Lila Nelson on Courage

A note came in last week announcing an upcoming theatre piece:

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, Bertolt Brecht’s frank and darkly funny vision of attempted survival on the tragic road of war, will be performed at Humboldt State University’s Gist Theatre, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, February 23-25, and March 2-4. Directed by John Heckel, featuring Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage, music composed by singer-songwriter and recording artist Lila Nelson.

Since I appreciate Lila as a fine and folky songwriter and host of the equally fine and folky radio show “Meet Me in the Morning” (Sunday mornings on KHUM), I thought I’d shoot her an e-mail and ask about her part in the production… 

I asked:

Did you write songs (with lyrics) for the show or was it more like musical settings for Brecht’s words?

 I took the lyrics directly from the script, created melodies for the songs, provided some phrasing direction and created “musical settings” – I like that – for the pieces. And wrote a song for the finale.

 Will you be performing as part of the production?

 I play piano in the band. And sing a little at the end. This project has been unique in that I wrote the songs and then handed them off to the actors to sing. I am so used to having my primary instrument be the pencil and then the voice and usually guitar; so the voice becomes very connected with whatever I happen to be playing – guitar, piano. Accompanying the range of voices in the cast is a fun challenge. Piano is not my forte, however it has always served me as a compositional tool — so I stuck with it. Courageous, I know.

 Did you feel intimidated by the shadows of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya?

 I try not to listen to other people’s versions of the same show while I’m working on it. But I do use my memory and understanding of Weill and other contemporary artists like Tom Waits; I mull over other artists doing Brecht (I love Nina Simone’s live version of “Pirate Jenny,” for example). The first show I worked on at HSU, before being a student there, was a Brecht play, Baal. Again, arranging and performing music.

 What does the word courage mean to you?

 I’ll offer Mother Courage’s take on courage: “What’s courage? Failure of planning, that’s all. Some general takes his troops into some stupid situation —the stupider and more useless the general, the more exceptional the men need to be — like it’s only a badly-run country where the people have to be special. In a proper run country, there’s no need of virtue. Everyone can just get on with being so-so. Averagely intelligent. And for all I care, cowards.”

 Cynical. Yes. But we begin to see her name, “Courage,” is wrought with irony. “Courage” in this light, ain’t so great.

 Do you see yourself as courageous?

 (In so much as I plan poorly? sure…ha…) By the above definition – in so much as life, at best, is improvisation – and I, at my best, am improvising well…yes.

 But really, M.C. makes a good pt. That any system wherein we are competing for power, money, attention, whatever…the risk of loss begs of us that we be courageous – that we put ourselves on the line. Artists have the blessing and the curse of revealing the idiosyncrasies – the contradictions in any of these systems an imaginative and nuanced way. Again, is this bravery? Or necessity?

Best to you!  Lila


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