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Using music to heal the healers on the frontline of the COVID fight
Judy Woodruff: As COVID cases are dropping in most parts of the U.S. now, many front-line workers are now reckoning with how the pandemic has impacted their lives.
It turns out that a few medical professionals are collaborating with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier to weave their profound experiences into song.
Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston reports that Gauthier, who will release a new book in July, "Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting," says the effort to make these caregivers whole couldn't be more important.
The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
Woman: It was a tough year.
Jared Bowen: This is a moment to heal the healers. Five members of the emergency department at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital gather on Zoom to write a song.
Mary Gauthier, Singer-Songwriter: And what my goal with you today is -- to do is to just kind of get what's going on and find a common thread that you all share.
Jared Bowen: In a two-hour session, they will revisit what they ultimately describe as the darkest, most uncertain year of their lives.
Woman: It just keeps going.
Jared Bowen: Contending with the virus that ripped through their E.R.
Walking them back through it is Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier.
Mary Gauthier: What's it been like? And just kind of throw some words out or experiences out.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon:, Brigham and Women's Hospital: It was a year of a lot of dualities. It's like, we were close, but we were supposed to be alone.
Mary Gauthier: Fear.
Woman: I had a lot of fear. I remember walking up the hill some days and think, give me the courage to get through this day.
Man: I think a lot of us are, in some ways, kind of sad by the fact that it may not ever go back to normal.
Mary Gauthier: Now, that is a great place to start. I really resonate with, will it ever be normal again?
Jared Bowen: The effort is called Frontline Songs, and, since September, has been happening across the country, as small groups of first responders and health care workers process the pandemic in music.
Dr. Ron Hirschberg, Co-Founder, Frontline Songs: So, the process is really therapeutic, in the sense that people are coming together as a group.
Jared Bowen: A physician specializing in trauma, Dr. Ron Hirschberg is one of the co-founders of Frontline Songs.
Dr. Ron Hirschberg: I find that, when someone's words are reflected back to them, and there's that validation through a song, it can be powerful.
Mary Gauthier: I always say that songs are what feelings sound like.
Jared Bowen: After decades of recovery, songwriting, and nine studio records, Mary Gauthier is a living testament to the power of music.
Mary Gauthier: When we're dealing in trauma, we can feel very removed.
Jared Bowen: Well, what is it that music can do to help on that front?
Mary Gauthier: Melody is so powerful. I think it comes into our ears and then radiates through our heart and soul. I think it's a matter of feeling seen.
Jared Bowen: Back in the songwriting session, the memories continue and begin to coalesce.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: Because we all experienced the hero aspect of it in the beginning, but then, after a certain number of months, when everyone got used to it, we then became, like, people who were exposed to it all the time.
And so you wanted to change your scrubs just so that, if you left the hospital, people wouldn't look at you and say, like, are you carrying it, or do you have it on you?
Mary Gauthier: Oh, so, let me see. They called us heroes. We were looked up to and revered, and then we were looked at as contaminated, removed and feared.
Jared Bowen: It looked a lot like therapy.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: Yes.
Jared Bowen: Was it therapy?
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: Yes, it became therapy, I think.
Jared Bowen: We spoke with chief resident Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon after the songwriting session. A sometime songwriter himself, he says the process was a revelation.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: To really step back and say, oh, my gosh, I didn't know you experienced that, like, I experienced something similar, and connecting to that just made me really appreciate how hard it is to wake up every day, be a great human and be a great colleague, but then also have your own personal experiences.
Jared Bowen: That is a refrain Gauthier has heard before.
She collaborated with war veterans for her 2018 Grammy-nominated album "Rifles & Rosary Beads," stemming from the similarly-minded program, Songwriting With Soldiers.
How did that begin to shape your approach to this and what you really gleaned from that?
Mary Gauthier: I think learning how to listen, learning how to not insert myself in the story. I have no more experience as a soldier than I do as an emergency room doctor.
Jared Bowen: Does it ever become hard for you to have to ask these questions?
Mary Gauthier: There's a line. I can tell, by feeling it out, where to go and where to be really careful.
Jared Bowen: And then, suddenly, a tailwind. An anthem emerges, as the group steers the song into a hoped-for return to normalcy.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: I was listening to her play the chords, and she switched it up, and she really found, I think, the essence of what we were all looking for, but didn't know. And that was her brilliance.
Jared Bowen: In under two hours, the group finishes the song. Like other Frontline songs, it's been recorded by Gauthier to live online for the public and to be an enduring marker for its co-writers.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: For me, even if I have to cry or get through it, it is a way for me to really identify and process how I'm feeling.
Dr. Da'Marcus Baymon: Wow.
Woman: That was really nice.
Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.
Judy Woodruff: We welcome that song, and we look forward to her book.