Rochester Living Democrat and Chronicle
Healing Words, Jeff Spevak, Staff Music
"With her songs drenched in pain, Lisa
Bigwood tries to overcome years of abuse The night was another sleepless one
for Lisa Bigwood. You can tell by the weary
look on her face as she sits down in the dim sum restaurant on South Avenue. She slumps back into her chair until the wall
catches her. The coffee that she pumps into her
system keeps her going on days like this as she make her early morning rounds as an
adult-care nurse, helping elderly people keep their daily lives I order.
Its the living nightmare of her former life
that does this to her. Six years ago, Bigwood walked away no, ran away from
a 15 year abusive marriage, finally finding the strength to jump in the car and peel out
of the driveway in a cloud of dust as her husband scratched at the car window.
She left behind a man who broke their furniture in a rage, threw her
around the yard, threatened suicide and said he would kill her if she ran away with the
kids. He tried to strangle her when he found
out she spent $400 on a steel-string guitar, the one that eventually made it onto the
cover of her two albums.
Bigwood performs tomorrow at Blue Sunday, a Henrietta
coffeehouse and used-book store, where shell be joined by Maria Gillard and Beth Ely
Sleboda. The show is a benefit for Chances
and Changes, a battered womens shelter in Genesco.
Its hard for me to talk about in public, with a bunch of
women I know, says Bigwood. But
Ill probably talk about it at the show Saturday.
Ill probably talk about it a lot. When battered women talk about
their troubles on, say, The Jerry Springer Show,
youre watching from a distance. When
youve had enough, you just walk away from the television.
But when youre sitting across from a victim, with little more
that a small table and a plate of spring rolls between you, and the subject is brought up
once again, the pain in her face is so real that it shakes you up. You dont get up and walk away.
Its tougher for the people closest to her, such
as fiance Mike Roberts. Hes a
divinity student whos taking up family counseling.
Thats all the sensitivity training a guy could need, yet
wake up screaming, says Bigwood, and hes the one who has to deal with
She doesnt have those nightmares as often anymore, but
theyre still one reason she doesnt sleep well some nights.
Counseling was never given a serious chance to silence the demons:
Frankly, I was too terrified, she says. But
perhaps in songwriting she had an outlet that most other people dont have.
Her moment of epiphany was her first public performance, at an open
microphone night. Me and my girlfriend went and got drunk, and then she got up and
said, This is Lisa, and she wants to sing, recalls Bigwood. She says the audience was just the two of them,
plus local Irish due John and Joe Dady and the bartender.
The whole thing was just a white-out of
terror, she says. But my whole
life now, everyone I know, is because of that one scene.
On this day in the restaurant, Bigwood talks about folk festivals,
where the likes of folk legend Pete Seeger have been in the crowd; he has even sung Happy Birthday to her. Thats the kind of circle Bigwood moves in
now. She doesnt look like a victim. Shes tall, with long red hair that needs
several ponytail holders placed in strategic positions to keep its unruly spirit in place. She exudes an outdoorsyness, living on a farm in
Naples with her horse, her 14 year old son and her fiance.
Yet Bigwood doesnt look like the typical young
singer-songwriter, chasing a record contract. At
age 39, shes a late bloomer in the music business.
Once she got away from her ex-husband, with new surroundings, Bigwood
Her two albums are brilliant. She
says she has written four songs in the last four days, about 152 songs over the last eight
years. Influential people in the folk music
are behind her, such as Rich Warrens, host of National Public Radios folk forum, Midnight Special.
Both of her albums the 1995 release, Like No One Else, and 1996s Woodland were considered for Grammy
As a musician, Bigwoods on a roll. The anger seems to have abated some. My
songs are still very real, but theyre not as pained, she says. People used to bitch at me, Why
dont you write some happy stuff?
Shes surrounded by happier influences now. Theres her son and a 96 year-old patient
named Marie. I said to Marie one day, Youve been around so long, you
must remember some amazing stuff, says Bigwood.
And she told me this story how they used to keep Italian prisoners of
war in Rochester. She told me about how they
used to visit them and slip them candy between the wires.
So out of Maries recollection, and a little young, romantic
agony that her own son was experiencing, Bigwood created a song called Under the Wire.
But unlike the easy-going personality of many folk performers, most
of Bigwoods words hit with the chilling impact of accusations. Her humor consists solely of wry observations. And, new songs or old, the primary influence in
her life remains clear. Having written a
rather sweet song about POWs and remembrances of things past, she points out that one
survival mechanism shared by prisoners and women in abusive relationships is a fantasy
life. Maybe thats why Im a good writer, she muses.
So much so that a record label owner cried at a folk
convention last week in Memphis, Tenn., on hearing her new song, Sweet Oasis.
Shes unique. Bigwoods
voice seems big and husky , but the words tumble out more as whispered confessions and
moaning asides. Its as though
shes guarding her feelings, as you would expect of someone whos been hurt,
even as she spills her secrets.
Experience has made her characters in songs such as No Shame grow stronger, so that they can now turn
and face their tormentors: You say you have sorrow/ You say you have pain/ You talk
of tomorrow/ Like you have no shame.
Her songs keep returning to the theme of cycles of violence
how generations pass on abuse. I never hated him, she says of her ex-husband,
who underwent counseling after she left him. He was abused as a kid. Hes not happy about what happened. The cycle of violence had to end somewhere.
But why couldnt it have ended sooner? Thats what people always wonder about
battered women: Why couldnt a smart
women such as Bigwood have walked away earlier?
My personal favorite, Bigwood says wryly of that common
question. She recalls an essay she read on
abuse, comparing the situation to a wire bird cage. If
you look at one wire of the cage, people wonder, 'Why doesnt the bird just fly
away? But you have to step back and see the whole cage.
Kids, money, a lack of self-esteem they all could be wires in
that cage. Places such as Chances and Changes
give victims a place to fly to. And it needs
the money generated by donations at tomorrows show.
Sadly enough, says Bigwood, they have to expand.
Grammy almost came calling forJeff Spevak, Staff Music Critic
Lisa Bigwoods albums
Lisa Bigwoods name wasnt mentioned at Wednesday
nights 40th annual Grammy Awards. But
she came close, again. Two years ago, her
debut album, Like No One Else, was considered by
the Grammy committees as a nominee for Album of the year and Best Contemporary Folk Album. Her second album, Woodland, was considered for the same categories
this year, a fact her record label was happy to tout to the press.
She didnt make the final list either time losing out
this year in the contemporary folk category to a songwriting royal court of Bob Dylan,
John Prine, Guy Clark, Iris DeMent and the Indigo Girls but its always nice
to be thought of.
It blows my mind, says Bigwood, thinking of her name
being bounced around the same room as Dylan and Prine.
And then she thinks of what it would mean to take that next step with her
next album, and perhaps gain an actual nomination.
Im certainly readier than
Ive ever been, she says. But it would be a shock.