SACRED GROUND by Barb Tilsen
These songs of peace, parenting, and communal struggle span many years. I wrote “Daughtersong” in 1982 when I was pregnant with my youngest child, Molly. My desire to sing about hope in the midst of hard times and the legacy of strength and survival we share became a conversation to her. “Waters of Life” is a musical meditation on the power and beauty of two beloved shores and the climate changes that threaten them. I first wrote this song about acid rain in the 1981. I periodically re-write the lines as the environmental threats evolve and the stakes continue to rise. Our water is precious. Mní Wičhóni, Water is Life. “May Day” spotlights the May Day Festival and Parade, a vibrant community celebration organized annually by the amazing In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater in my neighborhood in Minneapolis Minnesota. “The Cabin Song” by Isaac “Ike” Russell, the only song here written by another songwriter, is special to me. I have known Ike since he was a child. He first sang this song to me at my hospital bedside in 2016. My daughter Molly wrote its final verse while sailing on the ocean.
I wrote the musical poem “Sacred Ground” in the mid-nineties reflecting on the profound connection I felt singing to my own babies as well as to those of friends and family in my musical work with young children. Combining the singing voice and the speaking voice through poetry and song, I wanted to express the wonder I felt, the deep and abiding promise to cherish, protect and nurture these new lives and the world in which they grow. I wrote “The Birth Song” for my oldest daughter Becka and my son Eddie. Becka was born in a car, Eddie was born at home, each one an amazing birth story. I could finally find the words to express the profound experience of giving birth after he was born. “Two and a Half,” also for Eddie, celebrates the impish attitude and brash charm only a child of that age can bring. “Changes” for Becka, is the conversation she and I had when she was starting kindergarten, just tweaked in the smallest way to make it rhyme. At my daughter Molly’s bat mitzvah service I sang “Dancing in the Circle,” a song I wrote to celebrate her caring strength and grace in this beautiful moment in her life.
The song “Kimberly Rose” tells a story especially powerful to my family. Young Kimberly Rose Means was killed by a drunk driver in 1981 while on a spiritual Run For Freedom from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to Sioux Falls Prison. The Run ended that year at the site where she was killed. In 1993 my 11-year old niece, Kimberly Rose Tilsen, organized a Run in honor of her namesake to finish the Run for Freedom. With the help of family, classmates, and friends, my niece’s young voice on this song tells the moving story of this Run. More information with slides and interviews about the ’93 Run for Freedom can be found here. (link to Run For Freedom slide show coming soon)
I’ve included my songs about the lives of those who’ve gone before us, their courage and strength, their hope and resilience. “Freedom’s Roots” is about my husband’s great- grandmother, Marian LeSueur, an incredible speaker, organizer and teacher. I adapted its final verse from the moving poem Irene Paull wrote as a eulogy in tribute to her.
Irene Paull sent her powerful poem “Grandma’s Battle Cry” to our family to be read at the 80th birthday celebration of Marian’s daughter, my husband’s grandmother, Meridel LeSueur. Meridel’s daughter Rachel called me immediately after receiving it saying she thought this should be a song. I was so moved by it, my melody and arrangement flowed naturally from Irene’s evocative words.
I believe our right to make change is a fundamental, integral part of our democracy. In 2010 young people in Minnesota were facing trial for organizing political protests during the 2008 Republican National Convention. I wrote “We’ve Got the Right” to sing at a benefit concert for their defense. In 1988, I was invited to sing for the 20th anniversary of the Honeywell Project which had been challenging Honeywell Corporation to convert their weapons manufacturing business to peaceful production. The theme of their celebration was Mahatma Gandhi’s powerful words, “Even a single lamp dispels the deepest darkness.” I wrote “Even a Single Lamp” to sing there.
I’ve been immersed in the poetry and writing of Meridel LeSueur my whole adult life—this beloved member of our family, grandmother, mentor and muse. She has been one of the biggest influences on me as a poet and songwriter. Meridel has inspired so many generations with her incredible work. When I was younger, she would have me type her journals so she could work with them in her writing—with carbon paper in triplicate so she could literally cut and paste what she wanted for whatever poem or story she was working on! I’ve set several of her poems to music, “Communal Global Day” is one of my favorites.