Interview: Annie Patterson and Peter Blood

Annie Patterson & Peter Blood are many things. Wife and husband. Folk singer-songwriter and nurse. But today, Annie & Peter discussed being the creators/editors of Rise Up Singing the underground bestselling group singing songbook developed with support from Pete Seeger – and their new songbook, Rise Again!

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
Annie: Compassionate and caring and very courageous and committed. Very loyal.

My work is a combination of bringing music to people so that unexpected things might happen for the good of the planet and for peace and justice. Also my work is supporting the arts in lots of different ways.

Peter: Some of the better things about me are that I’m determined and passionate and have a strong value system and a lot of integrity. Unfortunately, being determined and committed sometimes spill over into being stubborn and pig-headed and kind of judgmental of people who don’t agree with me.

One of the things about my work that is important to me is I like to create things that have coherence to them. When I was a teacher in the university nursing school, I liked to create handouts, booklets, and lectures that helped people to digest a lot of complicated material in ways that made it look elegant. So, the songbook and the way we plan concerts is something I also enjoy.

The purpose of my work I see as getting people to sing together to help hearts to change and people to change the world.

What do you think music can do that words alone can’t?
Annie: Music can go straight to someone’s heart. It can go through a back door that doesn’t involve thinking and can affect people’s lives without them even knowing it.

Peter: The thing about song is you have lyrics and music working together. They’re congruent so that the words and the music together affect parts of the brain and the being that just reading or listening to a talk often aren’t so effective in doing.

A really, really good speaker is almost like singing. They’re using the cadence of their voice to go to the same deeper level. But when people are singing themselves or if they’re with a group of people, then they’re surrounded by these vibrations that are having the potential to go deep into their heart.

There are many different creative processes. What’s the ‘folk process’?
Peter: The folk process is like playing the game of Telephone. In Telephone, one person whispers something to the next person and the next person whispers and it goes down the line and gradually what’s whispered is adapted. As people sing songs that are not from written music, but learned through listening, the song gradually changes.

Even singers who are performing their own songs tend to change their songs over time based on how they’re feeling. The words can gradually evolve based on, to some extent, accident or intentional process based on the needs, interests, and longings of the people who are singing.

Annie: Today, people can get stuck on the “correct version” of a song in terms of the words and lyrics. Some artists feel that with a song they’ve written, it’s very important that people sing it the way it was written. Other people write songs and they’re happy to see it take on a new life.

Pete Seeger was our mentor and friend and we agreed with his viewpoint that if people are singing a song, that’s what makes it a folk song. If people are teaching a song to each other and it’s being passed on and they’re switching it around, he liked that.

My hope for people and the human race in general is that we don’t get so stuck into thinking that we’ve got the correct way of looking at things.

Peter: Pete Seeger saw folk process – the way the songs evolved over time – as being similar to social change and what you might call intercultural learning. Because when people took different pieces of songs, putting new melodies to old words and new words to old melodies, and especially when it crosses from different cultures, that that was sort of similar to how people learned about or developed new approaches to life.

How do you create transformation?
Annie: The way that I believe transformation happens, for the human race at any rate, is when as an individual, you’re willing to listen to your heart and follow your heart and take a risk, take a chance, and do something that you feel led to do.

If it’s something that involves making the world better or you’re doing it out of a place of love, then my experience is that it not only transforms you but it transforms other people around you.

Peter: When I was involved in non-violent movements back in the ’60s and ’70s, people used to think about how you get people to change or have situations change. It had a lot to do with communicating through symbolic action that actually spoke to people in powerful ways; maybe a demonstration or civil disobedience actually led to people realizing that they no longer believed in structures that previously existed, and wanted to have things be different.

What keeps you inspired?
Annie: Remembering to connect with other people and to look for God in everything, to look for that spirit of goodness and spirit of love in nature and in the world. Sometimes, it’s really hard. You can have a heavy heart if you listen to the news all the time.

But what keeps me inspired is just meeting people whose lives have been impacted by some of the work we’ve done or sharing stories with other people who’ve had their lives impacted by music the way we have.

Peter: It took a lot of perseverance to stay inspired month after month, year after year working on the songbook. We had really good partners that were constantly encouraging us. YouTube was very helpful. We were frequently playing things off of iTunes or YouTube that were songs that we were moved by.

A good example is a guy named Roy Bailey, a British progressive singer who has recorded songs in a way where you really feel his passion and his heart in every song. When I would play one of these songs that really spoke to me deeply, it would give me a sense of, ‘Oh, this is why I’m doing the work. It’s worth this incredible amount of work that we’re doing that often moves very, very slowly.’

