‘Community song writing and narrative practice’

by David Denborough

 

This article was written for the UK publication Clinical Psychology, Issue 17, September 2002.

As I begin this piece of writing, I am sitting in a motel room in Narrandera, a small rural Australian town. I have just put down my guitar after quickly recording a song called ‘Going back home’. The lyrics of this song have been crafted from a series of consultations which took place over the last six months with members of the local Aboriginal community. A gathering of this community is taking place on the Sandhills this week and I’m here as a member of a small team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers who are acting as a reflecting or listening group during this event. It’s my role to record in the written word and with song the sparkling moments, valued stories and the skills and knowledges of the community. Those at the gathering will then decide what they wish to do with these words and songs.

In this short article, I wish to discuss some of the ways in which music and song are engaged with on these gatherings, but to do so requires a little background. I realise that the context from which I am writing is probably very different to the one that you, the reader, are currently within. For one thing, you are probably in the northern hemisphere, thousands of miles from here. The stars above you are therefore different than the stars above me. The season you are experiencing must be different too, as must the animals surrounding you. Just today, I have seen emus, kangaroos, gallahs, cockatoos, colourful parrots and an owl. The Murrimbidgee river runs through Narrandera and wherever the river flows, a diversity of bird and animal life follows. Not only do the stars, the birds and the skyline differ between where you are and where I am tonight, but the histories of the land upon which we currently stand are also divergent.

I mention all of this because during this week, it’s my job to immerse myself in the experience of those who live in this particular community, this particular context. This is not my home. I live in Adelaide, a thousand kilometres from here, and the sights, sounds and smells of Narrandera are new to me (just as, no doubt, they would be new to you). I am a stranger here who has been invited to play a particular role in this gathering and this brings corresponding responsibilities. Perhaps the most notable of these is to remember at all times that I am a guest of this community and that I cannot assume to know the stories and histories that shape the local experiences of life. I am here to document what the community articulates as significant. To take care that this is what I am doing requires many acts of collaboration, some of which I refer to later in this piece.

Community gatherings informed by narrative practices and structured definitional ceremonies have been held in Australia over the last seven or so years. They have been instigated at the request of a wide range of different communities including communities of people affected by mental health issues, communities of people affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as various Indigenous Australian communities affected in different ways by the colonisation of this country.2 Narrative therapy practices inform every aspect of these gatherings from the initial planning consultations, to the development of the gathering program, to the use of definitional ceremonies on each day of the event, and to the ways in which the gatherings are documented in words and song.3

A key aspect of narrative therapy involves the documentation of the particular skills and knowledges of individuals and communities that are relevant to them addressing the current challenges they are facing.4 This documentation is a part of the re-authoring process. As the skills and knowledges which are articulated in conversations are documented, they become more acknowledged and in turn more available. On gatherings, the same is true. What is more, recording the skills, ideas and stories of a community on paper means that these can be shared widely with those who were not physically present at the gathering. Documenting the conversations that occur on the gatherings also ensures that a record of the event exists for future generations and this is often treasured by participants. There are any number of dilemmas, challenges and possibilities associated with the process of translating the spoken word to the written word on gatherings but I am not going to focus on these here. Instead, I wish to write about the use of music and song.

On gatherings, songs and music compliment the use of the written word. While I am totally devoted to the written word, particularly its rigour, its capacity to record all that is spoken, the ways in which drafts can be shared and collectively edited, and its intimate characteristics (how it speaks to each individual who reads it), songs can be sung together in a way that the written word cannot. Songs can also be danced to. In some contexts, the written word is not accessible to all, whereas songs and music can include most people in any community. There can be room for everyone to either sing or play the rhythm sticks or hold the lyrics up for others to read during the recording process. And perhaps most significantly, with a good melody, songs can remain in one’s mind, available for instant recall in a way that the written word cannot.

As holders of community knowledge and pride, songs can lift the spirits and hold them aloft. The physical act of singing together, of making music together, can also be transformative. This seems especially so if the process resonates with cultural traditions of community song making and music making which exist in the vast majority of communities. In this way, not only can the song itself act as a musical documentation of the alternative stories of the community, but the community performance of this song can act as a demonstration of the continuation of a joyful and inclusive tradition. When a recording is then made of the community singing songs which have been created from their words, this ritual is captured in time and is forever available to be replayed. This replay might occur when a young member of the community plays the CD while wearing head phones. Or it might occur when a member of the community places a tape of the song in their car stereo and drives down the centre of the town with windows down and music blaring.

