Music Emerging has collected essays from four musical women, a musical trio and myself. A simple word: struggles. I asked these women to send me essays about their musical journeys and their struggles. Hope you find inspiration in these personal stories.
Donna Lynn Caskey-Ventura, CA
Music was a carefree part of my life as a young child. My sisters tell me I was truly a music fan from infancy- dancing in the play pen whenever someone would sing, crack out an instrument, or a song would come on tv. My family put a toy piano outside my crib that I would play through the bars with my hands or feet depending on which way I was turned. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and there was music throughout the house. Though my two brothers, the eldest, had moved out before I was born, they’d come visit and play guitar, banjo, fiddle. I remember sisters playing violin, viola, flute, piccolo, marching bells, piano, and singing when I was little. Whether they played instruments or not, all my siblings had the radio on and shared recordings of artists they liked with me. I remember singing along with Simon & Garfunkel and Peter, Paul & Mary records using my sister Kathy’s curling iron as a microphone. I loved playing piano, singing, and making up songs.
Music was such a natural, normal part of everyday life at first, but I started to get self-conscious about it when I began school. Though my family was encouraging in many ways, my temperament was such that I took the slightest teasing and criticism from siblings, my mother, classmates, and teachers to heart and very hard over the years. For example, I remember singing to myself on the school bus on the way to kindergarten, and being aghast when a likely well-meaning sister told me not to because people were going to think I was “weird.” Oh no! Weird?! I worried people wouldn’t like me or want to be my friend.
I started a new school in 5th grade, and it seemed like I was taunted relentlessly about everything- how I looked, dressed, acted, where I lived, what my father did for a living, the fact I was alive and breathing. The other kids also made fun of me for singing in music class, so I stopped. Then they teased me for not singing. Now I realize it was probably because I was the new kid, the outsider, and not at all personal, but I didn’t have that insight at age ten. I remember feeling extremely anxious, self-conscious, uptight. I got very quiet, wanting to go unnoticed in hopes of avoiding more criticism. I remember feeling afraid to sing in front of people anymore. Singing leaked out at times, anyway. I thought I was humming under my breath, unheard while we were working math problems at our desks in middle school algebra. Then the teacher asked, “who is doing that horrible singing?” A chorus of classmates answered, “Donna!!!” Feeling humiliated, I renewed my personal vows of silence.
Then there was my experience with piano. I loved playing songs I made up as I went along when I was very little, my mom felt I had a “nice touch” on the instrument, as she put it, so she signed me up for the very lessons she would’ve loved to have as a child given her own musical tastes and talents, but a piano never mind instruction were luxuries her parents could far from afford in Depression-era rural Virginia. I soon discovered I had trouble reading musical notation, however. I could hear that the kid whose lesson was before mine was moving through the exercise books more quickly than I, so I therefore came to the conclusions at the ripe old age of seven that my teacher didn’t like me and I was “bad” at music, after all, despite my love for it. Trying to translate musical notation into what I was supposed to do with my fingers let alone practicing felt like a chore and a punishment. Before long, my mom said she’d be better off throwing money out the car window than to keep paying for lessons, so I quit. I tried piano again later at what I mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of thirteen. I witnessed tiny, seeming prodigies play circles around me at recitals whereas my nervous, clammy hands slipped and fumbled on the keys. I again became the victim of my own false assumptions- this time the beliefs that I clearly needed to have started playing as a fetus in order to have a hope of being “good,” and that I just wasn’t born with an innate talent for beloved music. So I resigned myself to singing along with my favorite recordings while no one was around to hear me. I sang in large choirs at school where I felt somewhat hidden and safe. I compulsively made mix tapes of songs that caught my ear and touched my heart and shared them with friends, family, acquaintances.
Though I felt discouraged musically, I did have a knack for visual art and writing that was acknowledged in school, and I had more confidence in those more solitary, less performance-oriented mediums that allowed me to share with people indirectly, without need of being seen or heard. Those became my primary modes of creative expression growing up and as a young adult.
I headed off to college in the Blue Ridge thanks in large part to art scholarships. I had heard and been around old-time and bluegrass music my whole life to some degree, but I absolutely fell in love with it in the mountains. I was a regular attendee at the local fiddle and banjo club and would hang around the periphery of jam sessions to listen and soak it up. I fell in love with the banjo in particular and found myself getting weepy at the sight and sound of them. I was even dreaming about banjos.
