Zoe Mulford, a folk singer, has now become most widely known for a song she wrote about President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney was killed, along with eight others, during a mass shooting at a Charleston church in 2015. Joan Baez heard her song and performed it. Rick Litvin, a filmmaker and NYU professor, was inspired by Joan Baez’ recording to create a short animated film, recruiting Jeff Scher to create watercolor and pastel images. And now, this team has created a picture book of The President Sang Amazing Grace, described, quite accurately, on its cover as “a book about finding grace after unspeakable tragedy.”
Book Cover – Art by Jeff Scher; Published by Cameron + Company
Ms. Mulford kindly agreed to speak with me about the project and her work, and here’s what she had to say.
Zoe Mulford Portrait – Photo by Bijan Parsia
Name: Zoe Mulford
Hometown: Swarthmore, PA
Current town: Philadelphia area & Manchester UK
Date: January 6, 2020
Thank you for speaking with me today. I’ve read your picture book and heard your song, and seen the beautiful animation of the film…and they all brought me to tears. So thank you for creating something so powerful that clearly has spoken to many of us. It’s a lovely song, and part of the musical tradition of finding beauty, healing, even moments of grace after a tragedy. Can you tell me a bit about writing it?
I wrote it at the end of the Obama administration. I was thinking, this is now history and we have something different coming. I asked myself, what do I want to remember about this time? The speech that he gave at that memorial in 2015 and the fact that he sang was a moment that stuck with me. I wanted to tell that story. I wrote it at a gathering of folk singers, the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance. I was in a hotel surrounded by about 800 folk singers. As I arrived, I found the line, “The president sang Amazing Grace.” I worked on it while I was there, and by the end, I had the whole thing. I sang it at the farewell circle of that conference. What happened there demonstrates what I love about the folk community: at the end, they all got up and sang “Amazing Grace” with me. Because it was topical, I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but my friends convinced me to put it on the album I was just finishing, Small Brown Birds. That was on folk radio shows across the country. It was the #1 album on the Folk-DJ list the month of its release.
I read that Joan Baez pulled over in her car when she heard your song on the radio because she wanted to sing it–which is about the most impressive tribute I can imagine for a folk singer! How did that go? Did you know her personally?
Her manager got in touch with me, and said that Joan wants to record your song. I’ve met her since. She was not someone I had any contact with beforehand other than listening to her music since I was a child.
And this never happens! When you become a singer-songwriter, they describe that scenario, and say that never happens, so don’t count on it!
I was thinking that we today don’t know the origin of many folk songs–the original authors and composers are lost to time, and the songs have been changed and adapted and reworked in different styles over the years, sometimes over centuries and across borders. Do you ever imagine this song in the future–do you think of people singing it, maybe changing it, applying it to their specific situations down the line?
I don’t know! It’s really hard when you write something to imagine the life it will have. That’s one of the wonderful things about it. When I write a song and release it into the world it is not complete. It is completed by every person who hears it in a different way. The cool thing about performing my own songs is hearing back from the audience what the songs mean to them and how they use them in their lives.
Someone says that I listened to your song in the hospital, or when my child was born, or when I work out every day. These are things people have said to me. Looking forward into the future– it’s hard to predict. What is happening with the song right now is a lot of choirs are singing it. The Madison Children’s choir did an arrangement. There are church choirs doing it. There’s been no published choral arrangement of the song, so people are making their own arrangements. As a folk musician that really thrills me. Folk music is music that people use for their own ends. They find something they need in it and it becomes part of their story and part of their life.
That’s a very generous way of thinking of it. I had been thinking about that as we now live in an age of recording, we have, at least in theory, better records of what songs sounded like, and who created them, but really, having that at our disposal doesn’t even resolve all of our copyright disputes now. There are a lot of arguments about popular songs and who gets writing credit, and what counts for originality.
That’s the thing…as somebody who is a folk musician but who is also a professional who makes money from my publishing, I’m in a very strange situation. I do think creators should be paid for their work and should have control over their work during their lives, but I also recognize that one way and another a lot of other things happen in real life. I think that when the enforcement of copyright law gets to the level of telling the girl scouts what they can’t sing around their campfire, it gets really silly. As long as we can learn songs, and can sing them, we all have our own little record company contained within our body. Creators need to be paid fairly – but people should also have access to the music that speaks to them.