Characteristics of gathering songs

I have tried here to describe some of the characteristics of songs that come to be loved and appreciated on community gatherings. These characteristics include:

  • The lyrics are comprised of the words spoken by those at the gathering
  • The chord structure is easy to teach
  • The melody is one that people can easily sing and which is at an easy pitch for most participants
  • The rhythm is simple and clear
  • The chorus is memorable
  • The song is written quickly and played back to the community very soon after they have spoken the words which have become the lyrics (like a reflection at the end of a    conversation). This ensures that the community recognises that the words are their own – they can still remember who said which words and the context in which they were spoken.

Importantly, the song is always one that carries hope. This is not to say that the melody and words are simply ‘happy’, but rather the whole purpose of the song is to write into lyric and melody the alternative stories that have been articulated. The songs are very deliberately a part of the re-authoring process. They seek to more richly describe that which has been spoken. As such, they are like a thoughtful reflection within the definitional ceremony process – acknowledging the real effects of the dominant story but in ways that richly describe the skills and knowledges of the community.5

There are particular skills involved in the writing of such songs which are learned and practiced (just as learning how to scaffold therapeutic conversations takes time, practice and patience). Having learned the piano from a young age, and later taking up the guitar, writing songs has been a part of my daily life for 18 years now (since I was 14). My early songs and singing voice would have brought no comfort to anyone! There is a definite process of learning the chords with which one is comfortable and beginning to improvise melodies. There is also a skill in listening ever so carefully for words and phrases that can become lyrics. These are all learnable skills which require practice.

If there is a ‘trick’ to songwriting, it is in the interweaving of melody and words. These are the two elements that need to come together in a meaningful way. In my experience, after a while, these two realms begin to work together. The melody learns to lilt where the words require it, and simultaneously the lyrics adapt to the shape of the song line.

De-centred musical practice

The entire purpose of gathering songs is to centre and richly describe the knowledges and skills of the particular community. If any aspect of the process centres the song writer then this immediately limits the value of the song. This is a key hazard involved in this process. The ways in which music is related to in current western culture often privilege and separate the role of ‘performer’ from the listener. What’s more, there is a great deal in the training of musicians that encourages an ethic of performance that can be a hindrance on community gatherings. On these community gatherings, any micro-practice that centres me as the song-writer/singer can limit the possibilities of the community coming together in song. These micro-practices can be subtle and require vigilance. My middle/upper class background and my training as a musician can at times trip me up. But again, there are skills of decentring that can be learnt as a musician just as they can be learnt by therapists.6

I have tried here to describe a range of collaborative processes which enable the song writer/singer on community gatherings to remain decentred:

Co-writing the songs

In some circumstances it is possible for all aspects of a particular song to be co-written (ie. there can be collaboration in writing lyrics, coming up with melody and developing chord structures). This takes time however and requires participants to have a some degree of confidence in the process and/or musical/poetic experience.
An example of such a song, ‘Power to our Journeys’ is included here. This song was written during a gathering initiated by a group of mental health consumers and carers.

Power to our journeys
A song by Sue & David

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step
We’re coming together now, we’re talking about respect
It shouldn’t be too much to ask to listen and to learn
To fill the libraries with strategies that work

Chorus:

There is power to our journeys
There is hope in this room
Voices to be heard
And stories to be told
(repeat)

What could this be that we’ve planted here today?
What could this be that we’re watering so carefully?
Could they be friendships, something so sacred, yet so simple?
Could they be friend ‘ships’ to sail?

Chorus

As we tell out stories, we remember friends on similar journeys
We take their hands and join them in rage
We join them in sorrow, we join them in hopefulness

Chorus

Well, we’re trying to get it together
But together we have it all
Well, we’re trying to get it together
But, together we have it all

We are silently boiling over, we are silently boiling over
We are silently boiling over, we are silently boiling over
(chorus and repeat chorus)

There is power to our journeys
There is hope in this room
Voices to be heard
And stories to be told

There is power to our journeys

Collaborative song-writing

In this process, a basic structure, melody and lyrics might be proposed but with a lot of room made for alterations, suggestions, additions etc. A range of options can be given and participants can be asked to choose between these. This process involves the song-writer providing a scaffolding by which the song can then be jointly created. An example of such a song, ‘Going home’ is included here. This is the song I mentioned at the beginning of this paper which was drafted as a reflection from consultations with the Narrandera Koori Community and then altered and completed in collaboration with a senior community member.

To listen to this song, click here.

