Voices in the Voids: Yet More Selected Songs from the BA Songwriting Contest

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This article is the fourth of a series in which members of Braver Angels discuss selected submissions from our Songwriting Contest together (the first is here. The second here. The third here.) This article, however, features speakers across a racial rather than a partisan divide.

For this conversation, the white speaker is Cameron Swallow, a Braver Angels leader and local bluegrass musician in Wisconsin. The Black speaker is Austin Willacy, a professional songwriter, musician, and activist near Oakland, California. Cameron and Austin were introduced by a mutual friend for the purpose of this article, in which they discuss some of their favorite BA Songwriting Contest entries on the topic of race. At the end, check out our full collection of race-related Braver Angels songs!  

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Cameron: Thank you for joining me, Austin, to discuss some of the fine song submissions in the Braver Angels Songwriting Contest from the perspective of race in America, during this important cultural moment, and as part of Braver Angels’ July focus on race. Today we’ve selected four songs, out of two hundred submitted, to discuss; these four deal with racial themes. How did you choose which ones to talk about?

Austin: For the songs that I highlighted, the thing that stood out to me was a shared element of compassion. If sympathy is recognizing someone else’s suffering, and empathy is relating it to my own experience, then compassion is the carrying forward into the world the recognition of suffering and working for its relief. It’s the action component.

C: I like that definition of compassion. I’d only thought of it as a synonym for empathy, but this is a helpful distinction. A call to action.

A: Yes.  It’s so great that there’s a lot of support for the Black Lives Matter movement right now, and that so many white people are a part of it. But I know one of the fears voiced by a lot of frontline activists is that white people might get engaged for a short amount of time and then quietly withdraw their support when they get tired.  Though some things have shifted very rapidly under intense visibility, scrutiny and pressure, we have a long way to go as a country.  Sustained compassion and engagement is necessary to bring about much-needed positive change.

C:  As I listened to all the song submissions that treat the theme of race, I was struck by how often I heard references to ‘seeing’ and ‘listening to’ another person.  Our four choices today are full of seeing and listening. Let’s start with your choice of On the Waves by Dale Carpenter.

On The Waves

A: Dale Carpenter’s presence is so grounded. I really appreciated that he’s older; his fingers sound assured on the guitar in a way that conveys many decades of relation, and set the tone for the song beautifully. I had high expectations from the first notes, and he delivered. I loved the perspective in the first verse—it was almost a detached narrator talking about physical reality he is observing. It was individual and internal, but then he asked “What were they thinking when they threw it all away on the waves?”  I said, “Ooh! That works on a lot of different levels.”

C: I love a song with a refrain that can mean more than one thing, and the verses give the different contexts. You start with the visible and tangible, but then it becomes so much more than that.

A: I have a friend, a woman named Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived for two years in Luna, an old-growth redwood tree, to keep Pacific Lumber from logging old-growth redwood forests. She went up as a young, unknown activist, and came down as a widely celebrated hero. She said, “We keep talking about throwing things away. Where is Away? There is no such place.” Her experience, and her question, helped me hear deep resonances in this song.

In the COVID-19 verse, “what are you thinking”—there’s been so much politicization of the question of wearing a mask. The question has become not, “Should I try to protect other people?” but, “What statement am I making if I wear or don’t wear it?” It’s become a partisan issue that doesn’t allow for an uncomplicated universal response. In this case, we can’t be altruistic without it seemingly becoming a political choice. It’s far from the best way to engage at this time.

C: Adding to your sense of “Away,” I think the waves also become not just the lake, but the winds of change that he references. The waves are the cultural forces that will always be blowing through; when do you choose to harness them? You don’t have to see the winds of change as a means of discarding or disposing. You can see them as a means of leverage toward a new cultural moment. That’s what I heard my second time listening. Thank you for inspiring me to listen again to a song I might not have given a second hearing, in this cultural moment, because it was written and performed by a white man.

United State of Humanity

A: My second pick was United State of Humanity, by Donna Elaine Miller and Jon Baker.

Just thinking about it now I have goose bumps, also known as truth bumps! I love that she’s working with binaries.

C: And against them all!  Not Black, not White, not Red, not Blue. She checks a bunch of Braver Angel priorities just in the opening lines.

A: And “The resolution’s in the revolution of the heart” is such a creative way to say ‘we need to love each other.’  It feels fresh; it feels very active. I also love, “If our points of view don’t see eye to eye,” well, that’s all the more reason we need to work on it together. It invites us to lean in when we reach a point of conflict. I believe conflict is inevitable and the experience of working through it is what makes it positive or negative. You and I could have a massive conflict, and if we commit to communicating through it, holding ourselves accountable for making ourselves understood, and making each other feel understood, we will be closer and more resilient on the other side of it.

