Three songs in three days: musician Darden Smith writes with FDU at WAMFest 2015

Darden Smith playing guitar 2

Singer/songwriter Darden Smith performs at WAMFest 2015. He wrote with FDU students and vets during the annual three-day event. (Photo by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

The seating arrangements in Hartman Lounge needed adjusting. Set up as a classroom, facing front, the chairs felt too formal, too stiff for a creative writing discussion and songwriting session. Once the seats were moved to form an oval, and the 20 people in the room — musician Darden Smith, Warrior Writers and veterans Jan Barry and Sarah Mess, Associate Professor of Creative Writing and WAMFest founder David Daniel, and a group of creative writing students — could look at each other, the creativity flowed.

“The best songs that I write, the ones that really last, come from real life,” Smith said to the group. “Don’t fake it. Everybody’s life is pretty damn interesting. The texture of our lives is worth paying attention to.”

This year’s Words and Music Festival (WAMFest), celebrated the “Art of Healing: Veterans.” Smith, a singer/songwriter and founder of SongwritingWith:Soldiers, participated in all three days of the festival, which ran October 14-16 at both the Florham and Metropolitan campuses.

At the Metropolitan Campus, Smith met and collaborated with Mauricio Henao, a graduate student and United States Marine Corps veteran.

“It’s very powerful and moving for them and for myself,” said Smith. “What happens is an act of active listening. We all have a story and want to be heard. I want the soldiers to see me see them, hear them and take their words and run it through a sort of songwriting crossword. Then the story has become something new and I sing it back to them.”

Darden Smith group

Darden Smith talks songwriting with entrepreneurship students at the Florham Campus. (Photo by Kaidi Ilves)

The following day, Smith wrote with a group of entrepreneurship students at the Florham Campus. He returned to the Florham Campus for a final songwriting session with the Warrior Writers and creative writing students on the last day of WAMFest.

“Getting to watch someone else write, there’s no way to write the way Smith does, but it’s something to aspire to,” said Amanda Brunell, a freshman creative writing major who attended the session. “I don’t know how to write songs — I dabble in songwriting — but seeing how others do what I struggle to do, is always going to be helpful.”

With students, Smith says, some haven’t realized yet “that it’s okay to talk and be open. They’re not quite confident enough that they have anything to say.” Through student sessions, no matter their age, he tries to give them “an open door into what it’s like to live a creative-based life, to demystify it a little.”

In the final songwriting event, Smith played a few of his songs, talked about writing and connecting and then, most eloquently, wrote a song on the spot with Warrior Writer Jan Barry.

Jan Barry Warrior Writer“It was awesome,” said Daniel. “The collaboration, the breaking down of barriers, the loss of ego. That was quite a thing to witness.”

Warrior Writer and poet Jan Barry reads a poem at the WAMFest finale. (Photo by Dan Landau)

Students mostly watched the gentle and intimate back-and-forth between the two men, sometimes speaking up to contribute a word or rhyme. The scene was mesmerizing, as Smith zeroed in on Barry, focusing all his attention on the veteran’s story. He’d pause, make a note, or ask Barry to repeat a phrase or word, all the while checking to make sure that the two were on the same page, that the lyrics reflected Barry’s experience. The resulting song, “Shattered Glass Pieces,” reflect Barry’s desire to serve, first with a rifle then with his pen.

“It took me 50 years to tell a story as concisely as he did today,” said Barry, a poet who teaches journalism at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., and communication arts at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y. His late wife attended Fairleigh Dickinson University. “I’m astounded by musicians — songs have to make emotional sense and have a visual theme. This is fantastic. The best part of the whole festival.”

Darden Smith guitarThe festival culminated in a public performance by Smith. He premiered the three songs written over the course of his visit to FDU, and played “Angel Flight,” co-written with musician Radney Foster, and “Illustrated Man,” “Holding God’s Hand,” and more, co-written by veterans.

Darden Smith's guitar case. (Photo by Kaidi Ilves)

“The heart and soul of writing is when you arc towards the truth,” he said. “That’s what resonates. Look for the good stuff and throw out everything else.”

Smith closed by talking about how he believes everyone has a light shining inside. “When we’re young, we have to focus that light on ourselves…but at a certain point we have to turn it around and face out. There’s somebody out there who needs exactly who you are.”

Singer/songwriter Darden Smith is known for his lyrical dexterity, and his ability to weave folk and Americana influences with rock, pop, and the musical influences of his home state, Texas. Including his debut “Native Soil” in 1986, Smith has released 14 albums. He is the founder of three nonprofits, including SongwritingWith:Soldiers, that provide a venue for self-expression.

WAMFest is an annual series of unique conversations, collaborations, and performances hosted by FDU that attempts to break down barriers between different genres in the arts, particularly between what are considered “high” and “low” arts, and to celebrate what is shared among all artists and all audiences. Previous guests include: Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Rosanne Cash, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Demme and Talib Kweli.

WAMFest is supported by FDU, Bob and Patricia Pures, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Atlantic Health System and Morris Arts.