As I write this, there’s a strange April rainstorm hammering my studio’s roof and walls. Torrential winds lash at the windows, and small lakes are forming in the pockets of earth in my yard. My band hasn’t had a show since February—everything is cancelled. Instead of life as usual, we live in fear of a strange, silent disease, like a game of roulette, cloaked in a fourteen day wait-and-see window. Our fellow musicians are testing positive and, in the worst cases, dying. We mourn Adam Schlesinger and John Prine. We know we, too, could end up with a strange, feverish, flu-like weakness, or we could end up unable to breathe, in a logjam of other patients threatening to take down our strained health care system. Or we could end up fine, immune for reasons we won’t know for years. We don’t know when this will end, or how it will end. We don’t know whether, at any minute, the situation could take a dive bomb for the worse. We. Don’t. Know.
Which reminds me, of course, of our current political nail-biter of an election. The Current Republican American President (I can’t write his name-CRAP for short) is untrustworthy at best, terrifyingly dangerous at worst. He listens to no one unless they praise him. He has no understanding of science, though he purports to be an expert on all things medical. He isn’t interested in anything other than achieving his self-serving goals. In his gratuitous Pandemic press conferences, he praises himself, is jealous of any other leader or expert who receives any affirmation at all, makes up lies about his “excellent response” to the Coronavirus crisis (it was not excellent; it was hardly a response, more like a denial). He is not just a terrible leader: he is a tyrant, and he must fall. But what can folksingers like my sister Katryna and myself do about that?
Before the pandemic forced all of us into a struggle to make a living (folksingers usually have to buy their own health insurance, which for our families is close to $20K a year), we wrote and recorded songs of hope and resistance. In fact, we recorded an entire album of these songs titled November, which came out a month before this country’s first COVID-19 fatality. The album’s mission is to shed light on multiple aspects of injustice in our times, though each song is also laced with hope. We have a song about climate change and how the gaslighting and denial about this topic might remind young people of the government in the Harry Potter series (“The Kids Always Get It”). We have a song about the demise of the Enlightenment and the heartbreak of the concentration camps at the border (“Goodbye, Mexico”). But we also have songs of hope and unity, like “We’re Gonna Build a Boat,” “Follow that Girl,” and the title track “November,” which is a disco-esque exhortation to focus on winning the election in November and partying together afterwards. Then there’s “Tyrants Always Fall,” which should be self-explanatory.
Selling records in any time is a challenge, but currently, it’s close to impossible. We used to sell very well at our shows as well as from stores and online avenues. This––combined with the money we’d make from performing–– provided a good income on which to live. Not a lot, but about what a kindergarten teacher makes. That was always good enough for us. We never needed to get rich doing this; we only wanted to get by, to get to keep doing what we were doing. But the demise of the Record Album started in the late 90s with Napster and other spawn of the internet, and continues to this day with Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, etc. As a consumer, I am as guilty as anyone—I never buy albums anymore, just singles, and I have subscriptions to all the streaming services mentioned above. I try to remember to tip musicians and support them in extra ways, but these gestures go by the wayside in times of crisis, or even just in times of extreme busyness––which is all the times. Today, all our gigs for the foreseeable future have been cancelled or postponed a year out. We can’t even perform on Facebook Live together because we can’t be together—social distancing, don’t you know. It’s (so far) technically impossible to livestream two musicians in separate homes because of sound synching issues. The usual avenues are closed to us. Can I blame CRAP for this? No. But I want to.
But here’s the truth about being an artist of any kind. We need to make art. We need to express ourselves, to communicate to the world, and especially to communicate to those people who let us know they hear us, who wanted what we had to offer, and we will do whatever it takes to reach those people, even if we never get paid. Like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, like Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, I want desperately for people to know that they have a voice and that they matter. I want people to hear their struggles and challenges reflected back in the songs we create or share, so that they feel less alone, so that they can dig deep within themselves in desperate times and find some hope, some comradery. I know that our work matters because in these very days when I have felt so bleak and worried and confused, I have found solace in the music I grew up loving. And at the times when my fear and confusion made me too numb to feel, music was the only force that thawed me.
Today hope arrived several times. The first as I saw the result of those terrible lines in Wisconsin last week, where voters risked their very lives overturn the Trump-backed Supreme Court justice, replacing him with Democrat Jill Karofsky, and to elect Joe Biden. At a time when the conservative WI court is trying to purge 240K voters from the rolls, this is a hopeful, if heartbreaking, portent. People are fired up. November is coming. We will take back our country and emerge from this very difficult time with empathy for and connection to our fellow humans.
Second, as I was trying to home-school my two children, I remembered a friend had said that Neil Young had a new song out. I searched and found “Shut It Down,” a song from his and Crazy Horse’s most recent (2019) album COLORADO. I sat with my SIP family, a child on either side, and we watched on my tiny phone screen, this legendary band of now-septuagenarians and the filmic images of brave health care workers struggling to save lives; empty streets in all the world’s cities; rivers filling up with fish; wildlife coming out to forage for food; birds taking to the open, uncluttered skies again; and then back to images (before social distancing) of these old, worn, brilliant, vibrant musicians singing their hearts out, stomping on their pedals, making a great noise in the name of love. All I wanted to do in that moment was to strap on my own guitar, find my bandmates in a sheltered outdoor spot, situate ourselves a good ten feet apart from each other, plug in and sing our hearts out.
And so we did. Katryna and Dave and I met up on the porch of their house, stood a fair distance apart (though both Katryna and our manager Patty say I suck at social distancing) and my husband Tom filmed a 15-minute concert, which we aired on social media. The sound isn’t stadium quality, and there were only a handful of an audience—neighbors passing by who heard us singing. But we posted our little film on FaceBook Live a day later, and lo! Hundreds of friends and strangers watched and expressed their appreciation, and this fed my hungry soul. https://nerissanields.com