C: That’s one of the foundational principles of Braver Angels workshops—listening for understanding. Seeking truth, not victory. As she says, “It’s not just the conversation, it’s the listening.”

A: The line about not seeing eye to eye really is inviting that commitment. We really are all in this together, and there are forces trying to convince us that we aren’t. “This fear of each other is our suicide,” she says—and that’s a heavy line! But because of the track, because of her presence, and because of her absolutely gorgeous, golden, soulful, jazzy R&B voice, she is able to deliver it in a way that acknowledges its seriousness without pulling us down to despair.

C: Yes, you can almost see the finger-wagging dance move as she sings. “Uh uh uh, we’re not going there.” Then the next line is “Love is going to keep us alive.” So there is a binary where she’s willing to make a choice.

A: Love is going to keep us alive, but only “if we decide.” We get to choose, but in so choosing we are stepping out of empathy into compassion again.

C: And he brings it back! I have to ask, did you think of Angelica in Hamilton when she sang “We hold these truths to be self-evident?”  I thought that must be deliberate.

A: I did, and I agree. And I loved the interweaving of that line with Dr. King’s “I have a dream.”

C: Me too, a line that does not belong in Hamilton, but which brings the long sweep of American history to bear on the message of this song.

A: It’s such an uplifting song. The progression of the track, the lyrics, her delivery, everything opens up as it moves along. And the call to action is a call to love.

C: It’s a revolution of the heart that we need. We have to change, inside, how we look at other people; that is the fundamental change that has to come first. This is definitely a Braver Angels anthem!

The Sound of Us

A: When I first listened to The Sound of Us by Lynette Williams and Nicholas Zork, I was disarmed because its guitar and melody were so sweet. I didn’t hear it as being about race at first, but the songcraft dawned on me gradually. Though its questions could be answered internally, they also have broad implications. “What does it mean to be free?” Am I actually free if there is something external cleaving me in two, or if others are not free?

C: Yes, freedom can be read on more than one level here, just like the refrain in On the Waves. 

A: I also love the line “Are we too afraid to believe life is more with all of us?” This speaks to me about the power of true diversity, not tokenism. If you can tap the wisdom of diverse experiences, you can make a relationship, organization, or institution stronger and more resilient.

C: Fear here, again, is the powerful, needless enemy. 

A: The song continues with a musical metaphor, “Learn how the notes of each soul create harmony from dust.”

C: You really are co-creating, making something out of nothing.

A: At this point I said, “All right, song, you got me!”  My whole life is all about co-creation, collaboration, and this song re-casts the questions.  “Let the voice inside you fill the void…”

C: That’s where I got on board—voice and void. The rhythmic complexity at the beginning got my attention first, but the voice and void line made me know this one was special. I also loved the juxtaposition of “sound” and “noise” in the bridge. How the ‘sound in you’ is going to break through the ‘noise of the world.’ You want to elevate the sound out of the noise.

A: I loved that it was not ‘on the nose’ speaking directly about race. It gave me the chance to recognize that for whatever work I’ve done in myself or in the world, I still have a choice. I really loved the line, ‘We aren’t we without you.” It’s the most beautiful way of speaking to the reality of true collaboration.

C: That’s what inclusion really means. If you care enough to talk to somebody, you say ‘we;’ they’re in your circle. You only say ‘they’ when you’re not in communication at all. This song also gets my starred line for a personal call to action: “Sing louder than my fear.” Too many people are hiding behind too many different kinds of fears. Some people have a fear of Black men in public places, and they use that fear to justify all sorts of behavior. Some people have a fear of the police, and they think that justifies other kinds of behavior. Some people are afraid of a virus; some people are afraid of a tyrannical government. People generally fear what they don’t know. But still, the call is to sing louder than your fear.

A: Overcoming the fear of the unknown is the only way to learn anything. Keith Johnstone, father of modern improv, says there are two kinds of people, those who prefer to say yes and those who prefer to say no. Those who say yes are rewarded by the adventures they have; those who say no are rewarded by the safety they enjoy. Safety maps easily onto comfort zone—I don’t learn anything new in my comfort zone. This song feels like a loving nudge out of the nest.

C: And the loving part is the “we” and “us”—it is a voice of encouragement at the same time as it is a call to action. She sings her encouragement as if she already hears the goal accomplished, hears the ‘sound of us’ already together.

