I wrote this blog post for CHILDREN’S MUSIC NETWORK (CMN) as a guest blogger and am re-posting with their permission.
Many creative artists and musicians felt moved by the burning of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 to create works of art in the years following, which expressed their experience of the attacks. Along with the anthems and ballads reasoning for peace that I wrote for an album to be titled Under the Rainbow (where we all live and need to learn to get along), a deep memory of my teen years in the late 60’s and early 70’s resurfaced, which led me to record my own version of this classic work, A Song of Peace, extracted from Jean Sibelius’ larger work, Finlandia, with lyrics written by a 22 year old American, Lloyd Stone, in the years between WWI and WWII.
In the state of Iowa, where I grew up, the state and local 4-H program was exemplary. It was in many ways a sort of Gifted and Talented Program of the era. But you didn’t have to be gifted OR talented, just curious, interested and willing to participate! I started in my local 4-H club, The Cloverleaf Neighbors, at the earliest age I could and stayed active until I graduated from high school. By my teen years, the activities got pretty boring for me, but I discovered the really cool statewide events, leadership council, national awards trips to Chicago and Washington, DC, and best of all, State 4-H Chorus, which meant I got the car and time to spend at Iowa State University meeting other music lovers, rehearsing for concerts, and getting out of my tiny hometown on weekends! Best of all, was my getting to know Max.
Max Exner was the Iowa State Music specialist for the Extension Service. He conducted, he composed, he accompanied when no one else was available, AND he knew more traditional songs from all over the world and American traditional songs than anyone I had ever met. He was old (everyone looks old when you are a teenager) mostly bald and had the energy of a 6 year old. He was the first composer I got to meet. Later, when I attended Iowa State, where he maintained an office when he wasn’t out traveling making music with 4-H clubs, I would stop by his office for a brief howdy on occasion. This is where he showed me his large unique typewriter which typed out, NOT WORDS, but a staff with notes and beams and dots and flats and sharps! This is why his compositions and arrangements looked so professional!
In the high school years I sang in the state 4-H chorus, Max made sure that as well as learning music and performance skills, that we were learning about the struggles for freedom in Africa, the struggles with poverty in poorer communities, the importance of gender equality and more. The songs he selected held the principles he felt were most important for young people to think about. A Song of Peace was one of those songs.
In the following years, I would occasionally see A Song of Peace in a hymnal or song collection, but it was after 9/11 that the lyrics and music slammed back into my consciousness.
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
We see that there is no peace without justice. The dignity of all people must be honored.
The lifelong work of Dr. Martin Luther King, the actions of Rosa Parks and so many other heroes are shining reminders that one life, one decision for justice or peace can influence the future in profound ways.
We reached for a fresh, modern sound on the recording, with rhythm loops and vocal filter effects to update this beautiful song that has become an anthem for peace and understanding. Thanks to the late Max Exner, this composer learned a model of introducing powerful, profound ideas to seemingly unaware teens. Thanks to 4-H programs for adding significantly to resource pools for youth.