Emily Saliers and Don Saliers: A Song To Sing, A Life To Live | Interview

I was beside myself with excitement.

I fidgeted while I waited for the phone to ring. Had other lesbians known that I was waiting for Emily Saliers, one half of the lesbian icon musical duo the Indigo Girls, to call me I’d be the object of great envy. My excitement began when the publicist for Emily’s new book “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live,” written with her dad Don, a professor at my alma mater the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, dropped me a line to say “Emily will call you Tuesday.”

“Emily will call you……”

My heart raced. How cool is that? Emily will call me.

Now, as a veteran journalist I have met and/or interviewed many celebrities — Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Sheryl Crow, the Village People — heck, I even got to stand on the field while then Vice President Al Gore threw out the first pitch during an Atlanta Braves baseball game. They all paled in comparison to “Emily will call you……”

Perhaps the allure of the Indigo Girls is lost on some folks, but to me their music — especially Emily’s music — speaks to the depth of my soul. They are, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, my favorite theologians. Their music moves me in ways that other music does not. I never tire of listening to their music and have had their latest CD stuck in my player since it came out. In plain words, I am a fan.

The phone rang and my heart leapt, my stomach churned.

“Hey, this is Emily.”

I melted.

But, being a professional I soldiered on, and promptly became a gushing fan, telling Emily that though we have never been formally introduced I can play six degrees of separation with her – I know many people who do know her. I have been part of a gaggle of reporters at an AIDS walk and spoke to her face to face then. I have stood behind her in the ladies room waiting for a stall during the Joan Armatrading concert — too respectful to approach her in a bathroom line (though other fans were not as decorous, mind you). I have met her dog, but I have never truly met Emily — until now.

Wait, wait — isn’t this article supposed to be about Emily and the new book she and her dad wrote? Why am I going on and on about how much I love Emily and her music?

Well, it’s really sort of the point of the book — the fact that music has such a profound effect on people that it turns otherwise calm and together journalists into fans who won’t shut up about how much they love an artist’s music. When music speaks to you, when it expresses something deep inside of you, somehow you can’t really view the artist responsible for such a feat as a stranger. Somehow, you feel like you know them — even, and perhaps especially when you don’t. Music is powerful — it can unite, it can divide, and most importantly it can help you touch the mystery of your own soul.

It is that power of music that the book tries to bring into the open, said Emily.

“The book really explores the depth of music as a spiritual practice how it shapes and forms our lives and informs us and brings us together in community, even disparate communities,” she said. “The book wants everyone to just stop and listen and realize the importance of music as a vibrant tool in our spiritual journeys.”

It is that stopping and listening to other people and the music they embrace that is one of the most important lessons Don and Emily want readers to take away from their book. It is a lesson they learned about each other — learning to appreciate each other’s music, Emily’s progressive, social justice infused mix of folk and rock and Don’s early love of jazz and his current job of teaching an appreciation of the music of the church.

“There’s a great deal in the book about crossing over,” Don said. “Not only the crossovers between sacred and secular – Saturday night, Sunday morning – but the way different kinds of music has shaped lives requires us to pay attention to what someone else loves. We say at several points in the book that listening to music deeply with a friend or making music together, coming to appreciate that is very much related to loving other persons – crossing over to the otherness. In several chapters we have this question to our readers: What is it in your life that has caused you to expand your notion of the deep things in life because you’ve begun to learn to listen and pay attention to someone else’s music?”

That question was answered for me in a very unlikely place: an episode of Judging Amy. A young African-American man was in Judge Amy Gray’s court on nuisance charges for playing his music too loudly in his apartment building. Judge Gray sentences him to listen to 30 hours of someone else’s music – namely her assistant Donna’s CD called “Bombastic Broadway.” At first, the man is appalled by the music but as the episode progresses, both the man and Donna are singing along to the music and episode concludes with them singing and dancing in the hallway of the courthouse to a song from The Music Man, much to the chagrin of Judge Gray who had hoped the experience would be torture for the young man. Instead, Donna taught him to listen to music that at first he abhorred but by the end was excitedly anticipating introducing to his friends. His life had been expanded by learning to appreciate another’s music.

