It was Saturday, December 10th. We were driving up from North Carolina, Jim Nunally at the wheel, Keith Little riding shotgun, navigating. These two guys have done a lot of driving together and I was very happy to sit in the back seat and listen to Keith tell stories. Really good stories. And to hear them trade jokes back and forth. I was knitting a backgammon board (weird, I know) and surrounded by instrument cases and bags of sandwiches and fruit and things we had picked up on our way out of Aberdeen. Marshall Wilborn was driving up – actually he had probably already arrived at his home in Winchester, VA, where he was picking up his partner, and one of my singing idols, Lynn Morris. Joe Craven was getting ready to leave Aberdeen with Janet Kenworthy, our NC host. Jim, Keith, Joe, Marshall and I were meeting to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC, after three nights at the Poplar Knight Spot, honing our Soldier Stories show.
As we entered DC and passed the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the newly revealed massive statue of Martin Luther King, the Lincoln Memorial, my soul sang out, a feeling of pride and awe rushed through my veins. Even with all the bad news and disappointments we have faced in our country, and so many suffering from the poor economy, I felt inspired to be in the seat of our nation, our democracy, that great experiment we are still trying to perfect. Great leaders have lived and worked here. People give their lives for the ideals that we stand for. It felt great and humbling to be asked to perform in a venue named after one of them.
This was our last stop on a West and East Coast tour of Soldier Stories, a benefit concert for veterans healthcare and projects, an hour and fifteen minutes of music, letters and stories, authentic perspectives on service and war from the Revolutionary War to the present. I created this show three years ago when my brother-in-law and another good friend were headed to Iraq. They had volunteered. I was struck by the complexity of their motivation, and by the way all the rest of us could buy our daily lattes and never even have to think about the fact that we were at war. Through my work with veterans organizations I’ve learned how neglected they are when they return home, despite the flag-waving and bands that send them off in the first place. Our concerts benefitted the Coming Home Project and the Patriot Foundation.
The music is not for the faint-hearted to be honest. It’s real. We always meets lots of veterans – though the show really is for a broad spectrum, the wider community of all of us who want to recognize and support them. After the shows, I often meet veterans from WWII, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. Some were drafted and some volunteered. Our audience includes people who protest war, who want peace (don’t we all?). There are people who just love the music – it can stand on its own. By the end of the evening, all together, we laugh, we cry and sigh, we sing together and our hearts are lifted.
It was an auspicious time to be performing our show about service and war in Washington, DC. President Obama had just declared the Iraq War over and most of the troops were coming home. Pearl Harbor Day had just passed.
We arrived at our hotel and took the night off, got a bite to eat and walked in the crisp winter air to clear our heads. I met up with my family, my husband, step-daughter and -son, my mother and her fiancee, my brother and his wife – they had come to support me and enjoy a mini-family reunion.
The Kennedy Center puts on hundreds of shows every year and you couldn’t ask for a more professional, competent, and welcoming crew of people. When we arrived there the next day, they gave us rehearsal space and a schedule for sound check on the Millennium Stage, a space for free concerts in the Grand Foyer dominated by an enormous bust of John F. Kennedy. There were seats and room for several hundred people, which provided me with an excellent opportunity to freak out about turnout. I got a chance to write and implement a lighting plan for the first time ever – thanks to advice from my buddy Tom Ross, Artistic Director at the Aurora Theatre Company. Two cameras were trained on us. The stage manager was a mellow and friendly fellow, he had a calming influence.
We entered the stage to a packed crowd, standing room only. It was beautiful!! The audience was mostly in the dark and the ceilings are very high, so we knew they were there, but it was difficult to hear and feel them. That always unnerves me a bit. But we stepped onstage and got it going, kicking off the night with a quote from a Civil War veteran (my great-great-Granddaddy) and then launched “Waiting for the Boys to Come Home,” working a central mic for vocals, four-part harmonies on the chorus call-and-answer, Jim, Keith, Marshall and me. That got the adrenalin pumping. The band shone like a light on this dark winter day – they brought it on, I am so proud of them. An hour later, we got people singing along to “Battle of New Orleans” and then ended the evening with “American Anthem,” an inclusive and inspiring song. (My brother-in-law said to listen to those lyrics to understand why he serves.) I guess it’s uncommon on this particular stage to get an encore, but we did. We came back with Keith’s rendition of “Wave the Ocean.”
Of course as soon as we stepped offstage I wished we could do it all again. We got swept up by friends and well-wishers and ended our night feeling tired and happy. My friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in 35 years came with her family, a friend from graduate school I hadn’t seen in 20 years came too. It was festive.
I am gratified that we touched the hearts of many of the folks who saw the shows throughout the tour. My favorite interaction was with these 23 year-olds we met in North Carolina – white, black, men and women – who had just returned from Iraq. “We don’t normally listen to this kind of music, but we LOVED it.” The band and I are challenged with balancing the feel and song themes in our Soldier Stories set – but I’ll tell you what, there is nothing so real as singing “Hero in Harlan” to some young veterans who have lost some of their friends in Iraq, and grieving together with them.
This moment in time, Winter 2011, was especially bittersweet. The Iraq War was officially declared over, yet my sister’s husband headed over there for a six month tour on January 2d. The happy scenes of families reunited in the news were mixed with the stark reality of the injuries so many of these veterans face, and the loss for those families whose loved ones would not be returning.
The following day, the band had left for home or other gigs. My mother and I visited my father’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery, it was my first time. Dad served over 30 years in the Air Force. It was a cold afternoon in that milky light of late day in winter. All the headstones were graced with fresh wreaths, placed by hundreds of volunteers a few days before. As we drove in, we waited behind a black carriage drawn by black horses, a military funeral procession. Dad is buried under an apple tree, it was bare that day, but I imagined it in the spring with green leaves and fruit. A lovely spot to rest.
If you’d like more information about Soldier Stories, please visit nellrobinsonmusic.com. You can view the Kennedy Center performance on their webpage, under Millennium Stage Archives at kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium/. We would love your financial support for our 2012 tour, if you’d like to help, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.