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In one of the first public events held in Connecticut College’s Athey Center for Performance and Research at Palmer Auditorium, four-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and bestselling author Rosanne Cash joined Conn’s President Katherine Bergeron for a moving discussion about art, activism, identity and the power of music to change lives.
“Songwriters are in the service industry,” Cash said during the April 4 President’s Distinguished Lecture Series event. “In the best cases, you provoke your listener into reflecting on themselves, or something opens, something is revealed, something is processed, something is extricated, something is touched. And that's why I always think of art or music as the greatest healing force, because if we’re in touch with our feelings, then we have more compassion. We have more understanding.”
Bergeron said she was thrilled to share the stage with “one of the greatest American singer-songwriters of all time.”
Cash’s career spans more than 40 years, and includes 15 albums, 11 No. 1 singles and 21 Top 40 hits. She also is a writer and activist whose publications include a collection of stories and poems (“Bodies of Water”), a memoir (“Composed”), and numerous essays and opinion pieces that have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Oxford-American, The Nation, among other publications.
Cash told the audience of Conn students, faculty, staff, and members of the greater New London community, that she has always been drawn to the rhythms in language and knew she wanted to be a writer from the time she was about 7 years old.
“I started writing poetry then, and in my teens started putting poetry to music,” she said.
“I would say I'm relentless with words and rhyme schemes and language, and it’s never good enough. I've just always been reaching for better, but it's a lot of discipline. As I get older, I find it’s more discipline than inspiration, sometimes.”
In both her music and her writings, Cash has been one of country music’s most outspoken advocates for ending gun violence in the US. She has served on the board of directors of PAX, an organization that has since become part of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. On her 2018 album, “She Remembers Everything,” Cash explores the suffering that endures from a lifetime of injustices.
During the event, Bergeron played a recording of Cash’s 2021 song, “The Killing Fields,” which addresses America’s history of lynchings. Cash wrote the song after the killing of George Floyd and the surrounding protests in 2020.
“In the summer of 2020 … I think, for a lot of us, the veil of white privilege started to be lifted just a little bit, and it was deeply humbling. So thinking about my own history, I started writing this song,” Cash said.
“It was difficult to write, but satisfying. I think it’s so dark that maybe it’s not accessible to a lot of people, but it was one of the things I had to do.”
Cash added that she tries to avoid proselytizing in her songs—"There’s no quicker way to turn people off than to lecture to them,” she said—but she believes music is political by nature.
“All art is political, because if it doesn’t change you in some way, then it’s not real.”
During the Q&A portion of the event, Cash addressed the legacy of her famous family and what it was like to carve her own path.
“In some ways, it’s no different than any young person who goes into the same field as a parent who’s been very successful. And on another level, it’s no different than any young person in their 20s who needs to separate from their parents to find out who they are. My [story is] a little complicated, because my dad did cast such a large shadow and I struggled with that,” she said, adding that her father encouraged her songwriting and taught her to appreciate the great legacy of American folk music that had come before them.
“I probably did push away longer than I needed to. It became habitual. But eventually, if you don’t accept your own legacy, whatever it is in your family, and even if you’re going to push it away again, it first requires some kind of acceptance before you can take action. So I did accept it, and I do appreciate it. I love my family's legacy of this music.”
Prior to the public event, Cash gave a master class for student songwriters from “MUSIC 201: On Songs and Songwriting,” which is co-taught by Bergeron and her partner, multi-instrumentalist Butch Rovan. Cash listened to completed songs written by seven students and offered them tips and advice for future songwriting.
Cash has served as an artist-in-residence and adviser at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, San Francisco Jazz, the Minnesota Orchestra and The Library of Congress. Among her many accolades, she was awarded the Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Lifetime Achievement award for Sound Recordings in 2012. In 2014, she received the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in the Performing Arts. In 2015, she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. And in 2021, she was awarded the 61st Edward MacDowell Medal for her outstanding contributions to the field of music composition.
Cash’s talk is part of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series launched in 2016, which brings notable figures from a variety of fields and backgrounds to Connecticut College for informal meetings with the campus community and a public presentation for the greater New London region.