My grandparents are buried here, in Tewantin. I remember the day we lowered Pam into the ground, it had been raining for days. I took a step back as they lowered the casket into the canopied hole dug fresh that morning, and found that I had landed the heel of my boot in the middle of a gigantic sojourning cemetary worm.
Pam and Hal had retired from a life of sheep cattle and wheat in Western NSW to the sun and the enervating salty seas of Noosa. Hal passed ten or fifteen years earlier than Pam; I don’t remember much – prostate cancer, and hushed stories of Hal fighting off the nurses in his latter bedridden days tortured with morphiaed memories of WW2 in Papua Guinea, the Japs. Japan was where my CD player came from. It didn’t connect.
We played the Majestic in Pomona a little over a week ago, with The Soldiers Wife. Again, I was drawn out on a memory – this time Pam. She’d taken me to that indeed majestic place of red velvet curtains and wooden floor boards in my late teens to watch the silent movie The Son Of The Sheik, accompanied by live theatre organ and flickering subtitles. I didn’t think of Egypt, of Hal in Tobruk. I didn’t feel the heat of the dessert dunes. I thought Rudolph Valentino was hot.
You can’t beat yourself up for youthful ignorance, I think now. Think of that ignorance as a protection in that moment. Too young. On Saturday, after the Pomona show, we launched ourselves into the Partners Of Veterans Association two-yearly social bash at Standdown Park, north of Gympie. We swan about in costume and hug Anne, Pam, the true wives we’ve come to know and admire. Bertie and I jump up onstage with the Australian Army Band (Brisbane) for a song and a dance. And we sing our songs, songs inspired by our audience, and the air is still and everyone is silent. And afterwards, a few gentle conversations, more hugs, the gratitude of the women, that they be heard, and us, swamped with gratitude for having found a way to make our songwriting gifts valuable to the community.
What is it that makes telling your story to a stranger so powerful? How can six women roll into a regional town and extract tales and narrative about sensitive, emotional issues from the local residents and walk away with superbly written songs? Songs revealing the true life of the families of the thousands of war veterans who served their country in the countless battles that have scarred our nation’s history. Songs that will travel the state and be retold to the strangers who sit in drafty halls, drawn in by curiosity and intrigue, longing to hear the tales that will be lost with the passage of time.
As a woman, as a song-writer and as a passionate community contributor, I was filled with excitement and insecurity as I waited on the steps of my home to be picked up in the minivan and transported to Roma, the heart of the Maranoa region. Deb, Emma, Roz, Jackie, Kristy and me: girls on a mission to change the world one song at a time. Destination Big Rig Caravan Park was the place where we would hang out, sleep and bond over the sharing of original songs and philosophies, joined by the lone male, Hayden, who was about to document our project, our process, our journey through the songs of war.
Filled with a sense of purpose and responsibility, we headed to our first workshop at St John’s school, where more than 20 students gathered eagerly to meet with us, curious to see just what a song-writing workshop might actually be. It was encouraging and inspiring to find the students had researched two members of the school community who had been affected by a soldier’s service within their family. Mature enquiring allowed our team to have two pages of information with which to dissect and reassemble into a song, led by the students, guided by the loving hands of our song-writers… then a song was born!
The following day, after feeling so inspired and connected by the experience of working with fresh, young minds on a subject that is often ignored, we trotted off to Pinnaroo, the local Roma nursing home to experience the opposite spectrum of participants. After sharing pre-written songs, we engaged in a spirited sing along and get to know you chat, where all the facilitators worked the room in search of friendly conversation, connection and a story or two that could be shared… All of us
were touched and sometimes saddened by these gentle loving souls, a sprinkling of anecdotes came gently floating from their memories, out of their mouths and to our ears and our hearts. Lyrics and chords ensued, the women taking the precious memories of these amazing elders and moulding them into songs.
We were fortunate enough to return to the school for a second session, where a story told during our visit to Pinaroo had made its mark on our team and became the focal point of yet another song.
It’s almost indescribable how it felt to then take these precious songs and perform them for a welcoming crowd; most rewarding when the youngsters jump up and share their own song alongside us. I feel deep within me that a healing had taken place in Roma during our stay, a cathartic, energising experience that reached out and enveloped both the facilitators and participants. I penned a few lines from the stories that wafted into my psyche during the Pinnaroo visit…
Ghost Town by Melinda Wells (Roma 2016) It’s a ghost town, we live in fear, Dust settles as they disappear
Down the long, long road, see the silhouette, of a hundred soldiers we will not forget Come home baby, come home. Come home baby, come home. Life moves at a slower pace, wake in the night and I see your face
Days into months and I play the game, waiting for a letter that has your name Come home baby, come home. Come home baby, come home.
