Transcript: Thanks, Allan. Hi, this is David Brower with a special two-part podcast that every veteran and everybody who knows a veteran should listen to. It’s about a program that is absolutely free to vets and it will change their lives. I know, because it changed mine forever.
Trevor Dann from the BBC takes you inside one of the retreats for songwriting with soldiers. This retreat was September 15th through 17th of last year at the Carey Institute in Rensselaerville, New York. We pick up part two with how the songwriting process begins.
Trevor Dann: That’s the California-based singer/songwriter Maia Sharp with the song she’s been writing this morning with Perry. Right now, she’s in the garden with another veteran, this time a former marine with rather more conspicuous injuries. John was a guitar player himself before he was wounded, and as Maia digs deeper he’s telling her about growing up in England.
John: I joined the marine corps because when I moved back to the United States from England I felt like an outcast. Because it didn’t feel like my home, because everybody was like, well, you’re not even from this country, and I’m like, I was born in Mississippi!
Maia Sharp: Right.
John: I was injured in South America in some weird thing that was going on down there.
Maia Sharp: Do you want to tell me? You don’t have to.
John: It’s kind of interesting. Well, I think it’s classified.
Maia Sharp: Oh. Will you have to kill me if you tell me?
John: I think so.
Maia Sharp: It might be worth it.
John: I have to figure out how? Do you like bludgeoning? Stab?
Maia Sharp: Right, well, whatever you are allowed to tell me without having to bludgeon me.
John: I was injured in an operation that was going on, and I think it was part of a drug war and I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I was accidentally walked on to the plane because I was helping to load master load the vehicles.
Maia Sharp: No!
John: And the master Sargent told me, “all right,” because I was in the front of the plane locking it down, and it’s one of those transport planes, so the back was going up, they started rolling, and I’m finishing latching everything down. It’s like, all right, sit here for a minute, and the next thing you know, they took off. So, that’s when I got injured was on that mission.
And the best hand surgeon in the world, all he wanted to do was get me to close my hand and open it, that’s this arm, and they didn’t look at anything else because I wasn’t bleeding from anything else, and then eventually everything started to fall apart.
Maia Sharp: So, how’s your hand?
John: Well, it’s got issues.
Maia Sharp: Okay.
John: The more I use it, it’ll curl up. So, they don’t let me,
Maia Sharp: Okay. Like from fatigue and,
John: Yeah. I think it more or less what they cauterized a lot of stuff inside. They were having too much fun, I guess.
Maia Sharp: Wheel!
John: Yeah, right?
Maia Sharp: Well fortunately, that’s your strumming hand, so.
John: I know. Well, that’s what I was saying, if I have to, I’ll just glue a pick to my hand or grow my thumbnail out like,
Maia Sharp: Don’t do that, please.
John: Esteban, or whatever that guy is on TV.
Maia Sharp: Right. Doesn’t want to be D, doesn’t want to be [inaudible 00:03:27] D.
John: Wow. It’s going on.
Maia Sharp: Well, how do you like the angle of, “Thank God it was my strumming hand?”
Maia Sharp: Is that something?
John: It’s funny. I like it.
Maia Sharp: And they can be as like, detailed and dark and scary, but then that’s the punchline. Like, this awful thing happened, but it was my strumming hand.
John: Yeah. That’s how I,
Maia Sharp: So, my other hand is still cool to make chords and get the ladies and,
John: That actually would be something I would,
Maia Sharp: I mean, you probably have a wife, so you might not want to say that, but.
John: I keep giving out my name and my number to all,
Maia Sharp: If you want to go there.
John: No, I love it, because,
Maia Sharp: Because you’re really into playing.
John: Because when I cross the road, I keep my friends back, I’ll go first. I get a free medical, dude. When I help somebody, sometimes I’ll start bleeding from this arm, I’m like, “It’s okay. It’s not very useful anyway.” I always make fun of myself.
Maia Sharp: Yeah.
John: And just to make everybody else feel better.
Maia Sharp: It wants to strum a lot. Right? It can’t just be like, it wants to be like over the top strumming, right?
Maia Sharp: [sings] It’s my strumming hand. The other one do all the work. It’s okay. Just my strumming hand.
Is that celebrating enough?
Maia Sharp: Is this funny enough? Because we can get even like more over the top, major chord. Like what after the shit you just laid on them, and then you’re going to be like, “It’s okay.”
