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Worcester’s Lydia Fortune Crafts Organic Folk Tunes

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Local veteran folk and delta blues singer and songwriter Lydia Fortune said it's funny how things come full circle when speaking of her and her partner's recently released CD. 

"At age 18, while still in Fitchburg, I began to pour my loneliness and restlessness into the lyrics of a tune called ‘If I Had My Way’. Forty-eight years later, on October 13, 2012, it becomes the lead song and title for a new CD that my singer/ songwriter partner, Phil Nigro and I, released."

Restlessness was indeed largely the story of Lydia's early life. A self-described "army brat" (she would actually spend three years in the Navy herself from 1966-1969) along with her three sisters, much of her childhood was spent traveling constantly to places as remote as Alaska, living for three years at a time at each new home, until her father finally decided to settle in Fitchburg.

All the while music became her only constant and a source of peace and calm in the midst of constant movement.

"I grew up with two parents who were both teachers and choral singers in college. Both were born and bred in South Carolina, and my mother kept all the early African-American spirituals, hymns and early blues alive," she says of her initial introduction to the world of music.

"She and my dad also sang many of the romantic songs of the 20’s and 30s, and they always sang unaccompanied by music and never off key."

She was exposed to every kind of music in her travels. Her dad even had a collection of famous symphonies he would play every Sunday morning in addition to the blues songs and spirituals she became so familiar with. She knew from an early age music had a special effect on her.

"Between the radio and the fine singing at home I knew early that music made my heart dance."

She hopes now her music can do the same for others, bring a sense of peace, joy, and calm to those lucky enough to hear her powerful voice. She was after all a peacemaker by trade, a now-retired mediator. Music is a common art to all human beings, and no matter the culture, time period and/ or genre it comes from it is a form of art that truly unites us all as one human species. It helps one deal with struggle while expressing great joy; it can tell a full, complex story while expressing pure, simple yet powerful emotions.

"A good song, to me, tells a story or carries some kind of message about the commonness of life and the state of being human. That commonness of life, all the trials and tribulations and all the joy crosses all barriers of status, race, ethnicity, etc," she says.

"There are so many stories so common to living. I like communicating those stories with enough emotion that the audience can ‘feel’ what that song is about. If I leave an audience feeling as good as I feel, I’ve done my job."

This is true no matter when, where and what she has sung during her long career in and around the world of music.

Lydia Fortune has been singing and writing music since the early '60s. Her early repertoire mostly consisted of folk music; her early influences included a variety of acts including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Collins, and Odetta. In 1971, after returning from the Navy, she had a child and her and her husband decided to settle in Worcester. Meanwhile, in the '70s and '80s she began singing as part of a local R & B act called the Broken Ground. In the early 90s she turned to jazz, becoming a guest vocalist for the Crown Hill Jazz Sextet; she then joined Jim Heffernan as the vocalist for the Heffernan/Fortune Trio.

She released three CDs with one of Worcester's most beloved musical couples, Dan and Gail Hunt, while also working on an album called "Songs from the Road" which won the Wormtown award for best new CD of the year in 2000. Since she has collaborated with a multitude of other local acts as an independent vocalist and from '07 to '09 she performed as the singer for the Paul Combs Pocket Big Band.

"I’ve always been a collaborator whether in work or making music. I don’t want to be up there on stage by myself. I want to play with others, have fun while working and make great harmony. Music swirls around my very soul and I just want to share that feeling", she says of her love of working with others. Music indeed lends itself to collaboration in its ability to unite and create community among very different people of many different backgrounds.

Her new act as mentioned is a collaboration with another local veteran folk and delta blues artist guitarist Phil Nigro.

"My singer/ songwriting partner, Phil Nigro, is perfect for me. We’ve been able to collaborate so well because of his similar versatility, that writing and developing music, melody and lyrics has become an intuitive process," she says of their ability to work together.

Indeed this ability seems to come naturally. They are a perfect blend, creating their own brand of folk, americana, and delta blues. Their chief influences combine old standards with the contemporary.

"I love Mississippi John Hurt and so does Phil. We’ve found ways to add bits of harmony to some of his tunes (Payday) or combine two songs to create a conversation between the two characters in the songs (Creole Belle and Richland Woman). Then again, we’ll take an old standard like ‘Till There was You’ and turn it into a contemporary, folksy standard."

But the two aren't limited to one specific genre. There often go beyond the parameters of a strict folk/Americana set. For instance, the song "Coffee for Three", on their first album, is a song Lydia describes as a rather "odd" tune, that seems to belong "more in a film or a play."

In addition to their debut album, the duo plans to release a second CD in the Spring.

Lydia says she is what one may call an "organic musician" when describing the process she goes through in writing music. In other words, she does not read music, but proper harmonies and melodies blend naturally in her mind. She creates internally and the music simply flows through her.

"I hear harmony all the time," she points out. "I could always easily find ‘counter-melodies’ within a song. After a melody surfaced, I would find lyrical sounds – not really words – but sounds that would match the rhythm of the melody. Then the lyrics would come."

Phil meanwhile writes the chords, melodies and harmonies to play with whatever Lydia may come up with on a given day.

"I always ask: What were you thinking about? If he gives me a mental picture of what came to mind, I’ll go off and write the lyrics," Lydia says.

She says at one time she wanted to be a fiction writer, and this experience continues to inform her lyrical style. She is now a storyteller through lyrics, telling the tales, once again, of universal human emotions and experiences.

"Sometimes, I’ll write from personal experience; sometimes from the lives and experiences of other people and their relationships," she says. Personal experiences seem to be not so personal in how so many can relate to the experiences of their fellow man through music.

The duo has been seen playing at a number of coffeehouses, bars and restaurants throughout New England. In Worcester, the two can be typically found performing at the Webster House Restaurant on Mondays and at the NU Cafe on Fridays.

For Lydia, thanks to her outlook on life, the future looks just as bright as the past. It is not about money or fame, but simply enjoying yourself by doing what you love. It's still about bringing peace and harmony to one's life, and easing the restlessness.

"I just want to be a part of making music and having fun until the clock runs out. I’m too old to be looking for fame!" she remarks (though she does joke about the possibility of living off the residuals if famous people sing their songs enough. They would also, she says, love to write tunes for television, movies and theatre).

For now though both she and they together are perfectly content. Lydia's most simple goal besides continuing to learn the craft of songwriting, is staying healthy. Music can go a long way in helping to accomplish that goal, both for the performer and the listener, and Lydia shows her life is no exception to that universal human rule.

To hear Lydia and Phil's music, visit their page on ReverbNation or find her on Facebook. 


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