Song project helps bereaved

Leeds charity helps people write songs for loved ones

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Tattooed on Ben Buddy Slack’s left arm are the lyrics from the Tom Waits track Come On Up To The House: “The world is not my home/I’m just passing thru.” The tribute to one of the songwriter’s own inspirations is also a fitting tagline for his Swan Song Project, which gives the dying the chance to leave their own musical legacy and the bereaved an opportunity to celebrate the life of a loved one.

“It began following the death of my own grandmother,” said Slack, who is based in Leeds. “She was also really musical and we’d often spend time singing Irish folk songs. I really treasured those moments, but after she’d gone I really regretted that we hadn’t written our own song together.”

Restoring control

Having previously run music projects in prisons and mental health facilities, Slack knew the power of song in transforming lives.

“What I really wanted to do was give people the chance to record something for their loved ones which would be a final message – one that could be played over and over again,” he said. “When you are at the end of life there are lots of things you don’t have control over. Composing a song is a way of restoring some of that control and at the same time giving comfort to those who they are leaving behind.

“I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but it has been quite overwhelming – not just in terms of the number of songs we have recorded but also the effect it has had on families.”

The project launched in 2017, but having recently taken on a number of new songwriters Slack has been able to expand the project, which works with patients at hospices in Yorkshire and with individuals.

Lindsey King, whose mother Lydia Nicolls came across a flyer for the Swan Song Project while receiving palliative care at St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds in 2018, was one of the first to work with Slack. Her song, simply titled Appreciate Life, was a message to her family to grab every opportunity they are given and it is one that has already been passed down the generations.

“My daughter didn’t know her grandma,” said King, who has performed the song with her sister Louise at a number of Swan Song Project events. “It is really lovely to be able to share the song with her and to remember how much happiness it brought to mum.

“We are quite a musical family and the writing of it turned into a real collaboration. When it was finished, there was a performance at mum’s bedside with various family members singing and playing instruments. It was emotional, but incredibly special.”

“Joy in difficult times”

The project has now recorded in excess of 100 songs with titles as varied as Cornish Dreams, From Me To You Pork Pies and Ee Ba Gum. The composition process is tailored to individual needs.

“Most of the people we have worked with not only have never written a song in their lives, but have never even thought about writing one,” said Slack. “Quite often people don’t think they have anything to write about, but once you start talking about their lives and their family they start to realise how much they have achieved.

“Life is hard and pain is sometimes unavoidable but something like this is a way of finding joy in even the most difficult times.

“These are not songs which are trying to win any awards, but they are about encapsulating the essence of a person and it feels like a real privilege to be part of the process.”

The Swan Song Project doesn’t charge for the service, but does welcome donations and, as well as working with those diagnosed with terminal illness, it also composes songs with the newly bereaved as a way of working through the grieving process, including John Lister who worked with Slack to produce Shining Star, a celebration of the love he shared with his wife Maureen, after she died.

“Maureen went peacefully and she went in my arms, but there were still things I wanted to say to her – that’s why I wanted to write the song,” he said. “If I am feeling down it lifts me up and if I am feeling good it’s a way of remembering all the happy times.

“I did have my doubts at the start of the process as I wasn’t sure it was something I could do. However, it felt so comfortable, so natural. Shining Star was a way of showing that while she might no longer be here Maureen is still part of my life and always will be.”

Photo: Buddy Slack composing with Ann Williamson

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