They Found Strength in Song

A folk artist whose music carried her audience through its growing pains.
A young trumpet whiz whose spirit soars above tragedy. A guitar virtuoso who teaches
his craft to those who need it most. Although Janis Ian, Irvin Mayfield and Jorma Kaukonen
have taken divergent paths, music has shepherded each through both trying and
celebratory times. Here are three takes on music and health from the musicians.

By Allan Richter

October 2008

Janis Ian: Songstress Provides ‘Safe Harbor’

When the singer-songwriter Janis Ian grew bored with her guitar work 15 years ago, her partner suggested she approach the instrument as if it were new to her. “I would just be looking at it and would hit this and see what kind of sound that made, and I would hit this and see what kind of sound that made, and I would go on from there,” Ian recounts. “And it became a completely different thing. I was looking at it as a non-musician, as just a human being who had come upon the proverbial coke bottle in the desert. I think it’s just really important to look at things like that.”

Ian has spent the better part of her 57 years giving listeners a fresh view of life’s detours, travails and celebratory moments. Informing the Grammy-winning folk singer’s body of work is a volatile life of abusive relationships, substance abuse, financial turmoil—and triumphs—chronicled in her uplifting autobiography Society’s Child (Penguin). The book, as candid as her music, shares its title with the song about interracial relationships Ian wrote when she was 14.

“The way that I look at my own work is the only thing that I do a little bit better than my contemporaries—I’m not a better singer, I’m not a better writer, I’m not a better performer—is that I sometimes can take something that’s difficult for people to talk about or think about and make it a safe harbor for them to do that. That’s what I hear most often in something like ‘At Seventeen’ or ‘Society’s Child’ or ‘I Hear You Sing Again.’”

Music was less a constant in Ian’s life than something that befriended her at critical moments, like when she sought solace in songwriting after the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. At a more upbeat time she wrote “Thankyous” as an homage to her family, triggering an emotional reconciliation with her mother. And writing “Stars,” her most recorded song to date, left her feeling elated. “It was magic,” she writes. “There was something incantatory about the melody, something that felt older than I’d ever be.”

“Music pops us back to times in our life that we may need to reconnect with, either in order to gain closure or to re-experience the joy they brought,” Ian tells Energy Times. “Second, it seems to allow us a cathartic event that we can’t otherwise do ourselves as easily.”

Both of those dynamics are still at work with Ian’s huge hit “At Seventeen,” now embraced by its fourth and fifth generations of listeners. Mothers are connecting to their daughters through the song, about the gauntlet of feelings teenage girls must navigate, by showing they shared the same emotions and concerns when they were young. “It becomes a talking point,” Ian says.
“Songs are with us from the cradle to the grave,” observes Ian, who sees music as another form of alternative medicine to which she sometimes subscribes. “Our parents sing to us when we’re born and we sing at people’s funerals to give them a good sendoff. If there’s an art form that’s pervasive in our lives and that recalls pretty much every important moment in our lives, it would be music. Yet music is so invisible. You can’t touch it. You can’t stop it.”

Jorma Kaukonen: Six Strings Cure Many Ills

As lead guitarist for the freewheeling 60s rock band Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen infused seminal psychedelic hits like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” with potent guitar licks. Kaukonen, 68, has long stopped flying high with the Airplane. He credits the constant of music in his life with seeing him through his reckless young adulthood and keeping him grounded in a rural Midwest life of parenting and teaching.

When Kaukonen is not home with the two-year-old he and wife Vanessa adopted from China, he is on the road with acoustic and electric incarnations of his Airplane spinoff band Hot Tuna. At home, the guitar doesn’t get tucked away with the rest of his luggage; the musician and his friends teach at Fur Peace Ranch, the music school the Kaukonens founded near their southeast Ohio farm.

All that playing, Kaukonen is certain, has kept mind and fingers nimble. “It keeps the connection between my brain and my hands alive,” Kaukonen says. “And it keeps my hands moving. I’m not as flexible as I used to be, and I think I have some incipient arthritis, but as long as I keep moving things seem to work pretty well.”

In his youth, jamming was less an exercise in applying music theory than simple expression. But today Kaukonen keeps his mind sharp by experimenting with unusual chords and harmonies. “As I learn about things that maybe should have learned when I was younger, things that never would have crossed my mind because I wasn’t approaching music from an abstract point of view,” he says, “I find it very exciting.”

The guitar, Kaukonen says, helps make music as fulfilling as possible. “When you’re holding the guitar you feel the vibrations against your body. Music, to me, is also physical besides being intellectual and emotional. It becomes a part of your breath.”