John: [Sings] It’s my strumming hand. The other one do all the work. It’s okay. Okay. It’s okay.
Maia Sharp: Yeah.
John: [sings] I can still [inaudible 00:05:38]. It’s okay. Okay.
Trevor Dann: While Maia and John are working on their song, I found Harry Ballen, an academic who’s here as an observer. Harry’s a professor of law, and also an expert in neuroscience.
Harry Ballen: The psychology of post-traumatic stress is very often described in terms of cognitive distortions. So, a person who’s had a trauma very often thinks the world is a dangerous place. And often thinks that other people are bad. And often thinks that, “I am bad.” And the engagement with song writing is a full-frontal attack on those cognitive distortions, because you don’t believe after you’ve written a song that the world is a dangerous place, and you don’t believe that other people are bad. And it’s hard to believe that you yourself are bad. So, by attacking those cognitive distortions, we help to heal people. And in terms of biology, the creative act plays upon something that’s a part of everyday experience of everyone, with deep evolutionary origins, and that is the fact that some things we do spontaneously, and some things we do deliberately with great care. And artistic acts require spontaneity and deliberateness. There’s improvisation and there’s craft and revision. And to be able to engage with that cycle of spontaneity and deliberateness is to connect with something very human.
And when that breaks down and people ruminate, and they can’t be spontaneous, it’s a diminishment of their humanity. They don’t flourish. And when they can connect with that spontaneity and deliberateness, they can appreciate beauty and themselves and other people in a deeper and in a different way.
Trevor Dann: Rodger, tell me how you found songwriting and soldiers? What was your first experience?
Rodger: I’ve known for a long time I’ve needed some sort of help. A lot of times, the VA doesn’t come through with that and,
Trevor Dann: The VA is the?
Rodger: Veteran’s Administration, veterans hospitals, and they’re not the most fantastic places to go or the best care in the world, but sometimes it’s all a veteran has. But as far as stress and depression and everything, we had high hopes for songwriting with soldiers and when we came, they were definitely met.
Trevor Dann: Tell me about what you feel they’ve done. I mean, I talked to Josh earlier, and he and Lisa, his wife, were saying that really he was lost and now he’s found. It was that profound an experience.
Rodger: Oh, absolutely. It was for me as well. At the time, I’ve had constant problems with PTSD and depression over the years, and sometimes didn’t feel like I was the best father, and sometimes stress would permeate the family, and,
[sings] [inaudible 00:08:49] that’s what they call me.
My wife and I weren’t getting along all that well and everything, and when we came to songwriting, I mean, my family wrote two songs together as a family with Greg Trooper, and it brought us even closer as a family.
[sings] Those we know love us. We’re not afraid.
It was just an amazing experience that probably saved my life, because I was in a bad place at the time. And definitely I can say, probably saved my family.
[sings] I’m home, anywhere we’re together.
Trevor Dann: Rodger, you’re a big guy. You look like a soldier. But you walk with a stick. What happened?
Rodger: I suffered a really bad back injury when I was in the military. I was in the Desert Shield/Desert Storm Southern Watch. And basically since then, I’ve felt lost a lot of the time. Felt like the military no longer need me, so they basically threw me away.
[sings] Pain, we’ve suffered through it. Love, wins out every time. For some, it’s hard to uncover. With a family like ours, it’s easy to find.
I’m actually singing on that one. It’s called “Stream.” Our family name, and the name of our family ballad.
[sings] Stream, that’s what they call us.
Trevor Dann: Let’s go back to the garden now, and hear how Maia and John are getting on.
John: Our job was to provide security and we were there to die. So, that’s what they tell you in boot camp, it’s just funny.
Maia Sharp: Oh, Jesus.
John: That’s the Marines for you.
Maia Sharp: Are you comfortable talking about what happened to that arm?
John: I’ve been told by a Major I got hit by a high explosive round. There’s so much blood everywhere. It was on a ship.
Maia Sharp: Oh really?
John: A [inaudible 00:11:23] assault craft.
Maia Sharp: Did you even see it on its way?
John: No. It was just,
Maia Sharp: There.
John: All of a sudden, there was commands for evasive action, and it was super, everything all of a sudden just went chaos. And then boom! It was over. You’re just in a fast craft moving along, skipping across the top of the water, and all of a sudden it’s like, you could barely make out that you’re in the water.