Around that time, I went to a Mike Seeger concert at an intimate venue, and his stories and approach gave me hope that music might be accessible to me, after all. He played multiple instruments including banjo by ear rather than by notation. He shared beautiful, soulful songs he learned from untrained players who made music as part of their everyday lives. I was heartened by the notion that folk music belongs to everyone, and that everyone can make some kind of music- even, maybe, dare I believe, by me. My explorations of old-time and folk rekindled that carefree, playful, matter-of-fact spirit with which I approached music as a child. Inspired, I soon bought myself a banjo as a college graduation present. My life was so unsettled, it was another couple of years before I actually started learning to play in earnest. By ear. At what I, once again, mistakenly believed was the geriatric age of 24. It turned out I had a knack for banjo. Plunking out those first songs within a matter of days, weeks, and months felt like sheer magic and a dream come true. Within three months, I started writing songs, singing solo in public, and playing shows. I was off and running, learning how to play, write songs, perform, and sing all at once and as I went. I’m still at it nearly fifteen years and soon to be two albums of original songs later, and it still feels like magic.
Sometimes I forget the magic when the latest incarnations of self-doubt, mistaken beliefs, and fear come calling in new and various disguises. Yet when I’m in the midst of writing or playing a song for the love, wonder, and joy of it, I can again reconnect with that pure sense of music I first experienced as a young child.
I consider myself very fortunate to have met Donna Lynn Caskey-in an intimidating city of often ego centric artists-she is a beacon of light; a person that exudes a warmth and friendliness that is gentle and calm in the bustling and turbulent city of greater Los Angeles. We met through the singer songwriter circle and got to collaborate musically where I got to know her better through the process of songwriting. Her process was inspiring and foreign to me-a free form exploratory style of which the jewels were selected; I would later come to find that this embodies her artistic personality. Her latest album, "The Love Still Shows", which she recorded with Ed Tree at his San Gabriel studio, is garnering attention on the folk music scene. I wanted to learn more about Donna Lynn and met with her at her home in Ventura, California.
M.E. “Do you like collecting banjos-why do you have so many?”
D.L.C. “Part of it, is that you tune five string banjos differently to get different tunings. For the longest time, I only had one. My first banjo I had since 1999. I got it at Happy’s Fleamarket in Virginia. I wore part of it off learning to play. I started playing it in earnest in 2001. The second banjo I got was fretless and that served a different purpose. Banjos started out fretless; at that time I was playing a lot of old time music and it was really cool to play fretless banjo with fretless fiddle-because it’s not a tempered scale. Frets are an approximation of notes, so it was really cool; you can actually get more in tune, believe it or not, and then you can also get those fun micro tones in between notes, so it was fun to have that as a color….so that was my second banjo-the third one I got was to get more key access. I got the third one around the time I started playing open mics more and going out; so it was nice to not spend my whole 15 minutes tuning…I bought another one out of someone’s trunk. This one came out of a friends neighbors shed for free and it sounded good tuned down. The oldest one; the flea market one…..this one really spoke to me; the one with the star-it’s a Vega; it’s from the 20’s. I walked away from it a couple of times. It feels like my big girl banjo and it’s probably the one I play the most. It just has a really great sweet sound. I was in Santa Monica and popped into McCabes because they have a banjo room and I can’t help myself. This one was unassuming; kind of hung on a lower part of a side wall; not very flashy or anything. I picked it up and it felt very good. Then I looked at the price tag and said…ooooohhh…I have good taste! I had five banjos at that point; so I put it back. A week later I was back and I didn’t see it and my heart fell, but then I saw it, and then a birthday was coming up in a couple of months…but I walked away from it again; but then I called them and asked them to hold it; “I’m sorry I walked away from you!” The latest one I got is a baritone banjo; so it’s tuned down. My home of lost and found wayward banjos”…
M.E. “What was it about the banjo that made you have the epiphany that it was your instrument?”
D.L.C. “Part of it was Mike Seeger making it seem so accessible, but I was already in love with it; the sound of it; something quirkily humble about it. I like music that touches my heart, or music that gives me goose bumps or makes me feel or think. I would go to the Roanoke Blue Grass Club and hear these versions of Shady Grove that were amazing. I loved that ensemble of high ringing banjos, but there was something very soulful to me when I heard people play clawhammer old time songs. That style was geared toward accompanying yourself singing. I had that love of singing, so that style spoke to me, and so I first learned clawhammer; frailing which is the family of the style I play.”
M.E. “Which one is your oldest banjo?”