The guitarist says the music of the tumultuous Sixties resonated so powerfully because of the era’s politically charged climate and the draft. “I got drafted, and I went to some lengths not to go,” he says. “A lot of people went. We all made choices. But it’s not like that today, so you don’t have that kind of pressure where you’re being asked to do something where, if you don’t want to do it, you have to face some consequences.”

That personal history hasn’t put distance between Kaukonen and those who have enlisted—a demographic he says needs music’s healing qualities. With acoustic instruments in tow, Kaukonen and his band mates have strolled the hallways of Walter Reed Army Medical Center to play for wounded veterans. And the Fur Peace Ranch doles out scholarships to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, like Cullen Shearburn, 27, a former infantry platoon commander of 40 Marines who had seen heavy fighting while deployed in Ramadi, in central Iraq.

“You go away to these violent places and do these violent things, and when you come home, you don’t really come home,” Shearburn says. “There’s pieces of you that are left over there, emotionally, psychologically, sometimes physically. When you go to war, you have to forget part of your life to make it through. Finding yourself homesick could put your life in jeopardy. Anything that makes you a good son or good father or good person—you have to put that aside in hostile conditions like that.”

Shearburn, a sales rep for a California tactical gear company, says he had been home from Iraq for more than a year but had not regained many of those pieces of himself until he heard someone playing an acoustic version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” this summer at the Kaukonens’ Fur Peace Ranch.

“Some memories of when I was younger came back, when I would sit around with my folks and we would listen to The Beatles’ White album,” Shearburn recounts. “Until that point I had forgotten that.

A lot of memories of what I used to be like, and just a feeling of overwhelming happiness that I had not felt in a long time, opened up and hit me at once. I hadn’t been able to cry since I got home, and I just broke down. It all just purged at once.”

Later that day, before performing a blues song, Shearburn thanked the audience of music students and teachers. “I told them this is the first time in over a year that I felt like I’ve gotten back some of who I used to be,” he says.

Many aftershocks and bad dreams have since disappeared. “That’s testament,” he says, “to the power of music.”

Shearburn connected with Kaukonen. “I could tell that he and I haven’t shared the same experiences,” Shearburn says of the guitarist, “but I think he knows what it means to be repaired in some way by music.”

Irvin Mayfield: The Spirit of Renewal

After taking the stage at “Higher Ground,” a 2005 benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina relief, the trumpeter and bandleader Irvin Mayfield announced that his father was still among the missing in New Orleans. Mayfield went on to perform a rousing rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” a hymn both mournful and celebratory that is played at New Orleans funerals.

A New York Times review called Mayfield’s performance at New York’s Rose Theater the concert’s most touching. “From a hushed, sustained, almost tearful beginning, it turned more assertive and ornate, with growls and extended slides, determined to rise above sorrow,” the review said. One day after the concert, his father’s body was identified.

For anyone looking to that moving concert highlight as evidence of a connection between pain and stirring art, Mayfield is here to tell you otherwise. “There is no tragedy that will uplift someone’s art form,” Mayfield says, adding that renewal comes from the soul and music is its purest form of expression.

Mayfield, 31, points to the slave-era field hollers and work songs that were precursors to blues music. “The type of joy you have to have inside of you to get over being a slave, to resonate that in a song, has to be so powerful, so infectious, that anybody can be a part of it. That’s the kind of joy they had,” he says.

“We’ve got more material stuff now than we have ever had in our entire life,” Mayfield says. “But people feel they have less because we are looking for something external instead of dealing with what’s inside. Sometimes to get away you need to go deep within, and music is a powerful tool for that.”

Mayfield’s father, a boxer and drill sergeant who played bugle, taught him to play the trumpet in their native New Orleans. The army officer in his father made Mayfield take his instrument seriously.

His father insisted that his first performance be in a church. That religious connection echoes in how Mayfield remembers his father and all the hurricane victims. Mayfield, the Crescent City’s cultural ambassador, is spearheading the Elysian Trumpet Fund to support music lessons and performances of spiritual works. The ornate horn, blessed by spiritual leaders during its travels, is a symbol of interfaith renewal.

Like the memories of Katrina’s victims, Mayfield’s latest album, “Love Songs, Standards and Ballads” (Basin Street), survived the hurricane. Session tapes were lost to the storm, but Mayfield had preserved the mixes on his iPod. Says Mayfield, “It was by the grace of God that I didn’t erase those takes.”

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