Berkshire singer/songwriter Bernice Lewis has performed nationwide in the folk music scene for almost four decades. She credits the beginning of her career to the Kerrville Folk Festival, the longest-running folk festival in North America, in the Texas hill country near the Gulf. In 1987, she became a finalist in the New Folk Songwriting Contest there.
“I went there without knowing a soul,” she said, “and it changed my life.”
She has come back to the festival each spring since then. “Over the years, I’ve met so many amazing songwriters there,” she said. “I opened a show there for Peter, Paul and Mary before Mary died. I also sat next to Shawn Colvin backstage while she changed her strings and chatted with her.”
“It’s her saving grace,” said her daughter, Mariah Lewis, who came with her to the 18-day-long festival for the first time last year. Mariah said her favorite part of the festival is when people sit up all night in circles playing original songs for each other.
“There’s something about that simplicity that I hope I get to experience for the rest of my life,” she said.
This year, in the COVID-19 pandemic, Bernice and Mariah have, in a way, come full-circle. The Kerrville festival has gone virtual this spring, and Bernice has performed in it and revived the long-gone tradition of the Collegiate Songwriters Showcase — and there, among many young songwriters, Mariah performed her new song, “America.”
Bernice Lewis’s life in music
Since 1986, Bernice has composed original music and released at least half a dozen albums, performed in folk festivals and concert halls across the country from NPR’s Mountain Stage to the Kennedy Center. She has performed with nationally recognized musicians from Dar Williams to Dixie Chicks and Patty Griffin, and became an artist in residence with the National Park service in 2008. She has also mentored students and young musicians for decades.
Her music has paralleled her life through time. She has written songs about romance, body image, women’s struggles, spiritual and religious struggles, marriage, being a female musician, parenting, aging and most recently, the pandemic and COVID-19 in comic songs.
She has also delved into serious themes and darker music. She has a body of work about her family’s experiences during the Holocaust, which she teaches at high schools across the Northeast in the springtime.
“Like all Hololcaust stories, like all immigration stories, there’s a lot to it,” she said. Her father’s family was living in Germany before the war, and her father and grandmother escaped from Berlin in 1941. After Kristalnacht, her father was sent to school in France, and when the Germans invaded France, he ran away to Paris and lived on the streets for a while. Bernice’s grandmother and her younger sister were able to get visas to the U.S., and her great grandmother and great aunt went to Argentina. All of their other extended family members were lost.
Bernice has gathered their stories, and she has spent 10 years talking with Holocaust survivors and reading their testimonies. “Those songs are bigger than my family,” she said. “I did a lot of research.”
She has talked with survivors that were still alive, and with her father and grandmother and other relatives. She recently interviewed one of the only Holocaust survivors still living.
“I have to move myself beyond the emotion in order to present them,” Bernice said. “When I do a prayer service for Yom HaShoah it takes a lot to hold myself together if I do the songs consecutively.”
Her grandmother had the foresight to bring a lot of photographs from Europe with her, she said, and Bernice shares them with students. They are photos of her family, not graphic scenes in concentration camps, so that sensationalism, which Bernice said can be attractive to young students, doesn’t take away from the photos. But when she shows these photos of her family, she makes sure students understand that the people they see in these photographs lost a lot during this time – people they loved, homes, work, lives.
“And then I sing a couple songs and each song has its own story that goes with it,” Bernice said. “The two songs that I usually get to sing are not even about my family, because those didn’t come out as well as the ones that were about the people I didn’t feel quite as close to.”
Her Holocaust song “Ways to Survive” on her album Isle of Spirit won an award from the American Zionist Movement in 1996. “When we got this apartment, it was a dream come true,” the song says. “Now we must move to the part of the city set aside for the Jews.”
Growing as a musician and mentor
Bernice has also taught a Winter Study course at Williams College for the past 23 years on contemporary American songwriting. She has acted as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of students, and her Winter Study course always ends in a concert to showcase her students’ original songs. The concerts are packed with students every year and her course has become well-known to Williams students over the past decades.
“The thrill for me is taking the can opener and easing it around the can and opening it for the whole campus, not just for me,” Bernice said. “I get to create little rock stars in this little but very influential and high functioning microcosm.”
More than a few of her students have gone on to record albums and perform — and the well-known indie-folk band Darlingside formed in Bernice’s Winter Study course years ago. The band got their name from one of Bernice’s mantras; she often gives her students the famous advice to “kill your darlings.” The band has been nationally touring since 2010.
“In the early days, getting to watch Darlingside coagulate was an amazing thing for me,” Bernice said.
The pandemic has brought challenges to her work with students, she said, even into next year — the college has already cancelled Winter Study for January 2021.
“I am disappointed,” she said, “because even though I will be able to teach private lessons, it’s not the same as the classroom, the camaraderie and the freedom of Winter Study. I always feel like [the students] learn as much from each other, maybe more, as [they] do from me.”
