PORT TOWNSEND — A yearlong collaborative project to create songs with seniors and their families on the North Olympic Peninsula culminates with a Veterans Day concert Wednesday in Port Townsend.
Songwriting Works on the Olympic Peninsula, or SWOP, is a nonprofit group based in Port Townsend that has spent the last year planning and then traveling around the Peninsula, working with seniors to write songs about their life experiences.
Songwriting Works was created by Judith-Kate Friedman in 1990 in California, as part of an artist-in-residence program.
It became a nonprofit entity in 1997, and Friedman brought the idea with her when she moved to Port Townsend in 2006.
This year she was able to secure a “Creativity and Aging in America” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to bring the program to life.
“I had been hoping for this since I moved here,” Friedman said.
Visiting Peninsula seniors
With the funding, Friedman and a group of professional musician facilitators visited seniors and their families around both Jefferson and Clallam counties, gathering their life experiences and putting them to music.
They also held songwriting seminars at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts and the Sequim Irrigation Festival.
Musicians participating in the project were Matt Sircely, Paula Lalish, Keeth Monta Apgar and Anke Summerhill, all of Jefferson County.
Friedman said the songs composed during the visits, which will be performed at the concert Wednesday, range from seafaring singalongs to family recipes set to music and up-tempo looks at the good life on the Olympic Peninsula.
The centerpiece of the evening will be the performance of a song written by residents at Dungeness Courte Alzheimer’s Community in Sequim.
With the residents’ families helping out, the facilitators brainstormed for song ideas.
“Everything they said, we wrote down,” Friedman said. “When they would say something poignant, you could feel a hush in the room.”
While many of the dementia patients no longer have a good grasp of daily events or recent memories, the songwriting exercise brought their pasts alive.
One elderly man began telling a story of being in World War II with his twin brother.
“His family recognized it, and said it was one of the stories he liked to tell,” Friedman said.
That story became an anthem honoring the homecoming experience of Marines who served in World War II, a topic familiar to many seniors.
Friedman describes the SWOP experience as “musical mural painting.”
“Participants across the continuum of age and of physical and cognitive health contribute as equals, collectively composing a song,” she said.
“In [the] workshops they share ideas, words, stories, humor, melodies and folkways, creating new songs through conversation, sound, word, image, music, rhythm and verbatim speech.
“They learn songwriting, storytelling, improvisation and consensus building, hands-on in the oral tradition.”
This type of exercise is called “medical ethnomusicology,” and research shows it has a plethora of benefits, including breaking isolation, activating brain fitness, improving memory, relieving depression and transforming attitudes about aging.
But SWOP didn’t undertake a project of this scope without help.
Assisting their efforts were Arts Northwest, Olympic Area on Agency, Olympic Community Action Programs Senior Nutrition Program, the Community Advocates for Rural Elders Partnership — based in Port Angeles — Critical Junctures Institute at Western Washington University, the National Center for Creative Aging, Dungeness Courte Alzheimer’s Community, Encore, the Tri-Area Community Center, Port Angeles Senior Center and SWOP’s advisory council of senior citizens.
Friedman estimates she has composed upward of 300 collaborative songs with seniors, youth and families throughout North America.
She is also an award-winning singer, songwriter and producer, and has toured internationally.
Sircely is a songwriter and mandolin player who has performed with musicians from David Bromberg to David Grisman.
He tours with several groups and plays music from swing and classic to blues, bluegrass and rock.
Lalish is a folk harper, known as the composer of Marrowstone Island’s “anthem,” which is called “Island Time.”
As a music practitioner for the regional hospice, Lalish plays her harp at the bedside of terminally ill patients.
Apgar has written more than 500 songs and has an unusual style that combines “acoustic wah-wah guitar, lush jazz chords and image-evoking lyrics into intelligent, refreshing pop.”
Originally from Munich, Germany, Summerhill is a singer, visual artist and practitioner of healing arts.
As an Arts Northwest touring artist, she joined SWOP to serve elders on the Peninsula as well as in her home community of Moab, Utah.
Joining them for the evening will be guest artists PT Songlines Choir and Daniel Deardorff.
PT Songlines is a community choir under the direction of Laurence Cole. The choir performs his compositions as well as songs crafted around the poetry of Rumi. Hafiz and others.
Deardorff is a musician, storyteller and “maker of ritual.”
He has been composing, performing and producing music for more than four decades, and is a founder of the Mythsinger Foundation.
He has toured with Seals & Crofts and the children’s group, Tickle Tune Typhoon, among others.
Features Editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.