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.
“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.