In the private nooks of Barnegie Hall, an Avon Lake barn converted into a music venue, a young, bearded songwriter uses his guitar as a desk, jotting notes as he listens to a slim, middle-aged former serviceman.
Pairs of veterans and musicians are clustered across the barn, trading stories and plucking short melodies. On this Saturday morning in May, the vets entrust their memories to men and women who were strangers to them an hour earlier.
“Sharing the past makes it more bearable,” says Lakewood songwriter Ray Flanagan.
This is Delivering Restorative Energy To Our Warriors, a program from music intervention nonprofit Music On A Mission. In free day-and-a-half workshops, DREW matches veterans with local songwriters to create tracks based on their experiences.
Launched in 2017 by Music On A Mission executive director Marilyn Zeidner, DREW’s workshops aim to help veterans ease post-deployment pain and connect with civilians, who often don’t understand the struggles servicemen face when they return home.
“One veteran’s wife told us it took him 40 years to tell her the story he just [told us],” says Zeidner. “Every single one has been overwhelmed and very grateful.”
DREW is dedicated to Zeidner’s family friend Drew Ferguson, a former Green Beret and musician who took his own life last summer.
“I knew music was important to him,” explains Zeidner. “Several times, he sent donations to Music On A Mission after he relocated to the West Coast.”
Held whenever funds and songwriters are available, the DREW workshops start with a tribute to Ferguson, where Zeidner shares memories of her friend before setting the vets and songwriters loose to create.
Each veteran selects a story to share and collaborates with a musician, who then writes overnight before returning the next day to perform the piece in a showcase for the veterans and their guests.
The songs — some spirited, some mournful — fill Barnegie Hall as the artists sing about subjects ranging from a Vietnam vet’s belated welcome home to the loneliness felt by families of deployed servicemen. Songs composed during all of DREW’s workshops are slated for a Nov. 4 fundraising concert at Barnegie Hall.
Every workshop concludes with the whole room belting out a song Ferguson wrote, “I Know A Place.” A lively, inspirational anthem, Zeidner chose the track to lighten the mood after tackling dark subjects.
The songs created resonate with some veterans long after the final performance. One former soldier listens to his daily. Upon hearing it, his childhood friend choked up and asked why the veteran hadn’t discussed his military experience earlier.
“That is exactly the point of DREW,” says Zeidner, who’s prepping for the next workshops on Sept. 29 and 30. “A songwriter’s real connection with each individual veteran results in the creation of a song that not only honors the veterans, but helps them access the feelings within their stories and share them.”