“I always tell members, ‘Songs are like medicine for your soul,'” says Womansong director Debbie Nordeen.
For her, this is significantly more than a charming adage. While hospitalized some years back, Nordeen drew great comfort from a certain traditional ballad, titled “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Written in 1864 by Anne Warner, the song — perhaps rooted in N.C.’s Iredell County — was resurrected in 1957 by one Doris Plenn, who, with the McCarthy hearings in mind, added the following verse: “When tyrants tremble sick with fear and hear their death knells ringing; When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing? In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging; When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”
To Nordeen, the added verse seemed shiveringly applicable to a host of current social ills, prompting her to christen her chorus’ latest performance after the song. Womansong, founded in 1986 by Linda Metzner, allows women to express themselves in a safe and supportive environment. And while group members’ median age hovers in the late ’40s, Womansong is by no means an exclusive club, Nordeen maintains.
“We have women from age 19 up to their late ’60s. We have doctors, nurses, social workers, women who own their own businesses.”
But you don’t have to be a professional to join Womansong — least of all a professional singer. “The only thing I require is that you can carry a tune,” insists the director, noting that one of her deepest joys has been watching hesitant singers blossom in Womansong’s nurturing climate.
“It happens all the time,” she says proudly. “We had a young woman who had a gorgeous voice that you [never would have known about], because she didn’t have the confidence to sing.”
Sometimes, women who’ve previously denied their need for creative expression have the most to offer, Nordeen feels. “They have a voice they have to let out,” she declares. And because Womansong requires no formal audition, shaky initiates can sing without feeling judged. In turn, the support of their sisters often encourages quick development.
“[Womansong members] feel free,” Nordeen reports happily. In fact, one former reluctant — previously the group’s shyest member — will perform a solo at the upcoming show.
Besides traditional folk arrangements and ethnic songs (the group has long catered to a world beat), many of Womansong’s pieces are written by members themselves, or their friends and family members. The director’s sister, a professional singer and songwriter, is a regular contributor. “Our songs come to us,” Nordeen admits.
Certain tunes are performed a capella, but members’ drums, cellos, harps, guitars and other instruments often lend added resonance. And while song arrangements may vary, Womansong’s one sure endeavor is to be of service to other women: Proceeds from their upcoming performances will benefit both Helpmate and Womansong’s own New Start Fund.
“The New Start Fund offers small amounts of money for [emergencies]; for example, someone who might be getting their electricity turned off,” explains Nordeen. Members have been known to meet recipients in grocery-store parking lots on Christmas Eve with emergency funds, she reveals.
The group’s rising popularity in Asheville and beyond required Nordeen to schedule two performances for their upcoming show. “We’ve had attendances of 400 in the past, and Diana Wortham Theatre only seats 500,” Nordeen points out. “We have people coming from all over — Indiana, Illinois, South Carolina — to see this show, and I didn’t want any of them to be that 501st person.”
Nordeen is naturally pleased that Womansong is drawing so many admirers. But her own memory reminds her that the songs the chorus shares with its fans work even greater miracles in times of private need. “When I was sick, and I sang [“How Can I Keep From Singing?”] to myself, it gave me strength,” she recalls, adding emotionally, “I know a woman who survived Hurricane Hugo in a root cellar, singing that song while the roof blew apart over her head.”