Voices carry

Looking back at the women who’ve shaped a soundtrack of life



“Souvent j'écoute encor quand le chant a cesse” ("Often I am still listening when the song is over.")
—Marquis de Saint-Laurent, 1716-1803

Most of us put together our own soundtracks, the background music that plays behind us as we’re living out the various scenes that become the bundle of stories that make up our lives. For me, that soundtrack features lots of female vocalists in various musical genres—from Ketty Lester to Norah Jones, from Miriam Makeba to Cesária Évora—women who sang me solace through the decades.

I carry a memory of my mother, standing at the kitchen sink, doing the dishes at a time in my life when I was always, quite literally, looking up to her. And in this memory, she is singing “Blue Skies,” an Irving Berlin song written in 1926 and made popular 20 years later in the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire film of the same name. We had a record of this song, one of those old 78s that had a picture cast into the grooves, a woman in a meadow, with blue skies overhead. “Blue skies, smiling at me / Nothing but blue skies, do I see.”

In reality, there were lots of clouds in the skies over my mother’s head for most of her life. She was a woman who married too young, got pregnant too soon, and whose husband never really made enough money to keep clouds from forming. But there was that evening, with dusk gathering at the kitchen window and the warm water running over our dinner dishes, when my mother sang that little anthem of faint hope for blue skies in a voice I remember as sweet and fluid as the water from the faucet.

Gillian Welch

That is, I think, why I have sought that sound in the voices of a thousand women who have sung to me on vinyl, on tape and on CDs for all the years that flowed out from that night.

A few months ago, I left a poker game, busted out, facing a long drive home. The moon had come full, lighting a fool’s way to his rest. It was late, and I had the highway to myself. A new CD came up in the rotation on my player, one I’d bought a day or so earlier, but had yet to hear.

The singer’s name is Anjani, and I knew nothing of her. I bought the CD because it was produced by Leonard Cohen, whose novel was the subject of a paper I wrote in college back in the Pleistocene Era, and whose songs I’ve listened to for more than 30 years. I also bought the album because the cover art drew my eye—a lovely woman, lit by the photographer to amplify a sense of mystery. Marketing works.

For all I knew, she had a voice like fingernails on a blackboard, but I took a shot, forked over the money, bought her CD. I am something of a gambler by nature—hence the late-night drive home from that poker game—and I like to buy music sometimes when I know nothing at all about what I am buying. Over a lifetime of buying music, my success rate has been pretty good with this method of selection, and tonight was no exception.

It was this grab-bag approach to extending my musical library that provided my introduction to the late and much-lamented Kate Wolf, and the very-much-alive McGarrigle sisters. Before she turned her talents to disco-ish garbage during the coked-out ’80s, I found my way to Rita Coolidge, singing songs for hippies. Her first album was cheap as chips in a discount bin, a good five years before she married Kris Kristofferson in a marriage doomed by booze even before the vows were exchanged. Songs on that old album imprinted themselves on my heart on moony nights long ago, back in the days when booze sang backup in my own life.

Cesária Évora

I was promiscuous with these women who sang songs in my ear, never true to any of them, picking them up one after another, holding them near for a time before moving to the next, though never abandoning any of them completely, just as likely to turn back to one I’d loved long ago one night when the moon was just right, the mood and the moon.

Depending on those moods and that moon, it might have been Kathleen Battle singing Haydn in a voice as pure as new snow, or Billie Holiday’s voice taking me from wherever I happened to be to some smoky ’50s jazz club. It might have been Gillian Welch echoing the voice of American hardship, or Koko Taylor laying down gut-bucket blues in a voice both tough as nails and sweet as pie. On some nights, Amália Rodrigues sang fados to me in Portuguese, and though I don’t know the language, I always knew the heart.

All of these angel voices, and hundreds more, sang my anxious heart quiet: Diana Krall, Janis Joplin, Anita O’Day, Dolly Parton, Lola Beltrán, Édith Piaf, Cecilia Bartoli, Joan Baez. The names pour into memory, each bringing with it an image of the past—a long drive across a desert somewhere, or a hike with headphones on my head, or a moment shared with one of my daughters.

It’s coming up on 21 years since Kate Wolf died. Her voice, as much as any other, was the one I sought when I wanted to return to that mood I first felt as I listened to my mother singing at the kitchen sink, with the crickets coming to life outside and darkness edging the corners of the windows.

Kate’s gone, but she’s not forgotten. And even still, when I’m feeling edgy and need to seek out calm, I put her CD on the player and let her voice bring me peace, or insight, or a moment’s joy—just as so many other women singers have done throughout my life, going all the way back to my mother singing “Blue Skies” on that evening so long ago.