Episode 29: Becky Reardon - Finding the Moon
Becky Reardon describes herself as “In the music” Her songs, tell us about the human community, our mother earth, and the reverence, and awe, and humility, and joy, and solace, and deep understandings that can rise up when you make time and space to listen to what she has to say.
Becky Reardon's voice is familiar to the millions of people who heard her sing on the Charlie Brown TV specials (Charles Schultz called her his favorite singer!). She is a composer whose songs and rounds are sung by community and university choirs, and song circles throughout the US, Canada, British Isles, and Germany. Sometimes jazzy and fun-loving, sometimes trance-inducing and deeply spiritual, her music always conveys her passion for the natural world and the cycles of life. She teaches and performs nationwide, using improvised singing and movement to inspire singers to write their own songs. She is currently writing a musical about a women’s singing circle.
If you know anything about Juniper trees, their bark starts hanging off of them. But if you've ever had a Juniper in a fire and you've split a piece of Juniper, the center of it is dark pink. it's "red is rose." And so, I wrote this song to compare myself to a Juniper tree that was growing older and feeling myself, and going through my years, just being in the bright blue sky out here and still having a lot of passion in my heart.
...when I'm receiving writing and working on a song, I am trying my very best to make the song, carry the feelings that inspired the song. So that when you sing the song, you go to the place that, that I felt. I try, I really try hard to do that.
...you look around he community ...and you ask, what does that community need that I have something special to, to give to? What is my special thing that I can give my community? So, there's that part of it. And also, there is your own desire. And maybe that part comes first. Its like, “what do I love to do?
BC: [00:00:00] If you're lucky, every once in a while, you cross paths with a singular soul whose way in the world Intersects with yours at an inflection point that contains a powerful lesson that makes profound sense for you, in that moment. Becky Reardon is one of those, at least for me.
We met at a while back during the deep mask times. On a bench by the San Francisco Bay. She and her wife were visiting my friend and Change the Story / Change the World musical collaborator, Judy Munson.
Now, Becky describes herself as “In the music” I'm thinking, it's more like, “She is the music.” And that music has a compelling story to tell about the profound wisdom that surrounds us here on our planet. Her songs, tell us about humans, and our mother earth, the reverence, and awe, and humility, and joy, and solace, and deep understandings that can rise up when you take the time, and make the space to listen to what she has to say.
We're all lucky that Becky has been kind enough to share those songs through her records, and concerts, and workshops all across the country, over the past decades. We spoke in the spring of 2021 about these things: The natural world and community, and the place of songs in the spaces where they come together.
This is. Change the Story / Change the World: A chronicle of art and community transformation, I'm Bill Cleveland.
Listeners, you will notice that this episode includes a lot of Becky’s wonderful music. If you are interested in hearing more, you can go to beckyreardonmusic.com or click on the link in our show notes. Now here’s Becky sharing, among other things, her recipe for finding the moon.
BC: [00:02:07] Part 1: In the Music
So, it looks like you've returned home in one place in one piece. Yeah. Yeah.
BR: [00:02:14] To one place, one piece I'm here. Glad to be here. Were you out at the bench this morning?
BC: [00:02:22] Yeah, that bench, if there are solace and soul helpers over this last year and that bench has been one of them, for sure.
BR: [00:02:31] Kind of like a rock.
BC: [00:02:33] Absolutely. So, just, before we start, could you describe what's outside the walls of your place where you are?
BR: [00:02:41] Sure. I'm in the high desert of Northern New Mexico. I'm on a piece of land. That's five acres. it's on a little rise above a very long valley, an arroyo that's full of Russian olives and little Rocky Mountain junipers, lots of sticky thorny things. I can see a Talus Mountain to the east. the Rio Grande Gorge is to, to the west of me outside my window there. I have Russian olive trees in my backyard. I have mockingbirds singing wildly right now. The arroyo used to be full of sheep, that’s years and years ago. Nobody lived out here except sheepherders. So that's a little bit of my, my terrain.
BC: [00:03:29] I usually ask people that I also ask who are the people who were there before we came, the white folks showed up.
BC: [00:03:40] Who are very much. still there
BR: [00:03:42] Still there? In fact, they are, as the crow flies, about two miles over there to the east. I'm just west of the Taos Pueblo, and yes, they're still there. Their village has been occupied continuously for a thousand years.
BC: [00:03:58] Yeah. Which is amazing. First of all, thank you for doing this. I've spent time with your music, and it's an extraordinary way to be introduced to another human being. So let me begin. So, your work in the world how would you describe it, your way in the world, your path?
