Monday, February 25, 2008

Royal Blues (Rachel Bissex)

In the excitement of having my sister here from Wednesday night through Sunday morning, I've not had the time to blog much - this one, honoring musician/friend Rachel Bissex, who died February 20, 2005 is a few days overdue. I posted the following to the Dar-list the evening of her death - read the updates after this re-telling for the proverbial silver lining (god, I miss her so much... :-)

Date: Sun Feb 20 18:05:33 2005

Hello, All -

I received a note from Vic Heyman earlier today... informing that Rachel Bissex died at 1:15 this morning, February 20, 2005 from complications of breast cancer at the age of 48. In an attempt to channel my grief, I wrote up the following a few hours later and posted it to our local sf_folk discussion list - since there's quite a bit of Dar-content, I thought I'd share it here as well...

"She was diminutive in size but she was large in grace
she was so kind to my child and looked right in her face
I won't forget the words she spoke that February night
when she threw back her shot glass and said with all her might..."

I first met Rachel in 1998 when I accompanied Brian W. to Power Studios in Miami for an in-the-round with Marie Nofsinger, Big Blue Sky and Ms. Bissex - Brian is a long-time friend of Rachel's and introduced me to her before the show. I was very new to our folk scene and still in amazement that many of the performers were so accessible and kind - Rachel and I had a lovely chat and, when she found out I was a major Dar Williams fan, told me Dar did harmony vocals on Rachel's just-released I Used to Be Nice CD and that the song, Royal Blues, contained many Dar references. Of course I asked if I could buy it -she sold me the last copy... until she could get home to Vermont to replenish her supply!

I went to my first Folk Alliance (an international music conference) in Albuquerque February 1999 and Rachel hosted the wonderful Emerging Artists showcase - rather than solo artists taking turns, the room was composed of a core group of performers, backing each other up on harmonies and instrumentation as individual songs were spotlighted. The phrase that most comes up when talking about Rachel is "generosity of spirit" and this format was so typical of her - she always stressed collaboration and cooperation.

Our paths crossed many times in the years following - in fact, it was on a recommendation of Rachel's that I switched my wine of choice... and whenever she knew I was in the audience, she changed her song lyric to "got a little Pinot Grigio for a woman with the blues?" and looked knowingly in my direction... :-)

Rachel's version of Dar's I Love I Love reduced me to tears on more than one occasion and we shared a love for Joni as well - in addition to her impeccable taste in cover songs, Rachel's original compositions were political and passionate and pure, singing of body image and love (connected or lost) and those in our community who lift us up by their very presence.

Rachel Bissex was one of those people - when she wrote Just Like That (about Vic and Reba Heyman, among others), she could just as well have been singing about herself. Dancing with My Mother speaks of the "joy and the desperation in music" - Rachel reflected the dichotomy...

Rachel took the Folk Train from Montreal to the Vancouver Folk Alliance in February 2001 - there's a great recounting in story and photos, much in her own words at

"for you have got the power in your trembling hands...
'cause you have got the power in your sweet and gentle voice"

Rachel's song In the Middle was included on Volume II of the compilation Before Their Time, "a musical resource to promote healing, and it contains far more than entertainment. Dedicated to the memory of people who died young - from accidents, illness and disease, suicide, murder, SIDS or stillbirth, war, terrorism and other causes - it is intended to help survivors recover from the emotional trauma and extended grief that follows a premature death."

Rachel was a headliner at our South Florida Folk Festival in 1996 and again in January 2004 - she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2003, battled tirelessly and seemingly conquered... until this recent reoccurrence. Her latest CD, In White Light, chronicles much of this journey - to quote Rachel: "even though [the songs] were written before all my troubles, they deal mostly with the themes of hope, strength, kindness, and living in the moment. Appropriate".

Many are aware of the lovely video of Rachel's song Here Now, made and performed at NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance) by a large group of friends - you can see the video at and go to for more info on Rachel's recordings and life history [Susan's note: these links seem to be inactive now]...

I'm writing this before I leave Wednesday for the Folk Alliance in Montreal - two events had already been planned and will be even more poignant now under the circumstances...

~ On Thursday afternoon, we are encouraged to "come share a song for Rachel or a few words, or quietly listen. We'll have a guest book to sign for Rachel and her family. Bring a song, poem, a moment of silence, or just your signature".

~ Saturday night, "during Rachel's Performance Alley spot several of her close friends have stepped up to the plate to bring her music to Folk Alliance this year. Diane Zeigler, Lucie Blue Tremblay, Eric Schwartz, Stephanie Corby, and Tom Prasada-Rao will each present one of Rachel's songs. Join these and all of Rachel's friends to celebrate her music during that time. "

Rachel Bissex had a huge impact, both personally and professionally, on our South Florida, as well as the national, folk community - my tale of blessings is but one of countless others...

"there's a moral to this story, it's obvious it seems
you can be a queen, you can outlive all your dreams
but don't forget to leave a little something behind you when you go
especially if you plan to walk off naked in the snow
do not be afraid
do not be afraid..."


In April 2005, plans began for Remembering Rachel and in July 2005, a 2-CD set of Rachel's songs sung by her friends and colleagues, including some of the top folk performers, was released, with 100% of all performance, mixing, mastering, distribution, graphic design, hosting and advertising costs donated. This labor of love was dedicated to raising funds to fulfill Rachel's final wish to pay for the college education of her children, Emma Goldberg and Matt Cosgrove.

More backstory can be found here, as well as all the wonderful projects still happening in Rachel's name...

SONG: Royal Blues by Rachel Bissex (I can't seem to find the lyrics online, but it appears the songs can be listened to

BOOK: Remembering with Love: Messages of Hope for the First Year of Grieving and Beyond by Elizabeth Levang

POEM: Flare (Part 12) by Mary Oliver

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

QUOTE: "Pleasure is the flower that passes; remembrance, the lasting perfume." ~ Jean de Boufflers

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