No Place Here

C: And finally, No Place Here by Matthew Bell. Here again you have brought me back for a second listen to a song I might have dismissed for being performed by a white man. Discrimination doesn’t stop being powerful and dangerous—in trying to correct one error, we often make others.

A: The guitar figure caught my attention, and he was really feeling it, which set the tone. 

C: I heard the echo of those yard signs in the title before I opened the video—Hate Has No Place Here.

A: I didn’t connect those dots, but now that makes perfect sense. I love how he begins with the denial, “Love is not colorblind.” Particularly because I’ve had a number of experiences over the years with white people who have said “I don’t see color.” In the ‘90s there was a song called “Colorblind” that a producer was trying to get my band to record. But that didn’t fit my experience. I didn’t feel like the song was a good idea for us to record, just as I didn’t feel like those conversations with white people spoke to my lived experience.

C: “Colorblindness” was the stated goal and standard language for the voices of inclusion, the progressive voices of the 70s and 80s. I feel as if I have had some time now to unlearn it, and I understand why seeing and appreciating differences is preferable to erasing them, but I still have sympathy for other people who are taking longer to unlearn that language for something they were taught was good and noble.

A: I hear that. I too, had, and have, plenty of things to learn and to unlearn. I really liked that love isn’t colorblind was the starting point for the song. “It’s a point of connection for all that you’ve been through.” Well, the only way somebody’s going to know about all I’ve been through is if we sit down and talk. I’ll talk and you’ll listen. Presumably, you will also talk and I will listen to you. He also says “Our difference is our strength,” which is a much better representation of the value of diversity than just focusing on what percentage of your employees, or membership, are people of color.

C: Talking about listening again—there’s just no replacement for it.

A: In the second verse, rather than flying above it all with or going into analysis, he says he himself is “guilty of a nervous laugh,” and “walking fast and pulling my comfort in close.”

C: Or my purse, right?

A: Right. So this guy is not just talking about others but claiming where he needs to change himself. Later in the bridge he says that though he can’t change the past, he can make sure he pays this change forward to his sons. A young white man here is doing his work so that he can be a better father and mentor to kids around this subject.

C: The bridge ends with the line “Until victory is won,” and that made me think about Dr. King’s dream. Through the generations we will reach a time when my children and someone else’s children will be judged by the content of their character. When I heard the bridge, I said “Oh, there’s the Dream!”

A: I was very moved by it. I see how colorblindness could have been seen as a noble goal in the ‘70s, and I don’t judge that.  And I really appreciate that this Matt is recognizing that it’s one of the goals he needs to change to move the Dream forward. Hypothetically the arc of this song could reach from 1967 until whenever he is parenting his kids.

C: When we know better, we do better. That’s one of my favorite new sayings. I’ll put it on the list of hopeful trends in this cultural moment, along with the 12-month anti-racism book groups and the recurring monthly donations to civil rights organizations. I like it because it bypasses guilt and blame and looks to the future with energy. “Hey, no blame. The purity of your intentions is not in question. When we know better, we do better, let’s go!”

A: Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, says, given that we’ve all been navigating this the sociocultural environment in the US, with its deeply entrenched inequality in so many facets of all of our lives, the question white people would benefit from exploring is not “Am I racist?” but “How can I do less harm?” She invites white people to forget about assigning blame to any individual for the fact that they were raised with certain racialized assumptions, and to just focus on the compassion, the action of doing as little harm as possible because of it.

C: Interestingly, in his last verse he comes back to some of those same binaries to fight against that we already mentioned in “United State of Humanity.” We are not going to do Black or White, not going to do Red or Blue. He checks some Braver Angels boxes, too!

A: It is a beautiful suite of songs. There is certainly some lyrical and thematic overlap, and the styles and approaches are very different.

C: Thank you for helping me with this project and for speaking with candor and optimism and hope.

A: My pleasure!

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If you liked this conversation, check out these related submissions!

The Final Word, by Susan Shann

Living the Dream, Hope and Justin

All That I Am, by Jack Warshaw

I Can’t Breathe, by Bruce Smith

The News Is Still Printed in Black and White, by Tim Helnore

Not Colorblind, by Cary Cooper & Kevin Vines

Twenty Dollar Bill, by Thomas Prasada-Rao

Ghosts of Antietam, by Llynne Taylor

Goodnight America, by Kemp Harris

It’s Gonna Take All of Us, by Carla Ulbrich

More to explore

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