BR: [00:04:13] I'm in the music. I used to sign my emails “In the music,” cause that's where I am. I'm a musician songwriter, performer, and that's the medium through which I express what's important to me, which is the natural world and community. And I know I start with myself. Where I am. I'm here. Here's my body. Here's what's around me. Here's, what's singing to me. Here's what I'm learning. And I make songs out of that, and I share them with my community, with my family, and hope they are useful.
BC: [00:04:55] And it's so clear to me that spending time in the natural world that you are reflecting on is supremely important to you that feeds you.
BR: [00:05:07] Oh Yeah. And especially during this pandemic, I feel lucky that I live in a place where I can still get out to trails up in the mountains out on the mesas, because yeah, that definitely keeps me alive.
BC: [00:05:23] What took you to the place that you've spent so much of your life in this communion and this musical symphony that you've generated around you.
BR: [00:05:35] That's such a question. I saw a movie once, and I don't remember the name of it, but the premise of the movie was that after you die, there's about 10 seconds of consciousness where you relive all the important things in your life, and all of a sudden it makes sense.
BC: [00:05:51] Yeah.
BR: [00:05:52] All of those puzzles are answered, and you know, what it was all about. And when you ask a question like that's takes me there. And I think about being raised in a family in the middle west, that was pretty religious. My, my dad was a minister. My grandfather was a minister and a missionary, and I grew up singing hymns. And the best part of that was singing four-part harmony acapella, so all of those chord changes, all that stuff is just in me. And songs like
"Farther along we'll know all about it."
Yeah. That song. Sing, pop songs, lots of jazz, listening to Fitzgerald, the Gershwin tunes studied opera music. I traveled. I went to France for my junior year in college, learned some folk songs there. Then went to the Philippines in the Peace Corps. it was always like I had a ukulele or a guitar or something. I was always learning songs. Came back and moved to the Bay Area. And I sang in a little folk club called the Vene Fomage, on Solano Boulevard, and just sang songs that Joan Baez would have sung and Bob Dylan. And that's the early part of this journey.
BC: [00:07:14] And we share a lot of that, but at a certain point you decided that you would make your own music, your own songs, and I'm wondering where that emerged, and how that flowered?
BR: [00:07:31] It took a long time. I'm very slow to, I didn't start writing my own songs really until I was in my fifties. And A lot of other paths I sang with top 40 bands and bars and sang at a folk club called the Purple Onion in San Francisco and yeah. And, I was always singing other people's songs and I tried to write songs, they were like love songs and I didn't like them. And I didn't really have my own voice.
And then there was one year where all of these fantastic things happened. I started taking singing lessons from the wonderful jazz improvisationalist, Rhiannon. who's part of Bobby McFerrin’s group and a fabulous singer in her own. Right. And she just opened this whole world. Of hearing my own voice to me, and starting with vocables not singing words, but just like the Mockingbird I was listening to this morning, I was like,
“Mocking bird scat singing”
making enough, whatever kind of came out of my body and my own rhythms and my own excitement or quiet or whatever it was. I met her, I had two lessons and I knew that she had just given me a lifetime's worth. So, I met her, I started singing with Kate Munger and, that's another whole story. Kate is the woman who started the Threshold Choirs. they're groups that sing at people's bedside in the last stages of their life. But years ago, this was like 30 years ago, she had a group of women out in Point Reyes, and I would come join them. And we'd just sing on the full moons out on the shore, on Bay and we'd sing rounds from all over the world. And after a while, I would go I, think, “let me try my hand at that.” And so, I wrote around about the cycles of the moon, Where is the Moon." And I think the third thing that happened that year that I came out with some friends to the four corners area.
BC: And that's New Mexico where you are now, right.
BR: [00:09:50] Yeah, and I just, we came out in two, two trucks and all of a sudden, I just wanted to go off on my own. And they went up to Telluride and I went down to the canyonlands and just not having ever been there before, not knowing what to expect and started hiking in the canyons and I felt something there just in the pace of walking and being surrounded by such astonishing landscape, the immensity of the landscape, and then the intimacy of the little wildflowers that were there. It just took me back to a place. I don't think I've been to I was a kid and the world was really alive to me. And so, all of that, I started singing back, just after I'd been walking for a while, I would just make up songs, and often not words often just S just responding to, to do what I felt around me. And that's what really happened. It changed my, my, my music.
BC: [00:11:01] There's an old school practice that I think you and I probably both had, which is you go into a music store, and you flip through the albums that are stacked up. And you look at the names of the songs and the back of the albums and you look at who's in them.
And so having spent time with your music, I feel like I am flipping through a book of specimens photographs, sounds, of a long, long walk through the obvious paradise that you avail yourself of out there in the world. And there are times when I feel like I'm being introduced to your friends, your family in a sense.
