Another voice passes into Summerland

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Back in the late 1980s when San Francisco Reclaiming’s Spiral Dance ritual was still held at the Women’s Building, the evening began with a chilling a capella performance by Susan Falkenrath. The room was dark and we were all seated on the floor facing the middle of the room. Susan walked into the center of the circle and without ceremony or introduction launched into her song.

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“Spirits” is an evocation of a time and place in the distant past, the final prayer sung by a woman preparing to die on the stake. Susan sang it without affect, looking straight ahead, with her considerable presence and the power of her voice being all that was needed for dramatic effect. I can’t recall a single person being unmoved by that moment in the ritual, and indeed many people considered it the highlight of the entire evening.

In 1992 I helped produce the recording of music from the Spiral Dance ritual, Let It Begin Now. We all piled into this funky little studio south of Market St. owned by Greg Freeman, a friend of Doug Orton’s, who described his business as being a “bottom-feeder” studio. Well, with our budget that was the perfect place for us. In spite of our numbers and inexperience, Greg was remarkably cheerful in guiding us through the arduous process of setting an entire ritual down on tape.

Susan didn’t have a lot of time to lay down tracks in the studio, but I remember well the morning she agreed to come in and sing “Spirits” for us. It was about 10:00 and there were only about eight of us in the studio, unusual given the many large group parts we had to record. She arrived right on time and sat quietly on the couch until we asked her to go in and give it a first run.

She got up and walked in, without any warm-ups, throat clearing, asking for tea or anything. She didn’t want headphones, just sang directly into the mike, eyes closed. Greg started recording, and she began the song’s slow ascent into grief, anger, and release. I don’t think there was a hair on anyone’s head that wasn’t standing on end by the time she was done. Greg, not a talkative fellow by any measure, didn’t say a word for five minutes.

After that first take Susan walked out of the recording booth and sat back down on the couch. We were all sitting there sort of stunned, rendered speechless once again by the power of that song and how she sang it. Feeling like I ought to say something, I asked her if she wanted to do another take, just in case. She said no, and that was that. We had our recording of the song on the first pass.

Susan was like that, very gracious and soft-spoken, but there was something resolute, firm and unyielding in her spirit that demanded respect. Over the years we stayed in touch, and she recorded her bluesy call and response “Circle Casting Song” for Reclaiming’s Second Chants album a couple years later, which I also co-produced.

She needed every ounce of that strength to go through several bouts of a particularly nasty form of breast cancer in the years to come. Last year after another remission, her cancer came back again. By December I heard from friends that she was doing poorly and there was very little hope for any other treatment.

Just over a week ago I heard that she was staying at a friend’s house in the East Bay, in preparation for going into hospice care. Since I was flying back into town late Sunday night I planned to visit her Monday morning before heading home. But by the time I got into my car that morning, she was already gone.

Susan passed away peacefully on Saturday, January 12, surrounded by her parents, friends and family. She leaves behind a daughter and a son to mourn. Those of us who remember her singing have a treasure that will never fade. I am very sorry I did not get to say goodbye to her in person, but every Samhain I will meet her again and say hello, and goodbye, and bless her in her passing.

9 thoughts on “Another voice passes into Summerland

  1. Mike Rock

    Wow thanks for this post, I had never connected those lyrics to the witchhunts but since you mentioned that it makes sense and such a powerful statement. This song has always moved me since I first heard it too.. may she return on the North Wind as the song says..


  2. Hecate

    May the Goddess guard her. May she find her way to the Summerlands. May her friends and family and her circle know peace.

  3. Pitch

    Blessings on her crossing over. She gave all of us many gifts,
    much magic.

  4. LoRaK

    There is a hidden advertisement in this post.
    It is in a “noscript” element right after the text “In 1992”

  5. Anne Post author

    Thanks Kevan, got it. These things appear occasionally, through a hole in the software that WordPress has yet to identify or fix. Hopefully it will be resolved quickly. Meanwhile, I’ll keep combing my posts for spam insertions.

  6. Asunta Marchini

    For Susan

    I celebrate
    the vibrancy of your life.

    Your spirit continues,
    Illuminating the path
    you walk now.
    Your companions
    a song, bountiful grace,
    a bright cloth satchel
    brimming with honor,
    bushels of radiant laughter
    and the well-guided
    spirits of your children.

    I celebrate
    your stunning eyes.

    Gems intently focused
    on chunks and fragments
    of the good in all of us.
    You celebrated and invited
    all ideas.

    I celebrate
    your brilliant voice.

    One that could
    bring down a mountain
    with its force
    and clarity.
    Yet, gently quiet
    a child’s storm.

    I celebrate
    your defiant wit.

    Enabling you
    to grasp the absurd
    and throw it
    to the wind.
    Again emerging,
    finding humor
    in yourself.

    I celebrate you,

  7. Hallie Anne

    Dear Susan,

    I miss our late night phone calls, talking about everything from our different faiths to why butches are so darn great. Always you had a listening ear, a terrific sense of humor, and deep insight.

    Thank you for singing to me, for the CD’s you sent and for introducing me to Hildegard of Bingen. Thank you for your prayers that night when it felt like my world was falling apart. They strengthened me and blessed me.

    It broke my heart that you made your passage before I could get my disability and fly out to see you. I was so looking forward to standing on tiptoe to get your “sturdy peasant hug”, as you put it. What brought me comfort was hearing from your daughter that you were wearing your Yule gift, the green nightgown, when you crossed over. Even though I couldn’t be there in person, a part of me was.

    You inspired me so much. I look forward to seeing you again.

    I love you,
    Hallie Anne

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