Going home

Well our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways
We may no longer be living on the hill
But we’re going home today

To tell stories of history and culture
Of struggle, strife and strength
To reclaim what is precious to us
In our own way

There’s room here for all of us
Like in the old ways
There are stories to be told
Songs to be sung
Like in the olden days

Well our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways
We may no longer be living on the hill
But we’re going home today
Well, we’re going home today
Yes we’re going home today

Offering the song as a reflection

Even in circumstances where the song is offered as a completed reflection there are things that can be done to decentre the song-writer/singer:

  • Before playing the reflection it can be stated again that the words have come from what the community members have just said.
  • The song can be played in a way that the voice and technique of the player are a vehicle for the participants’ words (this means playing and singing simply, with a modest style and tone).
  • Community members are asked for feedback about the song. Often a different team member asks for this because otherwise the participants might feel they need to praise the song-writer even if the song did not particularly resonate with them.
  • Community members can be asked to create a name for the song.
  • Community members can be asked to decide how the song should start and finish.
  • If there is praise directed towards the song writer, ways can be found to reflect this attention to the song itself and the content of its lyrics (which are words spoken by the community). If there is consistent praise of the song-writer then something is going wrong with the process and further collaborative practices are required.

When songs are offered as reflections, it is a matter of them being ‘pitched’ at the appropriate place. As the songs use the words of the community this is a significant safe-guard. However, I don’t want to diminish the fact that there is also a skill involved in this process in shaping the song in ways that will resonate with the community. The most important balance is often for the song to be able to carry on its lyrics and melody both the sorrow expressed in the conversation and also the alternative story, the sense of hopefulness.

An example of a completed song offered as a reflection, ‘Happiness has its way’ is included here. This song was written during a gathering for people with an HIV positive diagnosis and workers within the HIV field.

To listen to this song, click here.

Happiness has its way

Living positive lives
If one thing’s certain it’s not to know just where the future lies
Living positive lives
Carving out each day dignity and ways to live with pride

We may have lost oh so very many
But we honour oh so very many

Chorus:

When we hear the sorrow of the world being sung
We see the faces of everyone
And so we do remember and carry on
Their legacies live on through our lives

Living positive lives
We don’t settle for what is
Only what can be
We celebrate diversity and also unity

Chorus

Adversity is nothing new in this land
And as our stories link perhaps we’ll better understand
Perhaps we’ll also begin to hear
Those overtures ringing in our ears

We may have lost oh so very many
But we honour oh so very many

A beautiful old dead tree
Sitting quietly in our memories
Nurturing new life
Reaching upwards to the sun

We may have lost oh so very many
But we’re creating new life every day
It’s in those sweet simple moments
That happiness has its way

Chorus

Inclusiveness in singing and recording

Inviting participants to join in singing and playing the songs is a key aspect of decentred musical practice.9 This inclusivity moves any playing of the songs away from an ethic of performance towards one of participation. I’ve found that it really helps to have easy to play instruments and copies of the lyrics widely available. Ideally the lyrics can be written up on large sheets of paper or on a overhead so that people can stand together and look up at them as they sing. When people are holding individual sheets of paper it is more an individual experience (but this can still work just fine).

In my experience, an ethic of participation when recording can bring hilarious moments, and also a little nervousness on my part. A balancing act is often required of me as I don’t recommend ditching an ethic of performance altogether! It is really important that the recording is one which everyone will be proud of when they hear it back, and it is crucial that everyone who wishes to is included in the process. When there is not much time to practice, this is a dilemma that sometimes requires quick thinking and adept arranging to address.

As referred to above, the recording process is not just about recording the song. It is also a powerful ritual and community event. Recording the community event as well as the song is therefore important. Sounds of children talking, people moving about, snippets of conversations before and after the songs – indeed any sound that will evoke the recording ritual – are important to include as the songs themselves. The spontaneous applause that the community often bursts into is often particularly important to include on the final recording!

On this Narrandera gathering the recording ritual involved four generations in a shed singing, playing didgeridoo, guitar and rhythm sticks. We recorded songs that had been written over the past few days. Four of the songs were new, created from the words spoken during the week, while one was an old song, written by a member of the community who died ten years ago. It was the first time this song had been sung for many years. Once melodies begin to circulate it is quite common for an old tune to be remembered and resurrected. In this case it was a beautiful song and the community gathered around to sing it and record it. We made recordings of the five songs and then arranged for CDs and tapes of the recording to be distributed throughout the community. I’ve brought a CD home to Adelaide too and it is currently playing in the background as I write these words.

Summary

In my experience, the creation of community songs on gatherings can provide a source of hopefulness and can sustain and support the alternative stories of the spoken word. A trusty guitar can be taken out of its travelling case to provide the chords and rhythm, the community’s words can become lyrics, and a melody can be found or borrowed. With these elements woven together, the songs are ready to be sung, recorded, remembered and replayed.

