“People Look Around,” co-written by Catie Curtis and Mark Erelli and sung by Curtis, describes a country divided in two by ideology and race. It indicts the American people — all of us — for betraying those who died and suffered during Hurricane Katrina. And it reveals, simply, that truth is critical, political and a threat to those in power.
But when you listen to the upbeat, catchy folk song, it doesn’t seem like it’s doing all of those things. Catie Curtis isn’t yelling, or scolding or inciting a riot. She’s singing. And it’s beautiful.
With this song and many others in her repertoire, Curtis tells the truth in a piercing way that makes the message felt. The listener feels something — sorrow, regret, love, a sense of gravity and injustice. Or at least, I do.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing the award-winning folk singer perform for a small crowd at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. She talked about writing from images — how her songs are born from the things she sees, hears or remembers: teenagers doing cannonballs off bridges, stretch limousines on fire, the makeshift grave in the streets of New Orleans that read: “Here Lies Vera. God Help Us All.” Images about the human experience. Images that tell the truth.
As part of her presentation, Curtis had us all write haikus about the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for more than two months in the San Jose gold and copper mine. She asked us to pick one image and distill the truth down as small and compact as we could. I wrote about the idea of rising from the dark belly of the earth in a solitary tunnel to the sight of a thousand camera flashes. Others wrote about the feeling of being buried alive, the enormous collective effort that it took to bring the miners out, the seeming miracle of the rescue, as well as other, less miraculous times, when miners had been buried alive, and the idea that the miners should have been running the mine themselves. “Buried by the company.” Seven syllables.
After the presentation, I asked Curtis whether she considered herself an activist. She said she considers herself a truth-teller. She told me that she’s been labeled an activist by people who don’t seem to mean the term as a compliment, as I did. Because she’s gay, and open about it, and because she lives with a woman, sometimes people draw inaccurate conclusions. One TV station that interviewed her called her an “activist from San Francisco,” when she is actually a folk singer raised in Maine, who now lives in Massachusetts.
I get that. Curtis isn’t out knocking on doors or waving signs. She’s living her life, and telling it like she sees it. But I’m not sure there’s anything more activist than singing truth. Songs can run wild, crazy and beautiful in a way than political messages just don’t. And, perhaps most importantly, they strike at an emotional core that is universal. And they make truth beautiful. We could use more of that.
*By the way, Curtis and her wife, Liz Marshall, also contributed to the “It Gets Better” Project, an online video project to reach out to LGBT kids faced with the bullying in the wake of the recent suicides of nine men and two lesbian women. You can watch the video here: