Local Elders’ lives in song

Colette Ruoff

Colette Ruoff

Like a clearing in a forest, an unusual event on the weekend offers a step away from this year’s underbrush of police shootings, Brexit, missing State Department emails, impending threats of economic collapse and World War and other harrowing preoccupations into a deeper view of human society as it exists in our own neighborhood. At 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17, at the Woodstock Music Lab, 1700 Sawkill Road, former site of the Zena Elementary School, Sage Arts of Rosendale will present a concert honoring a selection of eight Woodstock seniors who have teamed with local musicians to celebrate their lives in song.

“Songs have a way of penetrating us; going through the mind and into the heart,” explains Colette Ruoff, Sage Arts founder and president. “That’s why I’m doing this. Art is a means of inspiration. That’s why we started this off. We’d like to use other art forms as well. I think this is the most powerful way to transmit a message from an elder to the community.”

Energy feeds ambition and the first spark of energy in this direction came from a ‘vision quest’ Ruoff undertook in 2012 after years of coaching leadership to members of large corporations. Traditionally a spiritually maturing process or ‘rite of passage’ well known in Native American cultures, a Vision Quest ideally aligns an inner sense of essence with one’s outer world of work and life.  “It was a shift in my thinking,” Ruoff recalls of her own journey. “As part of it, I felt this calling to step into a role that was more from the heart and would be of service to community. So, that’s what happened to me.”


A few months later on a business trip to New Mexico as consultant to a non-profit, she came across a community-outreach project started by Molly Sturgis, a composer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Opera House which involved poets and composers working with residents to transform their life stories into original musical pieces performed by a local college choir. That became the beginning of a turning point for Ruoff, igniting a spark which would incubate for over a year before she congealed her Sage Arts ideas in October of 2013. With Sturgis coming up from Santa Fe to help with organizing her core team, Ruoff lifted off Sage Arts with a fund-raising concert the following spring and set up training songwriters for the work.

The first concert in May of 2015 drew a Standing Room Only audience to the Marbletown Community Center and a flood of wild acclaim which included an anonymous grant of $20,000 through the Rudolf Steiner Social Fund.

“We still don’t know who saw what we were doing and approved it with that very generous contribution but it’s been our life’s blood, allowing us to continue and conceive these projects; the one focusing on elder farmers of the region in April and the Elders of Woodstock this Sunday.”

In an age dominated by remotely packaged and corporatized entertainments, an event subtitled “A people’s history of American culture” in a town with solid legacy of achievement in the arts promises significant stimulation of cultural recognitions meaningfully delivered from our past; a feast of reflection for elders, artists and audience. Jerome Taub, a 91 year old elder with acting experience who will offer his own rendition of the song produced with his songwriter, Elizabeth Clark, is one of these living time machines set to gift us with personal glimpses of a world the community has traveled through.  “The song tells about my life as a child,” Taub reveals, noting it also recalls the drama of marrying his first wife in a hospital room after his father suffered a heart attack shortly before their long-scheduled wedding day. “I’m now in my third marriage. My current wife is also in her third marriage. We met about 20 years ago and have been together ever since. The three women I’ve been married to are all in the song.”

Although the songs are mostly performed by the artists, Clark, a harpist, vocalist and composer for the Hudson Valley’s Mamalama orchestra, auditioned Taub’s suggestion that he perform their collaboration himself and approved the idea.

“Talking about a lot of things I’ve been through in my life brought back memories I haven’t thought about in a long time which have remained with me,” Taub said. “Since my discussions with Elizabeth about various things that happened many years ago and in practicing the song, the return of these old memories has been very pleasant, actually.”

Award-winning songwriter Kelleigh McKenzie (pronounced ‘Kelly’), who came on board for the Farmers project and is working with visual artist elder Lois Linet for this one, describes the collaborations as a fascinating and emotion-provoking process of drawing out stories and inner life experiences and pulling together whole life perspectives. Ruoff equates it with a string of pearls wherein the stories are the pearls and the songwriters are looking for the string that holds them together. McKenzie searches for notable phrases in how the stories are related to use as key tones in her “palette” for composition.

A long time area resident born in Oregon, McKenzie relishes the ‘real folks’ element of the folkish endeavor she elaborates with a banjo she began to learn as a requirement for a character she was chosen to play while studying acting in college. Although her role was to play badly, she took to the instrument with enthusiasm afterward, noting that although she was raised in Oregon, grandparents on both sides were from the deep South and, fueled by admiration for Pete Seeger and Steve Martin, she soon discovered that she had the “hillbilly music gene.”

Classically trained multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Meadow, who stylistically embraces a musical range from blues and show tunes to the classics and slyly humorous folk, has pieced together memories from Virginia Snyder, a former choir member and soloist to voice Virginia’s thoughts to her departed husband, Clarence, who was a choir director and organist, into a classical piece for four-part choir, soloist, and piano. Meadow finds exhilaration in the challenge of the process, terming it almost ‘sacred work’.

“You can’t fake it. You have to find it,” she says. “It feels very good to be involved with it and I get so much out of doing this work. It’s a wonderful thing that we do for elders and for musicians and for the community. I’m proud to be part of it.”

Seeing this as a way to help heal some cultural wounds of modern society, Colette Ruoff credits a study of indigenous communities and her resonance with the way they honor nature, life and their elders as an aid in bringing her Vision Quest awakening to realization. “I’m passionate about changing the way we perceive our elders…to see them as a resource; to see them as a repository of valuable life experience who can inform us of who we are as people,” she declares. “We can carry the story forward as we live our lives. How do we benefit from their earned wisdoms? How do we expand and learn as a culture, as a society by putting them in the center to honor them? Because, doing that, we honor ourselves, we honor life itself, all of life, not just human life. There’s a real problem in our society and I see that the marginalization of elders and discounting of their value because they’re not pretty anymore, is connected to the disgraceful way we dominate and disrespect nature.”

Woodstock, perhaps surprisingly, has the largest number of elders in Ulster County, Ruoff points out and has been hugely supportive of Sage Arts from the start. “So, I see this all connected…I didn’t see that at first. I didn’t know why I was involved with this,” she laughs. But it’s come out. It’s revealed itself to me over time as I’ve been living it because I can’t not do this. I’m compelled to do this. It doesn’t feel like that much of a choice.”


Woodstock elders who have contributed recollections to this event are Stewart Maurer, Virginia Snyder, Jerome Taub, Pete Denehey, Anni Tucker, Jocelyn Sarto, Nita Chandler and Lois Linet. Songwriter-performers, besides Meadow, Clark and McKenzie will be Sarah Perrotta, Jude Roberts, Sarah Kramer-Harrison and musician/novelist Robert Burke Warren. Concert  Director is Julie Last and accompanying musicians include Fooch Fischetti, Lou Pappas, Russell Boris and members of the Mamalama band and Ars Choralis Choir.


Songs of Life will open with a reception at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17 and the concert will be 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., at the Woodstock Music Lab, 1700 Sawkill Road in Woodstock. Suggested donation for tickets is $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For seniors, tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door and for children under 18  tickets are $5. Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com or at the door.