Since its founding in 2007, Lifesongs, a program of the nonprofit Academy for the Love of Learning, has worked to create bridges between elder community members of Santa Fe and younger generations. Largely focused on patients in hospice care, the program has done incredible work in helping to tell dignified, human stories that come from those of us with the most life experience, alleviating some of the dread surrounding one of the most natural chapters of life—death. Through stories, poetry and song, Lifesongs has always helped veterans from the community tell their stories, and the upcoming concert Homecoming: Songs and Stories of Service is its first series dedicated entirely to the service of veterans, and is set on dispelling fears surrounding yet another cultural bogeyman: After the traumatic experiences of war, how do we welcome our veterans home?
SFR sat in on a casual rehearsal by some of Lifesongs' facilitating artists as they worked on material for an upcoming concert. The setting was relaxed and domestic, a seated affair in the living room of Lifesongs director and co-founder Acushla Bastible's home. Between run-throughs, the musicians reflected on the emotional weight of the lyrics, which are created in collaboration with veterans who worked with songwriters over months to craft lifetimes' worth of tales into songs. But it wasn't all dour, and the participants took advantage of any opportunity to crack a joke and laugh; what could have been somber, stifling tunes were often jaunty and celebrated the vets having lived to tell their tales.
Lifesongs Music Director Jeremy Bleich nimbly picked a fiery bluegrass solo that inspired a tapping toe, even when married with singer JJ Otero's wistful, affecting voice singing about featured veteran Sergeant Tony Molinar's difficult transition back into civilian life after a tour in the Vietnam Conflict.
"You can't see the dark without the light," Bastible says. "In order to survive, when you reflect on things and make meaning out of them, it's important to see both sides."
That sentiment resonates when listening to the song "Lucky Guy," written by featured veteran Bernie Armstrong in collaboration with facilitating artist Nathan Dunton, who expresses that Armstrong wanted his experiences in three foreign wars to be conveyed in a happy country style. Through a clerical error, Armstrong was called out of reserves to serve in Vietnam, where he flew fighter planes after already serving in both World War II and Korea. His lifetime of service is unfathomable; and seeing as less than 20 percent of Armstrong's class of cadets in World War II survived the conflict, it truly is an understatement to note how lucky he has been.
Another song, "The Reckoning," was written by Command Sergeant Major Billie Russell with facilitating artist Vanessa Torres McGovern, and it contrasts with Armstrong's in its more somber tone. Russell was a trained combat medic who wanted to serve in Vietnam but was rejected from that ambition because of her gender. Instead, she trained medics on the homefront while working as a nurse at the Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco. She helped thousands of wounded coming home from such terrors as the Tet Offensive, spurring her on to protest the war in her class "A" uniform—while serving, which drew ire from protesters and her superiors alike. Torres McGovern has created a strong bond with Russell, a crucial part of Lifesongs' core philosophy.
"That's where the song lives, feeling the connection with her as a person," McGovern explains. "What a privilege to hold the story of this person. We're not anthropologists, we're encouraged to bring ourselves to the relationship."
Veterans can feel lost well into their old age while we as a society struggle to learn the language of what they've been through. Lifesongs and its upcoming concert seek to teach that language through the relatability of song and storytelling.
"We want people to serve for us, but when they come back, we're not really prepared for what that meant," Bastible says. "In a lot of tribal and Native communities, people have homecoming ceremonies. There are ways in which people are re-integrated into the community. Because there's nothing here, we don't know how to do it and veterans don't know how to do it."
These songs, evidence of reintegration and connection with the community, prove that perhaps we can learn how to do it better.
Homecoming: Songs and Stories of Service
7 pm Friday Oct. 26. Admission by donation.
James A Little Theatre,
1060 Cerrillos Road,