Singing about Carolyn – A blog by Heather McSharry
I heard about The Swan Song Project from my brother. One of his friends knew Ben. We were actually with Mum at the time. Mum spent the last week of her life in the Bexley Wing at St James’s hospital. Restrictions on visiting due to covid meant we were limited to two people at a time and that morning James and I were Mum’s two companions. He actually mentioned Swan Song in relation to a friend of mine called Kate. She had died of a brain tumour some years previously. When I visited her at home a song had come into my head on the way home but as a non-musician I’d never been able to make anything of it. This saddened me as I’d always wanted to finish it as a tribute to her. I mentioned this to James and he told me about Swan Song and wondered whether they would help.
Mum died later that day and it occurred to me that if I were going to make contact with Swan Song we surely should be writing a song for Mum. James plays guitar and Mum always enjoyed hearing him play so I emailed Swan Song and roped in little bro to start writing a song.
The first Zoom with Ben was comforting and therapeutic. Rather than get onto any technical musical details he asked us questions about Mum and it was great to have chance to talk about her and poignant to hear James, who is not known for being chatty, reflecting on what Mum meant to him and the influence she had on his life. He went on to write a stunning eulogy which I wished more than anything that Mum could have heard.
We had a few Zoom sessions. James had come up with some chords which gave us a starting point for the song itself. My elder child, Francis, cottoned on to something going on and he and his younger brother wanted to hear Uncle James’s guitar. I remember playing them a recording he had sent over via WhatsApp while they were in the bath one evening. Francis later turned up beside me and sang me his own contribution to the song, inspired by Uncle James’s tune, and I realised this was going to be even more of a collaborative effort.
Once I had involved the children, it seemed that Dad was lacking, so we sent the guitar recording and vocal melody to him too and invited him to contribute a verse. With the children I started with a big piece of paper and, with me as scribe, they talked about Grandma. I came across the piece of paper a few months later and it made me quite teary.
My brother and my dad voted for me to sing their verses but the kids did their own singing. An enormous challenge for Ben was piecing together the fragments of 3 and 5 year old contributions recorded on my phone and adding them to the track recorded at Chapel FM. He did this seamlessly and I was amazed he had managed to do such a good job with what we’d provided.
Originally we had planned to have a verse from James’s perspective, a verse from my perspective and a verse from the perspective of friends, family and the communities that Mum was part of such as her church – St Paul’s, Whinmoor – and the local community café and food bank where she volunteered. One reason we didn’t proceed with this plan was that, having added extra verses for the children and Dad, we didn’t want to make people sit through an endless saga. But more importantly, when I collated messages from sympathy cards, emails and written tributes, I felt like I didn’t want to try and sum up what people were saying about Mum, trying to fit it to a certain structure and finish off with a rhyme. I found that I wanted to leave the phrasing of the tributes intact. Ben suggested a spoken outro. I sent what was supposed to be a shortlist but could be more accurately described as a longlist of messages to James and Dad for them to whittle down. They also grouped them to fit over the bars of music. It was good to immortalise more memories of Mum than just our own.
We wanted to hold a memorial ceremony once restrictions on numbers had eased as we had been very limited in terms of numbers and also the duration of the service at Mum’s funeral. It seemed like this would be the perfect time to perform our song, entitled ‘Sing About Carolyn’. (The title is taken from part of the chorus, acknowledging Mum’s modesty with the line “she would never sing about herself” before going on to say that we can sing about her).
My husband said he didn’t think he was going to be able to sit through the performance. He expected to find it emotionally overwhelming. We were more focused on the practicalities. James typically does not like to play and sing at the same time, with a few exceptions that must come naturally or be very well engrained. However, when Dad opted to sing his verse himself on the day, James felt it would be odd if his were the only verse not sung by its author. So that put quite a bit of pressure on him. We also lacked the fade-out style ending that is easy to achieve on a recording but not so much in a live performance and the day before the memorial he was, I think he would forgive me for saying, considerably stressed trying to come up with a way to round off the song when the chords sound like they lead back into each other to start again. Then there was the matter of the children. They both wanted to sing their verse but, having never performed in front of an audience before, would they feel the same way on the day? We decided to put their verse first so that if it was quiet, slow or fractured, it would be a cute opening after which the pace could pick up rather than a sticking point in an already flowing tune. Extra pressure was piled on when my elder son, Francis, was invited to a birthday party which clashed with the memorial date and he declared that he didn’t want to come at all. What was the likelihood of him singing if he was in a strop? In the event they did both sing and they did very well. Mummy was very proud and I’m sure Grandma Carolyn would have been as well.
We also performed some of Mum’s favourite songs which, for the most part, were far more challenging than our own – thanks Joni Mitchell! – and a song about Mum’s life that I’d written for her 60th with help from a friend to add some chords to the melody, and reworded for the memorial. It was nice to do something all about Mum, and it will always be good to think of her but it would be infinitely better to have her here with us. I miss her. I will always miss her. The Swan Song Project are a brilliant charity because they support you to do something positive when you are going through bereavement.
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