Brattleboro Women’s Chorus uses poetry to honor mothers

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(Host) Among the special events around Vermont this Mother’s Day weekend is the Brattleboro Women’s chorus annual concert. For almost a decade, the amateur choral group has been exploring women’s folk traditions from around the world. This year’s music is from their own back yards, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Imagine a tribe of women – daughters, mothers, sisters – singing together as they do their chores, or visit, or celebrate. That’s the sort of musical community Becky Graber was thinking about when she started the Brattleboro Women’s chorus.

Graber is a music teacher and professional story teller. Her musical tastes are rooted in the oral tradition.

(Graber) “Songs that were meant to be taught not from the printed page. I think of it as choral folk music.”

(Keese) Graber wanted to weave all different kinds of women’s voices together in complex, interlocking harmonies. Her group of about 60 women started with spirituals and African chants.

This spring, after seven years of drawing from many different traditions, the women are singing their own songs.

(Chorus, singing) “When harvesting arugula, clasp a handful; Its spices detonate when you snip and inch above the root and toss it like confetti to your red bucket; la la la…”

(Keese) The song about harvesting arugula is one of five new choral works in this year’s concert. They’re based on poems written by the women in the chorus, in workshops with local poet Verandah Porche. Porche has led poetry-writing workshops in nursing homes and schools and even in factories. She came to last year’s spring performance because her daughter was in the chorus.

(Porche) “And when I came to the concert I loved hearing the music and the oral tradition. And I looked at these marvelous women and I was thinking how I wished I could hear the songs reflecting the experience of these women here and now.”

(Keese) Graber and Porche wrote some grants, and Porche started leading writing workshops for the women in September. Three of the poems were set to music by Diane Benjamin, a Minneapolis composer. Graber wrote the music for two more.

Chorus member Becky Karush, who wrote the poem about arugula, was working at a farm stand when the workshops happened. Sue Owings, a special ed teacher, was going through a stormy period with her teenage son.

(Owings) “And my poem was also inspired by Verandah. One of the assignments that she gave us was to write about something that we know in our heart that we’ve never really talked about.” (Singing, “When I saw the hawk…”)

(Keese) In Owings’ song, a hawk reminds her of the way her own mother used to make her stop and notice the world around her.

(Singing) “Two days later when I saw the Northern Lights, I called, called home ”

(Owings, reading the poem) “And so the hawk gives me another chance; two days later when I saw the northern lights, I called home; Will, I said, go outside…”

(Keese) Owings says it’s been an indescribable experience watching a moment in her life become something so much bigger.

One Woman in the chorus calls the music “soul food.” The Mother’s Day concert is a chance to pass it on. (Chorus, singing) “He said thanks mom, thanks mom….”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

The Brattleboro Women’s chorus performs at the West Village meetinghouse Saturday and Sunday at four and Saturday night at eight.

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