D.L.C “This one is the oldest; it is from 1890-the brand is Gatcomb. It’s funny because I posted something on Facebook when I acquired it and the current owner of the Gatcomb company; someone who works for them found me about a year ago because they were trying to gather stuff for the current owner’s birthday; so I sent a cd and I got a thank you message; it was a bigger company back in the day, and now is smaller I think. How I got it-a couple years ago it was Labor Day weekend and my sister Cathy who lives in Ohio sent me an email with a pic of a banjo and a written sign in squiggly paint-“200 dollars OBO”-so I wrote back; for that price, get it-I didn’t know it was from the 1800’s. I looked up the serial number; there’s a Gatcomb company registry; from the serial number you can see what year is was made….I knew it had belonged to this guy in his 80’s-it was a one day flea market. Labor Day weekend in Ohio; he said it belonged to his grandfather and it been wrapped in a sheet in his closet for decades. He was happy it was going to someone who would play it. I play traditional songs on it; I also play a couple of Christmas songs on it and there was one song I wrote on it….
Banjo’s ancestry is African. Instruments that were gords with a stick in them and got strings; and when people were enslaved here, they built similar instruments and that evolved to what we know of as the banjo-and then; the early banjos through the 1800’s, most of them had gut strings.”
M.E. “Tell me about your latest recording.”
D.L.C. “It was in process for awhile-this will be my second; I started recording demos for it over a year ago, but I had this back log of songs. I had some I was clear would go on the new recording and then I had some other songs that were just nice to make a demo of it and have some sort of documentation of it. And in the process of recording demos, I had some songs that I felt there was something to them but they didn’t feel finished; so in the process these songs evolved into more finished forms. I wrote songs for 12 years before I even made my first album. I started writing songs while only playing banjo for 3 months. I was learning everything as I went along; I got my feet wet with recording demos during that time; in a lot of peoples home studios.”
M.E. “You haven’t felt the sense of rushing to do anything with music?”
D.L.C. “Well, sometimes there’s self generated pressure, and also people wanted recordings from me or liked certain songs. When I made my first one it was clear that there were several songs that people had been asking me for, for years, that meant something to someone, so it was clear that those meant more to someone that just me, and it would be good to finally provide that. I had written forever, but it took awhile for my banjo playing to catch up to my songs. I was writing songs that were over my head; some of my songs-it took me quite awhile to have the skill to play the banjo to play my own songs; I still encounter that-writing songs beyond my singing skills.”
M.E. “In your bio, you were made fun of for singing and subdued yourself”
D.L.C. “Sometimes when I ‘m singing I’m trying to work through the obstacle course of my own feelings and body and physicality and to communicate through all that; my own personal obstacles; sometimes it’s like an out of body experience. Like I’m a lightening rod; it ‘s almost like there is so much energy; it hasn’t felt totally natural to be on stage; it’s a highly activating experience; people looking at you and bright lights; dealing with my glasses and standing a certain way for the microphone; it has it’s own set of skills. Learning what I can do to take care of myself to still feel my feet on the ground to try to be in my body as much as possible and not just freak out.”
M.E. “So you are part of a calendar featuring women and banjos called “Banjo Babes”-how did that come about?”
D.L.C. “It’s not my project; I’ve been in it the last 3 years. There is this banjo player based out of San Luis Obispo-Erin English. Her dad plays accordion and there was an accordion calendar for years, and she’s rather enterprising, so at some point in the summer of 2013, she contacted me and some other female banjo players around the world. The first one- we had a banjo player from Uzbekistan who was the only banjo player, far as she knew, in Uzbekistan. Erin asked if I wanted to be a part of this thing….so I”ve been in it the past 3 years; it’s mostly about the music but a fun way to get it out there.”
M.E. “Part of your creative process is to create collages, and many of them! What is it about this art form that you are drawn to?”
D.L.C. “There’s something about a collage-I can’t take myself too seriously-it’s like 3rd grade with glue sticks and torn paper; magazines that I get out of the break room at work or recycled bins. I’m not trying to make some major artistic statement. It’s just tearing through magazines and anything that catches my eye or my heart or makes me laugh in the moment, and then just ripping it out and taping or pasting it together on cheap sketchbook paper. A lot of it is based on Jungian psychology, and Jung talked about “active imagination”-he had these huge books of drawings and writings-art that was not necessarily for the sake of being on the wall, but just to create as your own symbolism in the moment and to process your life creatively. It’s kind of fun for me to make these because I don’t always know what they are about but it’s interesting looking at them because I’ll see parallels I didn’t notice when I was making them. I got more insights about what was going on with me by looking at them. Sometimes there are themes-keys or hearts-hearts are a big deal with me. This one has a rodent theme. It’s playful and child like.”
