Vision, strength and artistic expression. Each was abundant during VSA TN’s 2012 Art Institute at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee as people of all ages gathered to create, learn and then display their accomplishments. VSA TN offers those with disabilities exposure to visual art, dance, literature and music through the guidance of professionals in those fields. I was honored to be this year’s “music person,” and if the week was half as rewarding to the participants as it was to me, I’d say it was a huge success.
Through a recommendation from my friend Tammy Vice, VSA TN’s Lori Kissinger contacted me and told me that this year’s theme was rivers. Alright! I could channel my inner John Hartford and perhaps those in attendance could write a river song.
Fire up the engines, raise the steam
I asked Tammy, a fine songwriter, for advice on how to write a song with three separate groups who would meet in three separate sessions daily from Monday through Thursday, then perform the finished product on Friday. She was last year’s music person and suggested I do what makes perfect sense: start with words. We sang a few river songs like Hartford’s Mississippi Queen, John Fogarty’s Proud Mary and Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home for inspiration. Then, each group suggested words that related to rivers. Water, fish, boats, downriver, steamboats, passengers, cargo and more all appeared on a big white board.
Blow the whistle and the steam comes through
Once we had the basics, a story and song could be created. What river could we use? Well, a list including every stream from Duck River in Tennessee to the Amazon and the Nile emerged and among them was the Cumberland River, which runs right through Downtown Nashville. The best name for a steamboat on our own river? The Cumberland Queen, of course.
Between the three groups, we wrote a chorus, two verses and a bridge to create the musical story of a steamboat that carries cotton, lumber, people and entertainment along the river.
Strike up the band and start to play
As the week went on, both the participants and I learned the song and sang it over and over. I reminded them of the songwriting mantra that, “you not only have to write songs, you have to remember them, too!” To help them (and me) on the day of the performance,
poster boards with the lyrics were placed on chairs within view. After special guest James “Nick” Nixon, one of Nashville’s blues legends, performed a great set of his own music, it was time to sing The Cumberland Queen. The students belted it out like an experienced showboat chorus line to rousing applause.
Dancers Board the Riverboat
Not only did the talented participants write and sing a song, they learned a dance through the guidance of Deanne Collins that gave visual life to Fogarty’s Proud Mary. Complete with a long cloth representing the river’s waves, an elaborate dance ensued. In addition, river-related art they had created with the help of artist Annie Tagg was on display at the event.
She’ll take you there, then bring you back
Being a part of the week and the process reminded me of why I wanted to learn to write songs and perform years ago – the sheer joy of it. If you ever get the opportunity to use your skills to show others how they can enjoy those same abilities, take it. You’ll receive much more than you give and you’ll also experience the wonderful vision, strength and artistic expression which motivated you to follow your passion in the first place.
Note: section headings in this text taken from lyrics of The Cumberland Queen. Learn more about VSA TN at www.vsatn.org
Learn More about Les at www.leskerr.com
Text and photos copyright 2012 Les Kerr