When Blue O’Connell sings an old song, she feels a strong connection to the past, to the person who wrote that song and all the people who’ve sung it before her.
“I often tell people…if you read a history book about [a] time, it was probably written by someone who didn’t live through that time,” says O’Connell. But in singing a song written during a certain period, there’s a sort of alchemy of time, space, and empathy that allows the singer to connect not just with a narrative, but with human experience and to lives and voices not always included in history books.
As we make our way through this latest historic moment, O’Connell’s looking to music as a means of comfort and hope, and she knows she’s not alone in that. She recently released Seven Songs of Solace, a songbook complete with sheet music, guitar tablature, and recordings of some of her own songs plus arrangements of traditional and popular tunes from different eras and places—seven songs that have resonated with O’Connell as she’s experienced longing, loss, grief, pain, peace, and resilience throughout her own life.
When O’Connell was a 25-year-old musician living and working in Chicago, a friend invited her over to hear his latest piano composition. She sat in the room with him for a while, waiting for the piece to begin. “When are you going to play it?” she asked.
Her friend paused. “I did.”
O’Connell hadn’t heard a single note. She’d lost the ability to hear certain frequencies, particularly higher ones, but she didn’t let that stop her from making music and writing songs. She moved to Charlottesville in 1989, and throughout the 1990s performed at Live Arts, The Prism Coffeehouse, First Night Virginia, and elsewhere, and was a folk music DJ at WTJU 91.1FM.
After September 11, 2001, O’Connell read a newspaper article about how people were coping with the tragedy. Some talked about “a song that gave voice to feelings they didn’t have, or validated their experience. Some said they went to a concert,” remembers O’Connell. Up until that moment, she’d understood the significance of music—she was a musician playing regular gigs after all—but those stories made her understand just how important, how personal, it is to so many people.
Soon after, an ad in a music magazine for a certified music practitioner program caught her eye. The training happened to be at Martha Jefferson Hospital, and O’Connell signed up right away. In 2003, she completed an internship at UVA hospital and was hired there as a musician-in-residence, playing for ICU patients as well as local nursing home residents.
In 2009, at age 50, O’Connell received a cochlear implant and started undergoing various therapies of her own to learn how to hear again. Hearing some of those frequencies, those notes, for the first time in many years was difficult, says O’Connell. But she persisted.
Playing therapeutic music, “in a lot of ways, is the opposite of what a [music] performer does,” says O’Connell. Performers aspire to entertain an audience, keep them engaged, excited, awake; therapeutic musicians aim to calm a listener to the point of relaxation, even slumber.
In the ICU, she plays unrecognizable music to avoid causing uncomfortable or painful memories that a person might associate with a particular song. Nursing home sets can be a bit more upbeat, and she fields requests to conjure happy memories and movement.
O’Connell imbues sensitivity and reassurance into Seven Songs of Solace, on the traditional songs she’s chosen—like “Shenandoah,” with its melody relating a “sense of longing and love,” and “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven wrote after he went deaf—and in her originals.
She composed “Acceptance (for Mom)” after her mother died. O’Connell folded the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) into the music, which transforms as the song progresses. When she considered what “denial” might sound like, she thought of an Irish jig. “I know when I’m in denial, I dance around,” she says with a laugh.
“Choose the Sky” came about as O’Connell drove alone on a highway in Arizona. “I was so lost in my own thoughts that I didn’t even notice I was driving in the most beautiful place you could imagine.” The lyrics came after the music, and for O’Connell, the song is about stability, how the sky is always present and yet always changing.
“For me, that’s a metaphor for what’s going on now, about finding something that will sustain you, and knowing it’s going to be okay.”
When the pandemic broke in March, O’Connell’s full-time hospital and nursing home work was “suspended indefinitely.” She misses it, but she’s still got the music, and in sharing her songbook, she’s finding some solace of her own.