Annie: There’s a book called The Artist’s Way and we would flip it open and see what came to us to read that given morning. I took one of the quotes and put it on my wall. There are people who have been doing really hard work and it’s really great when you can connect with something they’ve written and have it guide you a little bit.

The other thing that is really important to both of us is we asked our Quaker Meeting for a support group when we were working on this latest book.

What was the quote that you put up on your wall from The Artist’s Way?
Annie: “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.” I put that on my wall because I’m an artist and I was doing the layout for our songbook and a lot of the art in the book, and I kept battling with that little demon on my shoulder that kept saying, ‘You’re not good enough. You’re never going to get this done. What made you think you could pull this off?’

Everybody has some version of that voice. I find knowing that there’s a higher part of myself and a higher being that I personally believe in that can help me just smash that little demon off my shoulder.

But the other piece of it is saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it even if it’s not quite what I had in my mind. Even if it’s not as good as what I wanted it to be, I’m still going to do it because I really believe in it.’

You have to decide you’re not going to let the critic – the external critic or whoever is out there that’s going to criticize your work, and your internal critic – make a decision. You’re not going to let them keep you from getting the work done. That takes a lot of courage.

How do you stick with a big, long project?
Annie: It’s just insane. We had a mission statement, which we actually can’t find. But we wrote it up and that was really helpful to have a mission statement to know what we were both agreeing to from the beginning. I think the next step is just the support. For us, to make a songbook, we had to have a good lawyer.

Also getting the foundation of support, specific people who you can meet with regularly who will help remind you of why you’re doing it when you forget. Big, long, long projects can really be overwhelming. You can outrun your energy, you can get sick, you can get really discouraged. Bringing in a little village of people that understand what you want to do and really believe that you can do it from the beginning is important.

Peter: In order to really accomplish it, we had to let go of a lot of things. I had to leave some committees that I was very, very invested in. Annie had to let go of a lot of performing she was doing.

But I really felt it was important to keep doing stuff like contra dancing, walking in the woods. Doing things that keep you physically in shape is very important to not grind yourself under the millstone. We tried very hard to not work in the evenings. We didn’t always do it, but we almost always stopped at supper time and left our evenings for refreshment.

Annie: When you’re embarking on a big, long project, you have to let go of getting everything perfect. Because you’re never ever going to get it perfect. Your big, long project is going to have spots on it. You have to realize in your humanness that things can go wrong and then you just have to get over it.

Peter: We started the book about 15 years earlier with Pete Seeger and some others. I do feel a little bit sad that we took as long as we did, because Pete would have really liked to have seen the new book. He would have, I think, loved the fact that there’s more genre diversity in the new book than there was in the old.

Annie: I don’t really feel too much sadness about that because I think we’re carrying forward a lot of Pete’s vision that he shared with us. What he really wanted was to get his message out to younger generations, so it feels like we’ve done that. And we keep working on that.

What do you want your impact to be?
Annie: In terms of the songbook, I think Peter and I both want to continue to see people sing together in community because we know that that’s a way to break isolation and get people thinking about their own sense of empowerment to fight injustice. We really hope people will find singing out of our songbooks as a way to do non-violent change in the world.

Peter: You said it all.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?
Annie: People that you knew in high school that you might not have liked or thought didn’t like you may have really changed. You can make friends with people that you least expect. The more time passes, my experience is some of those superficial barriers can drop off.

Peter: It’s really, really important to have lots of fun and be playful. Some periods of my life I’ve probably been better at it than others. But since we’ve moved up to New England about 10 years ago, I feel like I’ve had more and more fun every year. I go to a contra dance in town every week and just have a real blast dancing with people of all ages from high school up to people in their 80s.

We love to have people over to our house to play board games. We love to go to the movie theater in town and watch really, really interesting movies from all over the world.

At Quaker Meeting with our granddaughter, I like to get down on the ground and get dirty and do things that maybe people who are 70 years old – which I nearly am – don’t usually do.

It sounds very trite to say age is an artificial construct in your mind. But I think it’s true. I have rarely gone to high school reunion type things, but I felt like – maybe this is my judgmentalism creeping in – but I felt like a lot of people allowed themselves to get a little ossified. I really enjoy meeting people who have a lot of sparkle whatever age they are. Certainly, Pete Seeger had that sparkle to the very, very end of this life.

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