“The whole songwriting process is the best therapy in the world,” says David Wiseman. “It’s a different way to express. A lot of frustration can come through melody, through chords, and through the words.”
Wiseman is one of eight students who attended the first-ever Veterans Songwriting Workshop programmed by the Veterans Writing Project in early May in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
A combat veteran of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Wiseman traveled to the Outer Banks from “the west coast of North Carolina” – just outside of Asheville – where he lives and works as a traveling performer. With a voice like Johnny Cash and a strong hold on the guitar, he effectively communicated feelings of frustration and sorrow through a song he played for the workshop that touched on the difficulties of navigating the V.A. Hospital System and lingering traumas of war that left his fellow students in tears.
Led by Ron Capps, founder of the Veterans Writing Project, the weekend-long retreat was sponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council and Dare County Arts Council. The free workshop was open to veterans, current service members, and family members of veterans and is a project of the statewide Military and Veterans Healing Arts initiative.
A veteran himself, Ron Capps has years worked to connect the military community with the transgressive power of the arts for years. The Veterans Writing Project provides free writing seminars across the country for veterans, service members and their family, with a goal of giving students the tools to tell their own stories. A common refrain of Capps’ workshops is “Either you can control the memory, or the memory controls you. You must own the memories.”
Angel Roberts, a veteran of the Coast Guard, traveled to the songwriting workshop from Salisbury, N.C. marking the third workshop she’s taken with the Veterans Writing Project.
“I love it because not only do I get to network with my family of military veterans…[but] to have that connection and an art connection… it’s a great opportunity to fellowship with likeminded individuals.”
That connective power of music also drew Sam Lewis to the workshop. Lewis, the civilian son of a veteran is a drug and alcohol prevention specialist at Camp Lejeune. He uses music on a daily basis to enhance the substance abuse curriculum for marines he teaches. Often the music becomes a conduit for building deeper relationships with his students and patients.
“I go out every day and preach these different educational briefs on what is low risk with alcohol, but I don’t miss the opportunity to infuse a song,” says Sam. “Somebody’s going to always walk up [after] and say, ‘When did you start playing guitar and how can I get a piece of that? I’ll say, ‘Let’s hang out for a little bit. Let me show you a few chords. Let me rub off on you a little bit because y’all rub off on me all the time.’”
Though the weekend featured several memorable emotional touch points, much of the workshop focused on the technical elements of songwriting, underscoring the project’s commitment to providing the military community the tools – not just the outlet – for engaging in the arts. Capps said his aim was for students to “walk away with a deeper understand of how songs function on a technical level,” and each attendee received training on basic music theory, harmony, melody, and prosody.
Ultimately the Veterans Writing Project, which currently publishes a literary magazine called O-Dark-Thirty, plans to build a website and SoundCloud that includes the photos, backstories and music of participants in the songwriting initiative.
The North Carolina Arts Council will announce the next recipients of the Military and Veterans Healing Arts Grants later this year.