Maia Sharp: That black?
John: Yeah. It was dark.
Maia Sharp: What if we got some musical references and like, as dark as the dark side of the moon? Just like, squeeze in some song titles when we can, because you’re coming from such a “just want to play music” place,
John: All right.
[sings] One o’clock in the morning, darker than the dark side of the moon.
Maia Sharp: It hits you square in the arm, huh?
John: Yeah. Just bones exploded.
Maia Sharp: Keep talking like that at me, if you can.
John: My bones actually exploded, they said, throughout my arm they were taking pieces out. And then my hand was, it was still attached to the skin, but the skin had unraveled over the bones, you know what I mean? And it was hanging down by my elbow. So, it’s just like,
Maia Sharp: Jesus.
John: [sings] I had no idea that bones exploded. Skin could act that way.
Maia Sharp: Do you mind if I like, just mull this over for a while?
John: No, absolutely.
Maia Sharp: Just like under a tree for like 15 minutes or so?
Maia Sharp: Just so I can try [inaudible 00:13:00]
Trevor Dann: We’ll hear the finished song in a minute. And you can listen to dozens more on the SWS website, but as this particular retreat comes to an end, I’m struck by how far away this place is from the bellicose and charitable mood of so much of what we associate with the United States these days. Technically, what’s going on here isn’t music therapy, but there’s no doubt that the Veterans find the experience therapeutic. And the presence here of so many previous participants here to help the new guys suggests that it has lasting value. As the final concert ends and all the songs are performed, how are the organizers feeling? Mary Judd and First [inaudible 00:13:41] Smith.
Smith: At the end of a retreat, it has this combination of exhaustion and extreme joy. Ten, eleven songs that didn’t exist three days ago are now here. And then the feeling of giving the emotion back from the participants, watching them change over the course of the three days, watching the writers change, it’s amazing. So, it’s exhilarating, exhausting, and I mean, there’s nothing like it.
Trevor Dann: One of the Vets just said to me, “I’m a different man now than I was on Friday.”
Smith: Well, I think there’s something very mysterious about this process that I don’t know. We’ve heard similar thoughts to that. And what’s fascinating to me is the body language changes. The people that were sort of closed up, maybe they were starting the writing sessions literally kind of hunched over. At the end of the writing sessions, they’ll be standing up straight. And there’s something that’s released in this, and it’s, I think, I don’t know, but I think it’s the being seen. Being seen and heard is the magical thing. We all want that. But in this action, not only are they seen and heard, but we’ve taken what we’ve seen and heard and with them, created a song. That’s their words. And that’s a very powerful thing.
Trevor Dann: Mary, can you see a possibility of extending the program into Britain, into other countries around the world?
Mary Judd: That’s our dream. Songwriting with soldiers, songwriting with all sorts of groups. But ideally, in other parts of the world, can you imagine the effect of that? I just cannot imagine the beautiful reverberation that would come out of these retreats on a global scale. It’s going to happen. It has to happen.
John: [sings] They sewed me back together, but it’ll never be the same. Still I don’t waste a moment, thinking who should take the blame. I had [inaudible 00:15:40] parents, Carolina on my side. Oh, at least a dozen doctors tried. I know they tried. It’s okay. It’s just my strumming hand, while the other one does all the work. If I couldn’t play Cashmere or Preacher man, now that, now that would hurt. It was a bad day, but it’s okay. It’s just my strumming hand.
Trevor Dann: So, what do you think of the song now you’ve heard it?
John: It was brilliant. It wasn’t what I expected. It went in a totally different direction, and it captured the way I feel and act crossing the humor to hide the pain. So, it was amazing.
[sings] It’s just my strumming hand, while the other one does all the work. If I couldn’t play “Stand by Your Man,” now that, yeah that would hurt. It was a bad day, but it’s okay. It’s just my strumming hand.
David Brower: That’s part two of Songwriting with Soldiers, with Trevor Dann from the BBC. To learn more, go to songwritingwithsoldiers.org. These retreats are absolutely free to Vets, and it will change their lives. I know, because it changed mine forever.
Allan: Tour 20-minute podcast with David Brower has been brought to you by Audible. You can listen to any of David’s podcasts anywhere podcasts can be found, including iheartradio, the Spotify mobile app, and the davidbrowervo.com/your20minutepodcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.