Somehow, in the 14 years since I graduated from Smith, I’ve become a songwriter—a professional one. I feel a great responsibility as someone who gets paid to stand up in front of people, open my mouth and sing. What am I evoking in those audiences? How am I using my knowledge and experience to contribute to the world of music and the world at large? I think often about the power of song and where that power is directed.
I also worry about the lack of power in a song. Two nights ago, I had a dream that a couple of Ferguson protesters were denied access to my concert. They were cold and wet from many hours out on the streets and only wanted to talk to me about what they were fighting for, but were turned away from the door. I’d say that’s a decent metaphor for my fear that my songs, however thought provoking, nerve poking or action inducing I’d like them to be, are flaccid, weak attempts at effecting change. To be a singer in a band often feels irrelevant, impotent, ineffective.
I continue to write and sing songs, though. I know they have immense potential.
A recent example might be the flash mob at the St. Louis Symphony; during a pause between movements of the Brahms’ Requiem, they sang “Which Side Are You On?” while unfurling a banner with Michael Brown’s picture on it. That song was written by the wife of a union organizer in Kentucky and has been recycled and reinterpreted by voices and movements ever since. Songs have great power to unite, to call for group purpose. And, I suppose, to divide.
I’m often amazed at the emotional power of a song. I can recall my parents’ voices in an instant: my dad singing Ricky Skaggs and my mom singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a truly random smattering of tunes and words that can bring me to tears decades after I actually heard them. Tangible feelings, history, memory, meaning—all packed into a single song, ready for the listener to take it all in. I traveled to Haiti last year and heard songs that had existed in vodou ceremonies for centuries. I found it impossible not to have an emotional response, knowing what those songs and that culture have had to endure in order to survive to the present day.
I couldn’t write a piece on song for the Quarterly without mentioning my experience in The Noteables, one of Smith’s a cappella groups. Singing Stevie Wonder and U2 in front of audiences transformed me, I’m sure. We were entertaining people, belting with all the power we could muster. There was the incredible collaborative effort, the weaving of voices to create a sturdy whole; the sense that we were the stars, with the authority and strength that stardom holds; and the very physical sense of power that exists when you use your voice to captivate a crowd.
People often ask me where my voice comes from, and I’m never sure how to answer. How else, but through all of the many experiences that have shaped me as a human?
It’s no wonder that opening my mouth, breathing deeply and emitting sound is still such a vulnerable moment. All of my personal history, and my current emotional state, beam raw and exposed to the world, in a single sound vibration.
There’s no other job I’d rather have.
Merril Garbus ’01 records as Tune-Yards
Spring ’15 SAQ