There's one of my friends, who's your friend, which is the Raven, obviously the monkey flower and the Cocklebur and the rivers and the stars. At some points I'm feeling like I'm intruding—that this is a private moment. Okay.
That's an important thing because sometimes it listening to your music, obviously the intention is to share it, but I feel like I'm in, in a sanctuary and I'd like you to talk a little bit about two things. One of them is the round and what it means to you. and this idea of sharing these things with groups of people who sing,
BR: [00:12:24] Oh, my mind is just so full of stuff, so, I will talk about rounds and where it started, then I started singing my own songs with other groups. Like I said, it's in the music. I just, I want to play just a little bit
BC: [00:12:44] Good please do
BR: [00:12:48] You were just talking about the Ravens, and it makes me those services song. So, I was out in the Valley of the Gods, which is in Southern Utah. it was hot. And we were walking along in the red rock and looking for some shade. And that's where this came from.
in the summer heat
looking for the shade of a cottonwood
A raven sees me walking.
She knows, but she's not talking.
Some place green,
Down by cool stream
So that's a round. the round form back to that group, singing on the shores of tamales bay, like the, I think the second round I ever wrote was, Where is the Moon? And first of all the round, that happens to be a perfect vehicle for writing songs about cycles of nature.
BC: [00:14:06] yes.
BR: [00:14:07] And so this round started before I had any recording equipment.
And I was out here in New Mexico and the first line came to me cause’ I was thinking about the moon. All right. if I see this little Crescent, the curve is facing. to the right. I, what does that mean? Is it waxing? Is it waning? if I see the moon, when I'm waking up in the morning, is it new? Is It like old? and then I learned that the full moon rises at sunset every month, no matter what month it is. And anyway, so I'm thinking about this, and this line comes to me.
When the moon is new,
it's a sliver on the right
growing bigger every night.
And I went, oh, I better write that down. And later on, I was hiking with some friends, and I made them sing that part over and over again until I came up with the next and so forth.
But anyway, I want to play that for you so you can hear how it sounds when it turns into a round.
BR: [00:16:13] all right, so I'll play those for you so you can see how this alternate into, around.
Where is the moon?
When the moon is new,
it's a sliver on the right
growing bigger every night.
Where is the moon
When the moon is waning
Fading to the left
Till there’s no moon remaining
BC: [00:16:53] You don't mind if I learn that song, I love that, that's really beautiful. And it, in two ways. Obviously it's a great round, but the minute that the picture starts to emerge, the moon, and then, the question, okay, what's going on here? it, I, I lose myself in that song really easily.
BR: [00:17:16] Great. I know you like rounds.
BC: [00:17:18] I do.
BR: [00:17:18] You have long history with them.
BC: [00:17:21] I do.
BR: [00:17:22] Yeah, that round is very fun to teach. because you have to kind of deconstruct it a little bit, cause it's a little bit complicated, but you start with half the room singing the questions and the other half singing the answers.
And then in turn that around. Oh, I'm so happy that came to me. And I heard, oh, some years ago that folks were singing it at Oberlin College, and they called it the Moon Instructional Round.
BC: [00:17:48] That's great. that's called a, that's a musical epidemic, right? When you know, you travel the world and you bumped back into something that you gave birth to. Isn't that nice?
BR: [00:17:59] did you say a musical epidemic? Oh, I see
BC: [00:18:02] yes.
BR: [00:18:02] a good way.
BC: [00:18:03] long before this stupid pandemic I became obsessed. Uh, with epidemiology --- not as a science of biology, but as a science of human behavior. And I've always felt that at least my work was in part about creating of viral responses to good things. So, like music, like rounds, like great stories, that mutate along the way.
BR: [00:18:30] Hmm. Hmm.
BC: [00:18:31] Yeah.
BR: [00:18:32] That made, that reminds me. So, I was thinking about your podcast
Change the Story / Change the World, and how important it's been for me to, to change some of the stories and the religious upbringing that I had. And you know, so I wrote a song called All of Us, Um, it's just happens to be another round and it's, it goes,
All of us are chosen people
chosen by life to be alive.
Wherever we walk is holy land,
holy by life's returning
under heaven only one true birthright
to create whatever we love.
And yeah, you'd ask how did I start sharing my songs? In the world. And that really happened out here in New Mexico, I just had the fortunate circumstance to get involved with a group of women out here who were building their own moon lodge. I mean, that's, that's what, one of the things attracted me Taos in the first place. The women were all doing these fabulous things. They were building their own houses. They were making their own sacred spaces. They were gardening, they were hiking in the mountains, they were going on, wood runs, they were playing softball. they were artists. So, I