Don said that is exactly what happened to him in the course of writing the book with Emily.

“It’s so rare for a father and a daughter to sustain a conversation on anything in our culture let alone a clergy type and a powerful musician who has a whole wide constituency that I don’t normally connect with, so I think learning how to cross over into one another’s music is a crossing over into one another’s heart and soul.”

It is that powerful ability of music to change another human being that is at the heart of its mystery. Just hearing a song can transport us to another place and time. Music makes us laugh, it makes us cry, it makes us think of people long gone or times long past. It can bring the past to us in the present.

“Our present moments are fleeting,” Don and Emily write. “Yet music mysteriously connects the time past with the now and with what is to come. It invites us to appreciate the now that is past right in the midge of the now we inhabit in the present. And it opens our hearts to the ache for the fulfillment to come. No wonder that music sounds the first and last notes of life and permeates human passages. The very flow of life is given back to us in music that can touch that deeply in our bodies and souls.” (p. 54)

Music as part of us

Music, in essence, is the language of our soul made audible, said Emily.

“Music in its tensions, in its rising and falls, in its pulsating and its resting mirrors our own physicality,” she said. “It’s not something that you just listen to and absorb intellectually, but it’s also a body experience like a heartbeat, like the flow of blood, the way we embrace and disengage and run towards each other and back and all the flow of music and how its constructed is the same way that our bodies operate.”

In other words, music becomes engrained in us – it becomes part of our identity.

Don and Emily write:

“The music that sounded through the house or in the streets where you grew up stays in your mind and body for the rest of your life, even when you aren’t conscious of it. This is part of how each person comes to belong to a culture. Our ears pick up a certain vocal style or a particular pattern of rhythm; and we find ourselves listening intently, resonating to the memory of a grandmother’s hymns or a father’s violin. You know in your bones that a particular set of sounds is yours; you belong to it, and it belongs to you.” (p. 77)

When I was a child my parents owned a cabin in the foothills of the mountains in Virginia. We spent vacations there in the summer and the winter, riding horses, swimming at the nearby state park beach, hiking the trails and looking for crayfish in stream that meandered behind the cabin. It’s the place where my older brother hit me by accident with a golf club, requiring several stitches to close the wound above my eye. It’s the place where I didn’t like taking a shower because spiders as big as my six-year-old body seemed to live in every corner. It’s the place where we laid on rollaway cots and were lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on the tin roof. It’s the place where we roasted marshmallows and ate dinner on the screened in porch. It’s the place where bluegrass music became engrained in my body.

I remember there was an old transistor radio on a shelf in the living room of the cabin that constantly emitted bluegrass gospel and the local news. I can still hear the tinny sound of the mandolins, banjos and fiddles accompanying the nasal voices that sang in perfect harmony about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The music is in my bones. I belong to it. It belongs to me. To this day, I yearn to hear good bluegrass gospel. It puts me back in Marion, Virginia in a big log cabin and all those memories – good and bad – of growing up.

Such is the power of music, and none of us is immune. Each of us has a form of music that speaks to us, whether it’s hymns in church or a favorite rock band. Whether the music is Saturday night or Sunday morning, when it touches a place deep within us – it’s a spiritual experience whether we realize it or not.

“Some nonchurch music that truly expresses the heart’s torment, the soul’s lament, or the ecstatic joy we experience within the beauty of creation may be more religious than a hymn with poor theology sung with conviction,” wrote Don. (p. 165)

Music and activism

It is that power of music to convict, to speak truth to power, that Emily and her music partner Amy Ray capitalize on as the Indigo Girls. They have been on the forefront of social justice issues like gay rights, environmental protection and opposing war. Their songs reflect their politics and they are always eager to use their talents in benefit concerts like the Honor the Earth Energy Justice Tour.

“Activism has gone hand and hand with the music for so long Amy and I can separate them anymore,” Emily said. “There is something about music that’s galvanizing in the way that nothing else is so when we play benefit concerts it’s so much unlike another show that you just play. It is elevated spiritually, everyone is in it together. It’s just such a special thing.”