As I said before, that’s a generous attitude. Do you know, has President Obama heard this song, or seen the film, or the book?
I sure hope so, but I haven’t gotten any feedback from him or anyone around him.
What has been the response from critics and audiences and educators to the song and to the book?
It has been very positive. I can think of all sorts of reasons why people might not like this song and particularly might not want to share it with children. I would certainly hesitate to share this book with a child I didn’t think was ready to think about the things that happen in the story. When the folks at Cameron + Company first pitched the idea of making the video into a children’s book, I had to think about that, because…I’ve always loved children’s books and sharing books with children. But when I wrote the song I wasn’t thinking about something I’d share with a child. I remember being quite a small child, and being aware of the news and scary things happening in the world, and I needed grownups to acknowledge those things and to be willing to talk about them, since I was hearing about them. In a society where children are taught to shelter in place at school, I think we need a book like this.
So, I have heard back from educators who have shared it with children, and from parents who have shared it with their children, and I think it needs to be given in context. I did a school program for third and fifth graders where their classroom teachers had read them the book, so they were familiar with it, and then we had an assembly The kids were great, asked such good questions. They were interested in the process of making the book. How did you tell this story? How do you write a song? Is it okay to have your friends help you when you write a song? That was really cool, I could talk about songwriting with kids all day. Getting back to your question, I have not encountered pushback from anybody directly. I’m kind of surprised by that. It may yet happen.
We live in a divided country and in difficult times.
I did sing the song at a house concert in East Tennessee. I’m Facebook friends with the host, and had seen his posts, and knew it was going to be a conservative crowd. The reason he invited me was because of another song i wrote, “Won’t You Come on In,” a song of welcome and hospitality. He and his wife really liked it, so they learned it and sang it around their community. When I got there, everybody already knew it.
We started with that one, and then we spent all evening singing together.
I sang them “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” It’s on my most recent album; I wanted them to know about it, especially if they were going to buy the album. And they stayed with me. I did not lose them. So I think, however divided we are, there are ways to find common ground and to build community. Music is very important in that. It’s important to meet each other face to face, and not just online.
That makes a lot of sense. As you split your time between the U.S. and the U.K., does this song resonate with an audience in the U.K., or in other countries? (As an American, I never know what news and culture reaches the rest of the world and what doesn’t! I read The Economist so I get a bit of the U.K. take on business and politics but it doesn’t cover the arts in nearly as much detail.)
It’s different singing it in the UK. There’s it’s just a history song. They are used to history songs there, story songs about things that have happened. It doesn’t have the same resonance for them. One thing I recognized when I finished the first draft of the song is that I’d told the story without speaking about the race of the victims of the shooting, or the perpetrator, or the President. Race is central to the story and is what gives it its meaning — but I count on my audience to bring that in. In the U.S., we have that racial map in our heads, and in the U.K., the map is different, and they experience it differently. Also, it’s something that happened someplace else, not in their own community.
I hadn’t noticed that it wasn’t explicit about race…between the lovely illustrations, which make it clear, and, of course, the fact that I live here!
When you experience it with the images, it brings that element back in. When I first saw the video, I had the strange experience of hearing my own song for the first time, the images brought in things that could surprise me. That’s a very precious experience to have as a songwriter, to see what somebody else has brought to it. That’s been thrilling about this whole process. Every person who has been involved in this project has brought something new and added something and that’s very exciting as a creator.
I know that this song is now what you are really known for–but I understand that as a singer and songwriter, you have lots of other work! What would be a good place to start for someone unfamiliar with what you’ve done?
Well, I have a YouTube channel. I have a website where I have links to come of my favorite videos of what I’ve done, and I have samples of songs.
And what are you working on now?
I’m in the early stages of working on the next album. I’ve been so engaged in really in the book, and touring to promote the book, that I haven’t had the headspace to work on new recording for a while. But I am looking forward to that.
Do you have any other plans for books?
Early in my life I was very interested in being someone who made children’s books, and the more I learned about the publishing process, the more I thought that this was not something I could do! So I became an independent recording artist, which has been very good…it has taught me to do the business and self-promotion stuff I thought I couldn’t do! So maybe there’s a second career here. It’s certainly something I’d like to do.
You’re certainly off to a lovely beginning!
