Bernice Lewis Offers Songwriting Workshop

By Jean Pascal Monzies

Bernice Lewis teaches songwriting at Williams College and was an Artist in Residence at the Omega Institute for five years, leading music. She will be teaching songwriting at the San Miguel Songwriters’ Workshop Dec. 8–11. For more information, contact emilysusanpickrell@gmail.com. (Interview by Emily Pickrell)

EP: How did you start songwriting?

BL: I started out writing poetry when I was very young, in the second grade. I started writing poems because I wasn’t a good enough musician to figure things out, but then moved to music. It became an emotional release, taking whatever I was thinking about and processing it. We are all looking for an unusual way to tell our own stories.

EP: Tell me about one of these unusual stories?

BL: One of my more popular songs is “Red Cowboy Boots.” I was at the Kerrville festival, and someone told us that we were in her seat. She was obviously a Texan and a good eight months along. In unabashed Texans style, crossing the border of cultural propriety, she told me her story, saying, “We tried for a long time and nothing worked until I put on my red cowboy boots.” I think I am the only who has written about red cowboy boots inducing a pregnancy.

EP: You have also done a lot of education work on the Holocaust. How has that influenced your songwriting?

BL: I do a “Holocaust Alive” program every spring. I use the songs after I have shown a few photos. I have a song called “Ways to Survive” about a young woman who is a newlywed and what it would be like to pack one suitcase to live in a ghetto. The Jews in Poland were given very little time to relocate into ghettos. This young woman is trying to decide whether to be practical or sentimental. I’m not sure that it is my story specifically, but in many ways it is my story and the story of millions of people around the world right now.

EP: What is your philosophy for teaching songwriting?

BL: When you are teaching writing, the hardest thing to get people to do is to coax them into the non-editing space. I don’t think you can be creative and edit at the same time. I think you have to go into a free fall for a little while in order to get it out there, to allow it to exist. Then you can go back and try to shape it and meditate on what you really want to say.

The initial seed of existence of a song happens in this altered state for most of us. I call it breaking the code. The hardest part when you are an adult with responsibilities is finding the time and space to turn it into something before it loses its momentum.

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