Of course, music can also be used to divide people. Music, by its very nature, stirs our deepest passions and propagandists know this just as well as activists. Music from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser opera will forever be associated with the Nazi regime after it was used in Triumph of the Will, an influential 1936 film by Len Reifenstahl.

In our modern times, music has been used to degrade women and gays and lesbians and call its listeners to hateful and anti-social behavior. “There are artists like Eminem who sell millions of records that have terrible homophobic and misogynistic lyrics and so there is a sorting through that – is an artist dangerous and can they cause harm?” Emily said.

We must be careful then in how we use music and how we choose which music speaks to us. We must also, Don and Emily caution, be careful about making quick judgments about music that doesn’t personally appeal to us.

“When people say, ‘I hate that music,’ they are really saying, ‘I hate that culture.’ Or course, some rap music is full of posturing, sexism, and the pursuit of material things. But is that any different from white rock ‘n’ roll hair bands from the eighties who had women laid out across cars as they sang the virtues of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll?” Emily said in their book. (p.103)

In short said Don and Emily, we should learn how to make musical judgments without being judgmental.

Music and community

Sadly, one of the places where we make those judgmental musical judgments is in church. Don and Emily write about conflicts within the church over what type of hymns to sing.

“Should Christians who gather to worship sing the same hymns their grandparents did, accompanied by an organ? Should they seek out music from other cultures that will challenge them to expand their horizons and change their image of the church? Should they put down their hymnals, lift up their hands and sing only simple songs whose words are projected on a screen and whose melodies are led by a rock band? These debates about music are a crucial aspect of a huge revisioning in styles of worship that is raging across the church.” (p. 107)

I must confess my guilt in such “worship wars” as Don and Emily call them. I quit going to a church a long time ago because I didn’t like how the piano player played some of my favorite hymns. For me, he destroyed them and I would seethe and pout during the songs – allowing my own attitude to ruin the experience for me.

As we have shown, music is powerful. It can make us unbelievably happy, incredibly sad, overwhelmingly angry and, as with ad jingles, can drive us insane when an unwanted tune is stuck in our head. But, underlying it all, I think, is music’s power to create community, even among disparate people. I’ve met people that I’ve had little in common with until we start talking about music. If we like the same kind of music or maybe the same bands, suddenly we bond – we form part of a community of fans drawn together by a genre or particular artist.

But where music forms community best is within the church. When we get over our petty grievances about which hymns to sing and which to toss, we can find that our sacred music (whether it’s secular music sung in church, or classic hymns) draws us closer to people in ways other music doesn’t. In this sacred community not only do we draw closer to others, but also, we find ourselves.

“Music forms us into communities from which we take, in large measure, our personal identity. Yet who we are and who we can be, as individuals and as communities, is also open to the songs we have yet to sing and hear.” (p.83)

Through music we learn about others and we grow as individuals through that give and take in community. We learn the value of each person and what they can contribute not only to the community but to the wider song the community seeks to voice.

“Each voice has its place,” Emily said in the book, “but only in sounding together in a focused way can you realize what each has to contribute.”

It is when we insist that everyone must sing the song or note that we like best that we destroy the community that music can form. Trappist monk Thomas Merton likened community to the “syllables of the great song.”

“Our violence and destructiveness come from the fact that we cling madly to a single syllable, and thus wish the whole song to stop dead while we enjoy what we imagine is final and absolute. But, the ‘most wise singer’ is not singing for ourselves alone, and we must accept the fact that some of His notes and words are for others and seemingly ‘against us.’ We must not react destructively against the notes we do not like. We must learn to respond to this or that syllable, but to the whole song.” (Faith and Violence, p. 118).

Therein lays the tension between both community and music. Whether in church or other communities, there is always that tension, that potential for dissonance that may tear the whole community or the whole piece of music apart. We must live in that space, within that tension as we move forward in community and in our world. We must open ourselves to the possibilities created by those tensions while work to avoid conflict.

“Drawing on the wisdom of religious traditions, we might name this possibility by saying that music is a means of communion between the human and the divine. Perhaps singing is humankind’s most vital and most widely shared spiritual act because it awakens in us a shared solidarity and a resonance with the transcendent.” (p. 170)

Perhaps. But, all I know for sure is …Emily called me.