The song began coming to life on Zoom, and later, in the parking lot of the Red Lion Diner in Southampton.
Masked and seated apart at safe distances, eight singers — all of them veterans, seniors, and women of color — linked lyrics into lines and threaded strands of melody into verses.
It’s OK, we will be all right/We won’t go down without a fight
A pair of music professionals from the New Jersey-based Voices of Valor program, which offers small groups of veterans a chance to collectively write and record an original song, provided guidance. But the purposeful spirit of the tune acquired a more topical tone as the singers made suggestions. And the pandemic — especially its disproportionate impact on Black, brown, and older people — was never far from consciousness.
Quarantined and alone/People losing their homes/Unemployment at an all-time high/Hard for me to get by
“It’s awesome to listen not only with my ears, but with my heart,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Kim Finley.
“I usually don’t talk,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Yvonne Bivens. “This program helps me to say something.”
Added retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeretha Prather: “We’re trying to give understanding to issues female veterans are going through, as well as issues outside in society, such as police brutality, and Black Lives Matter.”
Gun violence/civil unrest … America is not at its best
The singers are members of the Woodland Women’s Military Veterans Group at Woodland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Camden. Pastor Floyd White, who formerly served as director of the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs, said the group was formed last year to provide education, networking, and other opportunities to retired Black female service members. “We want to make sure they’re not isolated or forgotten,” said White.
Voices of Valor was cofounded by classical pianist and Philadelphia native Rena Fruchter and her husband, the composer Brian Dallow, in 2011. It’s a component of their nearly 30-year-old Music for All Seasons program of bringing live performances to underserved audiences and communities.
Voices offers a creative form of music therapy and so far has served about 600 veterans through its two-month “cycles” of discussion and collaborative composition, mostly in New Jersey but also in New York and California. No musical training is required of participants.
“Some of the veterans in our program realize they can sing. That‘s especially powerful,” said Fruchter, who grew up in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia and lives in Plainfield, N.J.
“It’s also really powerful for them to communicate what they’ve been feeling about everything going on around them, and around everyone, to a wider audience” Fruchter said. “It’s a very emotional experience.”
At a recent outdoor session at the diner, vocalist Jennifer Lampert and guitarist/producer Ron Haney, who have collaborated on previous Voices of Valor projects, helped keep the words and music flowing. Lampert wrote down words and phrases suggested by singers and displayed them on oversized Post-its on an exterior wall, while Haney strummed chords and tried different tempos and styles. At one point, a reggae beat kicked in.
Woke up this morning in an unfamiliar space/never imagined I’d be in this place
“It’s not an exact science,” Haney said later. “I want the experience to be amazing, and memorable, for them.”
Said Lampert: “There are so many challenges going on at this time, and the whole purpose is to give the women a voice” to express their feelings.
Participants are recruited through VA facilities and other programs that serve the needs of those who have served in the military. Some participants are struggling to transition from military to civilian life, while others are receiving medical or mental health treatment. Others, like the women from the Woodland Avenue Presbyterian group, are seniors, and retired.
“The program can provide comfort and healing, and enable people to make changes in their lives,” Fruchter said. “It can give them encouragement and confidence they may not have had before.”
Retired Army Maj. Carolyn Stevenson of Burlington Township said that despite the fact “I can’t sing,” she is enjoying the social and creative aspects of the work in progress.
“A few members of the group felt the song was too sad,” she said. “Adding a little rap into it can represent some of the issues surrounding us daily, such as COVID-19.
“We can all come together,” Stevenson added, “and based on our experiences, we can come up with a song that can represent all of us.”
A recording session is set for Aug. 17 at Studio Crash in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood. A release of the song — officially titled It’s OK, It’ll Be All Right — will follow, so that everyone who wants to listen can take comfort in lyrics like these:
Though all our struggles are not the same/We have each other to get through the rain/Faith and love will bring us hope again