M.E. “Is that how you approach music a lot of times?”
D.L.C. “I try to be seriously playful about music, but also it helps me when I’m getting serious in a way that doesn’t seem to serve me or the art-because sometimes I can get really serious “I really care about this a lot and I want it to be perfect”, and I get stressed about it and anxious and insecure….so it’s counter productive……to have a lightness about it is important. Collage is helpful because sometimes I’ll be working on a collage at the same time as a song-sometimes I’ve made collages around a song I’m working n and it’s helped me find a word in a song.”
M.E. “My favorite tune on the new album is “Look at Me,” printed here. Can you talk about what this song represents for you-is it about learning to accept ourselves fully?”
Look at Me
I confess I dress to impress you
Every day I cast a spell
Paint my face and don a costume
To be the one you love so well
Look at me- but not so closely now
Look at me- but not so close
Look at me- but not so closely now
Look at me- not so close!
Tailor made to fit and to flatter
Accentuate, slim, trim and hide
Designs to attract and distract you
Looking slick but sick inside
Look at me- but not so closely now
Look at me- but not so close
Look at me- but not so closely now
Look at me- not so close!
Dressed to kill a secret sorrow
Dressed to fill an empty ache
Dressed to win your approval
And still I didn’t feel okay
I’m sorry for the ways I used you
I’m sorry for the times I lied
I’m sorry for my confusion
Begging for what you can’t provide
Today I dress to please myself
A grey-green hat to match my eyes
Patchwork kaleidoscopic color
I feel at ease shed my disguise
I feel at ease shed my disguise
Look at me- closer now
Look at me- come close
Look at me- come closer now
Look at me- and let me see
©2016 Donna Lynn Caskey (P) Cordulia Music BMI
D.L.C. “For me, this song represents and explores some of the ways and reasons we as humans might present a front to other people. The ways we can, consciously and unconsciously, create and craft our identity and the image of ourselves we project into the world. What will we highlight and accentuate? What will we omit or downplay? How will we “curate our content” and “embody our brand” as the ubiquitous marketing buzzwords of the day proclaim? What are we proud of, and what do we hide in shame? Look at me! Pay attention to me! Like me! Love me! Reassure me! Seeking external validation. Clothes, manner of dress can be part of it for sure, but to me, the clothing symbolizes much more than that. For example, a case could be made that just about anything and everything posted on social media is a form of, “look at me!” This song also explores the possibility of showing up as-is, in our regular clothes, so to speak. To validate ourselves, to allow ourselves to be seen more fully; and what might we see when not so preoccupied with managing our own image and impression?”
M.E. “Do you think there is a larger issue with women and how they choose to dress for men?”
D.L.C. “Though the narrator of the song makes reference to painting one’s face with makeup and some of the lyrics could also double as fashion magazine headlines targeted at women, I experience the act of putting on a facade of some sort, creating or presenting a story of one’s identity, as a universal human experience that transcends gender. That said, I see where societal gender conventions, messages, and expectations can influence differences in the manner women and men may present a facade.”
M.E. “So we both are musicians who are entering the mid stage of our lives and still doing our music-what keeps you going?”
D.L.C. “It’s funny to me that I feel called and compelled in some way to express myself, share songs publicly, perform, even though it is often not easy or comfortable for me. Look at me?! In most ways, I actually prefer folks didn’t. A big part of what keeps me going when I’m tempted to retreat into a more quiet, private, inward life are the messages I regularly receive from people, often strangers, that the songs I share encourage them in their own lives. A few of many examples- someone recently wrote to thank me since they inexplicably woke up with my song “Time Of Delight” stuck in their head, and that it set a great intention for their day. Another person told me she finds herself singing that song every time she works in her garden. A teacher wrote that listening to my first album helped her prepare her classroom for the year and to serve her students. Someone wrote me that the song “I Am Willing” was in their head the morning they were heading into surgery, and that it brought them peace, comfort, strength, and hope. Another said the lyrics of “It Ain’t Personal” helped him face some difficult tasks. Others have said the song “Beauty Queen” makes them feel better about themselves and their appearance. In the title track of the album, “The Love Still Shows,” I make reference to "my heart touched by a hopeful song" as one of the seemingly little but truly huge things that have “seen me through" life. If any of the songs on the album touch someone's heart in a way that helps them through their day, wonderful.”