brief introduction, to a co-facilitating a 4-day retreat. What helps me quiet the symphony of voices of doubt that ring through me every time I step into that role is knowing that weaving singing into these practices is powerful, and that it is a gift I am privileged to have and called to share. There’s no context where I feel more aligned with my own purpose than when I am helping people reconnect with their own deepest aliveness and purpose through weaving singing into the Work That Reconnects.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” ~ Martha Graham

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~ Howard Thurman

PT Songlines Choir

My Work That Reconnects-inspired journey in the world of song has also led me to throw my life energy into the maelstrom of intentional community living, at the Port Townsend EcoVillage, where I live next door to inspiring songwriter and songleader Laurence Cole. The two of us co-direct PT Songlines choir, where every week we get to bring people together in harmonious vocal connection, occasionally weaving in some open sentences as a practice to help choir members know each other more deeply. I’ve been writing lots of songs myself, and attending gatherings like Singing Alive where we get a glimpse of what it might look like when we find our way back and forward to being a singing people who know how to cooperate and support each other and care for the earth, as we navigate the unknown and sing ourselves home.

Since participating last summer in a gathering on Whidbey Island to explore decolonizing the Work That Reconnects, I am increasingly asking myself what that “home” means.My roots in my beloved Cascadia bioregion feel deep, but on the scale of time they are very recent, mere tendrils on the surface of this land stolen from the indigenous Salish Sea peoples who inhabited it for millennia.

My roots in my beloved Cascadia bioregion feel deep, but on the scale of time they are very recent, mere tendrils on the surface of this land stolen from the indigenous Salish Sea peoples who inhabited it for millennia.

So I remember to honor them, at the beginning of workshops I offer, and I make sure to investigate and get permission and credit the authors and the peoples and languages of origin of songs I help spread. When choosing practices to offer in a workshop, I try to put myself in the shoes of someone very different from me in terms of ethnicity, class, gender expression, physical ability, and make adaptations for inclusiveness and awareness of dynamics of oppression. Of course this is not enough, just a start.

The question of cultural appropriation around sharing songs is a delicate one. I love to sing and share songs from many cultures and languages, and have experienced in my own life deep connection and understanding and mutual enrichment across borders when we sing each other’s songs. But does it dishonor a song, its authors and people of origin when it is sung out of context, perhaps misrepresented and almost surely badly mispronounced by singers in a country that has been a perpetrator of oppression of those people? Or can the singing of that song foster understanding and break down walls between us? What were the songs of my peoples of origin when they were indigenous to their places and had roots as broad and deep as those of the grandmother cedars in my back yard? How can I help and encourage other songpassers from different generational and cultural backgrounds to spread songs for the Great Turning that speak to them, inspire and connect them the way the songs that I’ve been passing have done for people of my ilk? What makes certain songs have seemingly “universal” appeal and ability to inspire and bring people together?

No clear answers, but I can live on into these questions, avoid harm to the best of my limited awareness, keep challenging myself and others, share them humbly and keep on singing together through these crazy times!

The website presents songs for singing together that are organized around the points of the spiral of the Work That Reconnects. Many of them are layer songs or multi-part songs, and the site includes recordings of each separate part, and of the mix of all layers, along with lyrics, to facilitate learning, song-passing, and instant harmony-making. A “Community” tab includes songs for building community, and there are some “Other” songs that address themes of the Great Turning. If you know of songs good for singing in groups and that fit into these themes, Gretchen would love to receive your suggestions!

Links to some powerful songs that have come out recently:

I Can’t Keep Quiet, by MILCK

I’m Gonna Walk It With You, by Brian Claflin and Ellie Grace

Where Did Jesus Go?, by Sara Thomsen

We Shall Be Known By The Company We Keep, by MaMuse

Water Is Life, by Sara Thomsen

Gretchen Sleicher is a song leader, songwriter, communitarian and experienced facilitator of The Work That Reconnects. She has worked with Joanna Macy for the past 14 years, and led numerous workshops that weave participatory singing into interactive group practices. She is an English-Spanish translator by profession, and has lived and worked in several Latin American countries. She now lives in an intentional community on the Olympic Peninsula, the Port Townsend EcoVillage, and co-directs PT Songlines choir. She is the mother of two talented adults, also both musicians. Nothing pleases her better than getting a bunch of people to sing together in harmony.


2 thoughts on “My Journey Through Singing in the Great Turning

  1. Hi Gretchen,
    So nice to see this article by you and nice to see the links too. I took a Work that Reconnects workshop with Joanna Macy at Spirit Rock some years back and felt its power. Looking forward to sining more with you in Aimee group when I get back in town mid June.
    Thank you for your dear voice.

  2. Amazing and nourishing work! Thank you Gretchen. “That we are one body shared by all, we vow to remember.” Keep singing!!

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