Emily and Don Saliers: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Convergences
By Lisa Levy ’11 M.Div.
Indigo Girl musician Emily Saliers and her father, Don Saliers ’62 B.D., ’67 Ph.D., liturgical musician and former Yale Divinity School professor of theology, entertained an enthusiastic and participatory Convocation and Reunions crowd at Battell Chapel Oct. 13 with a richly woven tapestry of musical offerings and stories drawn from both the secular and the sacred.
Billed as an exploration of the “crossovers between the musical languages of Saturday night and Sunday morning,” the evening of music and conversation was sponsored by the Institute of Sacred Music. In his introduction, ISM director Martin Jean explained that the event was emblematic of the Institute’s commitment “to honor music that brings healing, seeks for justice, and makes strangers friends.” In their respective fields of music, Jean observed, “Emily and Don Saliers promote reconciliation and peacemaking”—themes that emerged as the evening moved from lyrical musings on reincarnation to hymns and antiphons on the peace of God, from vibrant spirituals to ebullient political protest.
The trip to Yale held special, personal meaning for both. Born at Yale/New Haven Hospital, Ms. Saliers and her three sisters spent a formative period of their childhood in a small house off Dixwell Avenue, located in one of New Haven’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, while their father completed his Ph.D. in theology at Yale. During this trip, Ms. Saliers and her father, who taught at YDS in the 1960s and 1970s, went to visit the house on Charles Street. “It looked like a model of itself,” she said, “It looked so small.” She thanked the audience for making possible this “Trip to Bountiful,” in reference to the 1954 play and 1985 film about a homecoming.
The evening kicked off with a lively rendition of the popular Indigo Girls classic “Galileo,” a song about reincarnation that, according to Ms. Saliers, offers “an ongoing critique of the living church in music.” Professor Saliers dubbed the song “the Indigo Girls’ national anthem.” He dedicated the next two songs to Annie Le, the 24-year-old Yale graduate student who was murdered on the medical school campus in September of this year. The first of those songs, an arrangement of “Be Still and Know that I am God” by John Bell of the Iona Community, was followed by a deep silence in the chapel, prompting Professor Saliers to observe, “Some music breaks the silence. Some music brings the silence.”
Next came the Indigo Girls’ poignant “All That We Let In,” which Ms. Saliers described as being “about the grandness of life and also a little bit about the minutiae.” It describes the simple act of leaving a poem on the windshield of a truck but at the same time carries an overtly antiwar message. “Amy [Amy Ray, the other half of the Indigo Girls duo] and I like to write pretty melodies,” laughed Ms. Saliers, “and rail against conservative political regimes.” She added that her father had made his debut with the Indigo Girls with this song, playing piano in the recording studio. “Dad likes being an Indigo Boy,” Ms. Saliers teased. “It takes him out of his element. He’s angling for a harpsichord solo on the next album, and I think we’re going to give it to him.”
The father-daughter team continued the set with the elder Saliers’s arrangement of “Peace Child,” a song by New Zealand hymn text writer Shirley Erena Murray. Professor Saliers noted, “In this song, Murray gives tensile strength to our desire for peace.” They followed “Peace Child” with another of his arrangements, “My Plans for you are Peace,” an antiphon from Psalm 126, with the words, “‘my plans for you are peace, not affliction,’ says the Lord. ‘Only cry to me, and I will bring you home.’” This segued into a narrative interlude during which Ms. Saliers told stories about the justice work she and Amy Ray have done over the years. She spoke of music as an important tool for activism and described the Indigo Girls participation in a musical exchange program in Cuba, their co-founding of a woman’s cooperative in Chiapas with Native American activist and politician Winona LaDuke, and taking a hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall. Ms. Saliers invoked her grounding in faith as foundational for this impulse toward peacemaking, saying, “Growing up Amy and I were both taught that we were citizens of the world, part of one human family.”
Ms. Saliers also discussed her experience working with the Metro State Women’s Prison Choir in Atlanta. “These women came into the church in shackles and were unshackled to put on their robes and sing,” she said, adding, “They are experiencing the transformative power of music. It’s an example of God’s presence, using music as a tool for change.” She played an excerpt from a CD the prisoners recorded in 2008 at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel, entitled “Voices of Hope.” All proceeds from the album sales go to the Children’s Center at the prison, which hosts children of the incarcerated women just one Saturday a month. The women hope that the money and awareness raised through sales of the CD will help keep the center open every Saturday.
The set continued with the Indigo Girls’ antiwar song “Our Deliverance.” Don Saliers pointed out, “It started out as a love song.” “They always do, and then I digressed,” said Emily Saliers, drawing laughter from the audience. She spoke of her experience playing the song at a concert in New York City not long after the World Trade Center tragedy. Discussing the set list for that night’s show, Ray and Saliers hesitated to include such a song, worried about touching the raw nerves of a people so recently affected by tragedy and loss of such magnitude. In the end, they decided to play the song. “When we got to the line that’s about reconciliation rather than retribution [“Lay down your weapons and love your neighbor as yourself”], the audience just burst into applause and cheers,” she said, adding that the moment taught her that most people have a deep heart for peace.
“Power of Two,” the next song in the set, was inspired by a sermon preached by Don Shockley, the retired university chaplain at Emory University, Emily Saliers explained. On the heels of “Power of Two” came an antiphon from Psalm 139, “Search me, oh God, and know my heart.” Said Professor Saliers, “Certainly you can’t go wrong with Psalm 139. Wherever we go, we can never escape the spirit of God.” After the meditative antiphon, Don Saliers shifted gears, returning to his roots as a jazz musician. “Duke Ellington has a hymn in the Methodist hymnal,” he pointed out, “Thank God!” Emily Saliers noted that her father has worked hard to open up the offerings in the Methodist hymnal, introducing global hymnody from Africa and Korea and other countries.
One of the songs Emily Saliers played is an old Indigo Girls song, “A History of Us,” composed using images from a family trip to Europe after her college graduation. At the end of the song, Professor Saliers mused, “It illustrates so well how a song that sounds like a love song in the popular idiom is actually about mortality, immortality, and love.”
Ms. Saliers prefaced her next song, “The Wayfarin’ Stranger,” with a reminiscence about how the song reminded her of her travels through the South, on tour with singer Joan Baez: “We were driving through the deep, dark South at night, with the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, when Joan began to sing an old spiritual... ”
Before the final songs of the evening, Ms. Saliers observed, “Sacred music has influenced me all of my life—from singing in the Presbyterian choir here in New Haven to borrowing vigorously—ripping off!—the Bible.” While playing in dive bars in Atlanta, she said, she “began to realize that the secular experience of music is really just like what happens in church.” Indeed, in A Song to Sing, A Life to Live, the book she co-authored with her father, she wrote, “I have felt the intensity of sacred music not only in the hallowed halls of church but also in the smoky bars of Atlanta.... I can’t say one experience is more deeply sacred than the other.”
Father and daughter then led the audience in the Indigo Girls’ classic call to action, “Hammer and a Nail,” transitioning without pause into the hymn “Let us Break Bread Together” in a graceful liturgical move that connected the communal action exuberantly advocated in the Saturday night verse “Gotta get out of bed, / Get a hammer and a nail, / Learn how to use my hands” with the Sunday morning breaking of the bread.