NY Press: Saving the Songs

New York City

Benefit: Saving the Songs

by Kate Walter
 

 While others were producing 9/11 benefit concerts with name entertainers, singer/songwriter Valerie Ghent has been organizing concerts with songs written and performed by members of the city’s uniformed rescue personnel – voices from the trenches.

For the six-month WTC anniversary in March, Ghent hosted two SRO benefits at the Cornelia Street Cafe. Since I arrived late for the second show, I had to plead my way inside – not missing the irony of the club’s concern about overcrowding in a room full of firefighters. When firefighter Tom Ferranolasweetly sang, “Do you believe in heroes?/Well, I certainly do/I’ve seen them die for me and you/And the red, white and blue,” I sensed these lines were heartfelt and firsthand, not imaginary lyrics. Ghent, a keyboardist for Ashford & Simpson, rendered her musical version of PAPD’s Norma Hardy‘s poem “The Men,” attacking the keys with an energy recalling a young Carole King.

Ghent is now producing a bigger tribute concert/auction at the Knitting Factory on Monday, May 20, with more up-tempo music and a bachelor firemen’s auction. “This show will suit the changing mood,” she says. “As the recovery at Ground Zero nears to a close, people want to be entertained.” The Knitting Factory concert will highlight musical members of the FDNY, with longer sets from fewer performers, including Hughie Lynch, Squad 1; Greg Parr, Engine 58; Tom Ferranola, Engine 163; Kathleen Pemble, wife of a firefighter from Engine 73; and the jazz fusion band Defunkt.

On her West Street Records label, Ghent is producing We’ll Carry On (her title song), a CD with 15 studio cuts selected from the 45 artists who played in March. More than half on the CD are uniformed personnel or volunteers. “I feel protective of this material, and the firemen appreciate that,” she says. Every step of the project was donated, from artwork to mastering to pressing. Proceeds from the CD and concert will go to WTC Ground Zero Relief, the well-organized Spring St. warehouse supplying workers with everything from respirators to gloves to hooded sweatshirts. “I can volunteer and share the songs,” says Ghent, who has helped at WTC Ground Zero Relief since September.

Born and raised in the Village and Soho by musician/composer parents, Ghent started the monthly Songwriter’s Beat at the Cornelia Street Cafe in December 2000 to encourage local performers to try new material. Last winter, while working at the warehouse, a fireman mentioned that many “brothers” had written songs about 9/11, and she was handed a poem by a police officer. When she scheduled the March 11 tribute concert, her call for material received such a huge response she added a second show.

“When I put up fliers [at the site and the warehouse] I had no idea how many people had songs and poems,” Ghent recalls. “It was not like being swamped with depressing material. The honesty everyone put into the work is life-affirming, uplifting.” A battalion chief came into the warehouse with a tape and told her she had to hear this song. Another fireman arrived armed with his guitar and auditioned on the spot. “This took off and I rolled with it.”

Recently, when I spoke with Ghent over chai, I told her I admired her tenacity. “I’m still involved because I know what I am doing can make a difference. I can unpack a box at the warehouse and take it down to the site. It’s like connecting the dots.” She attributes her spirit to her great-grandmother, a political activist during the Russian Revolution.

The way the activist and the artist come together seamlessly for Ghent is reminiscent of singer/songwriters from the 60s and 70s. But she’s no throwback. Besides working with Ashford & Simpson since 1989, Ghent has toured with Debbie Harry and Defunkt. As a sound engineer she has recorded more than 50 singers, including Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle. Earlier this year, Ghent wrote the music for The Hamlet Project, which debuted at La MaMa. “Writing the music for Hamlet influenced all this. It seemed strangely fitting.”

During the winter, Ghent was so exhausted she lost her voice for a few months, but she is back in form and will be hosting and rocking with her band on May 20. All of which makes the title of her debut CD from a few years ago eerily prescient: it was called Unstoppable.

The WTC Ground Zero Relief Memorial Fundraiser is May 20, 8 p.m., at Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard St. (betw. B’way & Church St.), 219-3055. Tickets are $30. Volume 15, Issue 20
 
Copyright – 2002 New York Press
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