These songs are just one part of the community gathering process. They couldn’t exist without the community’s invitation, the consultation process, the program of themes which create space for the articulation of unique outcomes, and the work of the reflecting team which draws out these sparkling moments and begins the process of co-authoring alternative story-lines. Gatherings are all about collaborative processes and I treasure the opportunities to be a part of them. To join with others in the creation of community songs is a source of great personal sustenance. I couldn’t recommend it more highly!

Reprise

As I am finishing off this article, I am now back in Adelaide, and I can hear Peter, my neighbour, strumming upon his guitar. Peter is an older man who lives alone. The person whom he was closest to in life – the woman who lived next door to him for many years – has recently passed on. I had always worried what direction Peter’s life would take after her death. And yet, a few months after her passing I heard the sound of a tin whistle. I heard it at odd hours – late at night, early in the morning. I guess these were the times when Peter could not sleep. Whereas these could have been lonely times, sad times, somehow instead they became opportunities for Peter to reconnect with a musical life that I had never known about. The tin whistle sounds quite wonderful these days, and now he obviously has a guitar in hand. He has told me that this was the instrument he used to play as a young man. I have no doubt that the hesitant sounds I can hear now will soon be intricate melodies.

In these past few months I have often wondered how Peter made the reconnection with music. I haven’t asked yet, because I have my own version of the story which I quite treasure. It is my guess that his closest friend gave to him the tin whistle before she died and asked him to play it in her memory. She would have known that after her death Peter would not have many companions. It’s my guess that the music I can hear now is a legacy of their friendship, their love for one another. In my experience so many relationships with music are like this. Particular songs, instruments, melodies are associated with those we love and cherish. And in turn, a re-engagement, or an engagement with music in particular ways, can bring new life to relationships and communities.

I hope these written words might encourage others to dust off their guitars, tin whistles and vocal chords. There are so many songs waiting to be written.

1. David Denborough works as the staff writer/song writer at Dulwich Centre. He has edited the books: Beyond the prison: Gathering dreams of freedom (1996), Family therapy: exploring the field’s past, present and possible futures (2001), and Queer counselling and narrative practice (2002). All of these books were published by Dulwich Centre Publications (www.dulwichcentre.com.au). David can be contacted via Hutt St PO Box 7192 Adelaide, South Australia 5000. Click here to contact David.

2. A number of these gatherings have been thoroughly documented. For more information about these please see:

Reclaiming our stories, reclaiming our lives (Dulwich Centre Journal 1995 #1).
Speaking out… and being heard (Dulwich Centre Newsletter 1994 #4).
Living positive lives: A gathering for people with an HIV positive diagnosis and workers within the HIV sector (Dulwich Centre Journal 2000 #4).

These publications are available via Dulwich Centre Publications and Narrative Books.

3. The process and thinking that informs these gatherings has been documented in Living positive lives: A gathering for people with an HIV positive diagnosis and workers within the HIV sector (Dulwich Centre Journal 2000 #4).

4. For more information about the use of documents in narrative therapy see:

What is narrative therapy: An easy to read introduction (Morgan, A. 2000). Dulwich Centre Publications.

5. For more information about the shape of reflections in the definitional ceremony process see:

‘Reflecting teamwork as definitional ceremony revisited’ in Reflections on Narrative Practice: Essays & interviews (White, M, 2000). Dulwich Centre Publications.

6. To read more about decentred therapeutic practice see:

‘Decentred Practice’ Chapter 10 in Narratives of Therapists’ Lives (White, 1997). Dulwich Centre Publications.

7. To read more about this gathering see Speaking out… and being heard (Dulwich Centre Newsletter 1995 #4).

8. To read more about this gathering see Living positive lives (Dulwich Centre Journal 2000 #4).

9. I have learnt from previous mistakes that great care must be taken in the process of inviting inclusivity in musical processes. Many people have in their lives experienced incitement to sing or play music and therefore encouraging people to participate in songs and music can be experienced very negatively. I think now that it is my responsibility to create a context whereby anyone who would like to can join in (no matter their degree of musical experience or confidence) and that those who do not wish to be involved feel no pressure whatsoever to participate.

Copyright © 2002

Listen to other examples of songs recorded in narrative therapy and community work contexts

Read about other collective narrative practice methodologies

Read more about community song writing in the book Collective narrative practice: Responding to individuals, groups, and communities who have experienced trauma, by David Denborough