Music in a virtual world
In the quarantine, she has rediscovered a song she wrote for her daughter and created an iMovie video for it. She wrote the song My Daughter’s Country about adopting Mariah in Romania and her journey by plane to bring Mariah home.
This spring and summer, Bernice said, has taken time to focus on her musicianship and learn to play the piano. With her family home, she has been finding it difficult to write new music, and the pandemic has made it difficult for musicians to perform in public, as venues cancel spring and summer concerts.
“I had a lot of exciting things planned for the spring,” she said, “and I was just about to get started on them … in March and pretty much everything got cancelled right away, right up through the fall.”
But she is finding new ways to share her music with the world. Along with other musicians, she is adapting her performances online, in concerts through Zoom and Facebook Live.
And this summer she hosted and worked to organize Kerrville’s Collegiate Songwriters Showcase on Zoom and Facebook Live on June 6.
“The nice thing about these virtual platforms is that you can have people interacting with each other who don’t live in proximity, and that’s kind of cool!” she said. “When it was done, I realized that if that was going to exist … doing it virtually was actually ideal.”
She brought together students and recent graduates from nine different colleges, among them some of Bernice’s current and former students from Williams College and Schreiner University as well as her daughter, Mariah.
“There was some sadness,” Mariah said, “feeling like I wish I could be with all these people and give them the respect that they deserve. But at the same time [I was] so grateful to hear other people’s voices and what other people are thinking about.”
Singing across ‘America’
For the showcase, Mariah sang her newest song, “America,” which she wrote as a tribute to people who have been harmed by police brutality, many who have died from it, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tamir Rice. Mariah described the song as a call to action for the country. She was inspired to write the song, she said, as she read Instagram posts around the time of the killing of George Floyd, many of them about police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S.
“I’ve been saving a lot of those posts … so I can have those as resources,” she said. “And then I started realizing that I haven’t heard anyone, especially my age, and especially people that have the platform to do so, writing about this stuff. So that’s what jump started me … having access to this information and resources and wanting to learn.”
She started by gathering a list of names of people who have lost their lives due to police brutality, especially among communities of color. “Every day I have a new name to put to it,” she said, “and so that had me thinking … I should be not just knowing their names, but knowing their stories.”
With the help of an iMovie-savvy college friend, she has been working on creating a video for “America,” a song which she says will never truly be finished. “I’m hopeful that we’ve got a lot of awesome people our age that care about this world and really want to change it for the better,” she said, “and I think hopefully that by hearing as many protest songs as possible and songs that call for action that people get on their feet and that that they get inspired and that they help.”
She sees the song as serious and educational, and also as a hopeful call to action. “While the chorus is ‘America has lain down and died,’ … we need to get up and try,” she said.
Bernice supports her daughter and other musicians who are using their voices to speak out against injustice.
“I’m really glad Mariah wrote ‘America,’” she said, “because somebody has to write those [songs], and she’s young and passionate. I would never suggest someone not write what they’re feeling or what’s important to them. I think that’s what you should be writing.”
Mariah is also organizing a fundraiser for the Black Lives Matter movement, starting with musicians, writers and artists at her college and working to grow beyond it.
“I’m trying to put together a fundraiser for Brandeis,” she said, “which is where I go to school, to raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m hoping to create a showcase similar to … the collegiate artist showcase that my mother put together. I hope it can be bigger than Brandeis.”
A mother-daughter team
Mariah has been performing with her mother and writing songs since she was 12 years old. She and Bernice often ask each other for advice on their music, she said. Mariah explained that there are two generations between her and her mother due to her having been adopted when Bernice was 47, so their outlooks on life can be very different, but Mariah said she still appreciates her mother’s advice.
“It’s an awesome thing,” she said, “because so many people don’t have the opportunity to have that right there in the family. And sometimes it’s tough because we clash as mother and daughter, but for the most part it’s pretty sweet.”
While Mariah is passionate about writing music, it isn’t in her career plans as it was for her mother. Mariah is studying psychology, sociology and legal studies at Brandeis and hopes to go to law school after college.
“I’m going to school for something completely unrelated to music, because having a passion and making it your career … that’s a big jump, and … it makes it hard, because then it’s your job day in and day out and you can’t get away from it when you want to, so that’s something that I don’t envy,” she said. “I get to be a musician when I want to be and then I get to put it away when I don’t want to [be].”
In the midst of the pandemic, Bernice said she is hopeful that folk musicians will be able to perform again soon, especially since her audiences tend to be on the smaller side. “I do believe that the first events that will be allowed to happen will actually favor the folk musicians,” she said. “Mostly, my audiences are small… I think those are the events that are gonna happen first and I think we will have the opportunity to speak our minds.”
As a student at Williams College, Bellamy Richardson took Bernice Lewis’s winter study course in January 2020. You can read more about Bernice Lewis on her website and listen to her music on her Spotify. You can also find Mariah Lewis’s music on her Bandcamp.