Please don’t let there be a knock on the door, to tell me I won’t see you anymore
The silence lingers like a frosty night, one woman’s pain will be another’s delight Come home baby, come home. Come home baby, come home.
I see your shadow stretch across the stones, I see your uniform hang from your bones
My heart breaks for the anguish I see, but I thank the Lord that you came home to me. You’re home, baby you’re home. You’re home, baby you’re home.
After a few months break from touring and writing and a really busy 2015, we were extremely lucky to receive some funding from the Regional Arts Fund and the Australia Council to get back to what we love doing – spending time with families and writing their stories.
First stop on this year’s adventures was Cairns. It’s always exhilarating to get back on the road. There are also feelings of trepidation in meeting women and families and will we be able to meet their expectations of us. It’s extremely difficult to put into words sometimes the connections and meetings we have and the first time meeting with a woman or her family. Firstly – we have to gain enormous trust– to be able to put that person completely at ease in sharing their story and ensuring that they feel comfortable speaking with us. I mean would you share your life story with a bunch of complete strangers who can be quite complex at times and who are about to put your life story into a song?
It is a big ask of anyone and we have the utmost respect for the women and families who share so openly with us. It is a privilege and we aim to protect these stories and do them as much justice in sharing as we can.
Someone recently said we are social workers with guitars – which essentially is what we are.
So back to Cairns. We only have two days to write songs locally and then perform a show – which of course we want to include the local stories as that’s such an important part of doing regional touring.It’s not a lot of time to work through a big story and turn it into a song that we and the person contributing their story feel comfortable with.
Sally ( not her real name) shared with us an enormous story. Probably one of the saddest ones we have heard to date – and there was two generations of PTSD that she was trying to process and come to terms with. For the sake of herself and her children – she needs to heal and she dearly hoped this process would assist with that.
It came as a burst – she had contained so much for so many years and hadn’t shared it with many people ever – she had some personal lyrics that she had written about her brother and it was really important for her to have these turned into a song – and rather quickly. Jackie did an incredible job with My Brother Bill and we look forward to recording this for Sally and her family. I ended up writing her personal story in about 5 minutes flat – it came to me so suddenly and quickly that I was really surprised. It came down to one piece of her story as a child – where she was given a telescope and I used that as a metaphor for her dreaming of escaping to the moon – which she often did as a child.
It is highly confronting playing a song to someone about their life an hour after you have met them – for both them and for us. Of course there are tears – many of them and we cry together – this time is was particularly hard. I had no idea if she would like the song I had written or if it would be too confronting. the lyrics are below to give you an idea:
TELESCOPE Written by Deb Suckling
Years of drunken ANZAC days Mother Falling to the floor Her first love killed on the Black Cat Trail My Daddy walked in through the door
won’t you fly me fly me to the moon won’t you fly me fly me to the moon
All the lies locked in the cupboard they’ve been kept inside for years The time has come to set them free To live with no more fear
won’t you fly me fly me to the moon fly me fly me to the moon
Now they both lie down deep in their graves But we are left still hear to fight The daily fighting for our minds I want to say goodbye
so won’t you fly me fly me to the moon fly me fly me to the moon
I think she really loved the song – she bought her family to the show but they missed me singing the song – so afterwards we sat in the greenroom and I played it for her and her daughters and her husband – again – it’s difficult to put into words what this moment was for her family and for myself. I don’t think her daughters knew anything of her trauma’s – she knows she will need to tell them and that’s a good thing.
I got an email this week – saying how she was going to see some of her family that she hadn’t seen for years – to try and mend the broken bond – and to say thank you. I hope it all works out and some of the broken pieces can be mended. Is it so simple as writing someone a song? No it’s not. It about listening and being with a complete stranger and hearing about their lives and trying to show compassion and understanding and warmth and love and help them realise that someone really cares about their trauma. Holding a strangers hand and giving them love is not a hard thing to do. It’s a lot easier than you think – nurses, doctors, paramedics, firemen do it every day of their lives. We all have the capacity to help people heal and music has such a great power to do this.
There are more stories from Cairns – but they are for the other girls to write. Stay tuned. In the mean time, here is a couple of pics of two special ladies who are part of this project. Ms Jackie Marshall and Emma Bosworth ❤