During the last bit of our 70 mile journey from DC to Harper’s Ferry, we sang–Disney songs with new lyrics, blues songs invented by Paloma, and a new one called “I Shall Not Be Moved”. Cassie and I had talked about what a song would song like if the mountain wrote it, and I made up a song from our conversations about the mountain’s perspective on the changes taking place around it. A few months after creating the song, we spent a day with Larry Gibson, and the song took on new resonance, and seemed to be the song not only of the mountain, but of the people fighting to protect the land they loved. This song is sung during the final scene of “How To Lose a Mountain.”
Audio Story Collection
Shortly after we came back from the first 70 miles of the walk, I wrote a post for this site, and for the Dance Exchange blog, chronicling the experience I had out on the trail. Zeke Leonard, a Syracuse, NY-based collaborator on How To Lose a Mountain used my writing as source material for the “Walk Song”. Through a series of emails and Facebook conversations, he wrote and rewrote the song, trying to capture in music and words what it was like to walk from Washington, DC, to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Below is a slice of the correspondence between me and Zeke over a period of months.
As challenging as it was as times to develop a new song (not to mention a new work!) at a great distance, something about that distance, and what is lost and gained in it, really supported the themes of Cassie’s work.
From: Zeke Leonard
Sent: Sunday, April 15, 2012, 7:26 AM
To: Sarah Levitt
I have been thinking about you all for the last several days. Though I do not wish for a life different from my own, I do wish that mine was structured in such a way that I could have been on the trail with you all, to have heard the conversations, to have seen the cold dawn, to have heard the water falling or the wind in the trees with you. Those moments belong to you all now, punctuated by your own footsteps and the footsteps of your companions. Tonight, a hot bath for you and a soft bed. Tonight, warm food and cold beer and in the morning hot coffee. But if you get a moment before they fade into sepia memory, I would welcome your thoughts and memories.
Hope you are well. Nice work.
From: Sarah Levitt
Sent: Monday, April 16, 2012 11:42 PM
To: Zeke Leonard
The 26 mile day was a pleasant shock. Walking is so strange! It is not running. It is not dancing. It is not swimming. It is weight shifting back and forth from left to right. And again. With variation from changes in the ground or your speed. Cassie, Paloma and I ran the last mile of the day because our feet just wanted something new so badly. One of the sweetest parts of the day was taking a break after 14 miles. We found a nice spot in the grass by the Potomac (which we followed all the way to Harper’s Ferry), and slept out in the sun. I woke up, and I started to wonder how I could keep walking. But you put on your pack and start anyway. Its odd–when you are walking that far, the goal is of course to arrive where you are headed. But it also felt, in those moments, that the actual goal was simply moving foraward. That in falling back in the rhythm of our individual footsteps amongst the group we were accomplishing everything.
The other thing that happened that day was that we started referring to distance differently (“We decide how we measure it”, right?). So instead of saying, “We have 10 miles to go”, we said “We have 1 more banjo to go”. And when we finished the day, we got to say: “We walked more than 2 1/2 banjos today!” I can’t tell you what it did for us to change how we thought about the distance we had to cover.
We sang a lot. Because when you are singing, you are not thinking about how much your feet hurt! We sang Disney songs, and folk songs, and Paloma was great at creating new lyrics about walking for songs we know. I’ve been working on a song for Mountain, so swe sang that one a lot, too. We recorded it when we got to town, so I hope you’ll get to hear it soon….
…We ate constantly! We taught two workshops. And we slept outside, sometimes in a tent, but mostly not. We met amazing people when we were walking. And I saw all of these things in my colleagues that made me feel immensely grateful to walk alongside them. And although you were not with us, I can tell you that you were with us–from invoking banjos as miles, to all of the singing we did. We stayed at this wonderful home last night that is attached to a dance studio and one of the women that hosted us played banjo and sang beautifully, so we all ended up singing together at the end of the night. And this also speaks to your impact on all of us–these sorts of things didn’t happen before our visit to Syracuse, and now singing and sharing this way feels like a vital joy…
Zeke and I were communicating through a number of different mediums at this point, including Facebook chat. You won’t be able to click through the links, but here is an excerpt of the conversation about Zeke’s freshly-recorded song.
Re: zekeleonard sent you a video: “500 mile song”
Attachments: IMG_6475.jpg (182 KB)
Attached is the working copy. A little fuzzy, I’ll make the edits and send it along. I am sending it this way in part because I could not agree more with your point about “finished-ness”. The YouTube videos and a typed word doc make it seem so official, somehow, which is not where this is. It can be so hard sometimes to communicate process, can’t it? As you say, in the studio we both in our own ways have methods for riffing, for trying one thing and another without having to commit right away. I will often leave a couple of pieces of whatever the current project is on the bench over night or for a day or two and look at them several times before committing to using them in a particular way. This is one difference between our chosen crafts: I canot undo what I do to a particular piece of wood. And I am so pathetically nostalgic that I can not bear to do the “wrong thing” to a piece of lumber that was once a living tree. Seems disrespectful. Obviously there is no “wrong” in reality, but every piece of wood is so heavy with meaning for me that I tend to move slowly sometimes. It has been called out by some colleagues as a fault, but there it is. And it means that people often have to wait a lot longer for a piece from me, which makes them grumpy. Always things to learn, huh? Always progress to be made.
What a lovely contrast is song-craft! Words can be thrown around like two-year-olds, inserted and removed at a moment’s notice, placed and replaced. So lovely. So just now I am on a crusade against “dawn”, “road,” and narrative. At the moment it is a little too narrative, you know? Needs more of what I think you are referring to as imagery. So that will be the next iteration. Not sure when I think that will happen, but I am getting tired of singing it in the shower, so I need to get it on tape soon. Thinking I might try multi-tracking it in Garageband so that I can can do slide guitar overlay, and so that I can pull the vocals back some. I always think my vocals sound dumb if they are too present, which I think is actually about me not being confident in the words. Also a function of listening to a lot of 20’s and 30’s blues records, in which it is the shape of the sound of the words, not the words themselves that really matters. So I get caught in this purgatory of neither/nor, neither having words that are good enough to carry themselves not being able to simplify down to the place that it can just be around sounds made along with the music, you know? Again, always things to learn.
We’ve continued editing and crafting this song over the last year. It doesn’t appear in How To Lose a Mountain, but we consider it a bonus track, and a song that was foundational to the process of collaborating at a distance. We sing this song a lot, and we’ll continue to watch it transform as we sing it here in DC and Syracuse, together and apart, on front porches in the hot summer months ahead.
song: jane gabriels
guitar: lucio menegon
cello – valerie kuehne
recorded at kingtone studios