This never, ever happens. The way it happened with the song, the way it happened with the book. They tell you the same thing when writing children’s books, it doesn’t happen like this.
Sometimes lighting strikes.
I feel very lucky. And very grateful to my friends in the music community who kept me going long enough to write this song. I could not have written this song when I was in my 20s. Over time, I’ve learned a lot about how to make things simple. This song needed to be very simple, and that’s what drew the book publisher to it.
What are your favorite folk songs? Or your favorite songs in any genre of music?
Oh gosh! There are a lot of very lovely songs in the Appalachian tradition that speak to me. There’s a song called “The Blackest Crow,” which is very simple and direct and has beautiful poetry in it, the song of someone saying goodbye to someone they live. “I wish I were going with you, or you were staying here.” I love songs that tell stories, I love songs in minor keys and modal keys (and that’s something you find a lot in Appalachian music). There are a lot of contemporary songwriters whose work I love. The top of my list being Richard Shindell. His songs are in the voices of people being very different from him. The characters could be anyone of any age or any gender anywhere in the world.
I think I may have heard some of his music on one of the local radio stations here, the Fordham University station, WFUV.
I’m sure you have. The folk DJ there is John Platt and I’m sure he’s playing Richard Shindell.
What musicians and songwriters have been the biggest influences on your work?
It’s a long list starting with Fred Rogers.
I loved him when I was a kid!
When I was a child, I was exposed to a lot of music of all kinds, classical music, show tunes, and a lot of what I was hearing was beyond what I could create myself. But when Mr. Rogers sang a song it was because he had something to say to you right now, today. I could write that kind of song. So he gave me the idea that making my own songs was something I could do and that it was allowed. One of the songwriters that I got to know early in my life was Malvina Reynolds. My mother loved her songs and sang them to me, “Little Boxes”and “Magic Penny.”
I just saw that on Broadway, it was so good! It was a Christmas present to my daughter. (And it was where our lists of Broadway shows we wanted to see intersected.)
That music started as folk musicians touring around in a school bus.
It was really excellent.
Rhiannon Giddons was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and trained as an opera singer. She draws on many different traditions and finds the place for her own voice within them.
Besides your own, is there a book that everyone should read? Would you give the world, or the U.S., a book assignment?
Oh gosh! For adults or children? That’s tough! Things I love personally is easier…things everyone should read is tough! My personal favorites, though…my absolute favorite children’s book is Where the Wild Things Are.
Let the Wild Rumpus start! Do you have a favorite book for adults?
It is really hard to come up with favorites!
There are things I read at important times in my life that deeply influenced the way, I think but I think that if I were recommending books now, the public conversation has moved on. Since I read those books, some of the things that were eye opening when I read them have moved into greater acceptance in the wider culture–which is great! The Politics of Reality by Marliyn Frye is a book of essays by a feminist philosopher. What I like about it is that she explains things very, very clearly. She is a very good communicator. But I haven’t read that book in years, and if I came back to it I’m not sure it would be eye opening in the same way it was for me then. But maybe some of the stuff she says is what we still need to say and need to go on saying.
Do you have a favorite movie?
If I were tucked up in bed with the flu, I would watch Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
I need to see that one! (But not, I hope, with the flu.) If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
If I could go back in time, I would take my mother out for coffee and suggest to her that her ten year old child should study with a jazz pianist.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice I’ve been given is to do some writing that you never intend to read. In the early part of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron introduces all these free writing exercises. And she says never go back and read them. Put them away! The act of writing is the exercise!
Just write for the sake of writing without thinking of a reader, even yourself: that was really, really freeing and has helped me do a lot of good work.
On a lighter note, what’s the best or the worst thing that’s happened to you this week?
The best thing that happened to me this week was I had a massage that fixed a muscle spasm I was having and I can now walk without pain. It is wonderful.
That is wonderful. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
That’s a really tough one! Stuff most people don’t know about me I don’t necessarily want them to know!
Fair enough! So I’ll turn that around! Last but not least, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I don’t think so.
So the songs and the book are enough! Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful answers!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead-In Image & Book Cover – Art by Jeff Scher; Published by Cameron + Company
Zoe Mulford Portrait – Photo by Bijan Parsia
Zoe Mulford Video – World One Video
Obama Speech – MSNBC
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