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Beth DeSombre: Press

Beth DeSombre, Crooked Highways

Beth DeSombre's most well-known product is her scholarly book Domestic Sources of International Environmental Policy. This Wellesley political science professor also has a musical bent, though, and after many years of writing and performing in the Boston area, she has released this debut album. This is a very good thing. Not surprisingly, Beth's writing is smart and uplifting. The songs are in the story-telling style, focusing on the quiet meaning to be found in ordinary life. In that way, they carry a gentle political message. The production and accompaniment are first-rate, as Dave Chalfant (late of the Nields) produced the album and Beth is joined by Tracy Grammer, Jim Henry, Pete and Maura Kennedy, and Eric Lee (the teenaged fiddler from the Strangelings) as an all-star backing band. As Beth rarely performs outside the Boston area, this recording is a welcome way to hear her music.
- Sing Out! (Nov 15, 2008)
Art Inspires Art at Davis Concert

Between the high walls of the Lulu Chow Wang Gallery entrance and a few feet below a glowing exit sign, Beth DeSombre, professor of political science, opened her performance on Tuesday afternoon with a note about songwriting.

“Phrases come up anywhere, sometimes in the middle of the night,” DeSombre said. She was referring to the refrain from her opening song, “Ex-Voto,” which transpired after the Davis Museum commissioned her to write a song about an artwork from its collection. DeSombre chose the Peres-Maldonado Ex-voto, an 18th century painting that commemorates a woman’s survival from a breast cancer operaiont.

Here, songwriting seems a mythical art, in which verses emerge from the writer instantly and full-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. This is, of course, partly true. The sudden ebb and flow of inspiration is what has long enabled the artist to draw poetry from experiences that others likewise share but look over. But DeSombre also reminds us that the process of inspiration has its slower moments. DeSombre, who is “musically but not visually artistic,” had to “sit down with the piece of artwork, just look at it, and taken notes in her songwriting book about what struck me.”

The lyrics eventually took shape not so much around the visual elements of the painting – though the rust-red hues and the medic’s “tools of gleaming steel” make their appearance – but around the philosophy behind the painting’s creation. “The idea of an Ex-voto is that some horrible tragedy befalls you, so you promise the saints that if you get better you’ll thank the divine intervention that made this possible,” DeSombre said.

“I just thought that was a neat concept for thinking about a story. I wrote it in the first person and, whether or not this was really the case, I bring up the difference between the spiritual solution she was dealing with and the medical solution.” In the refrain that anchors the song, “If I make it through, I’ll know what to do / If I make it through, I’ll come back to you,” the narrator promises a return to the spiritual should she survive the operation.

DeSombre, equipped only with a microphone and acoustic guitar, eased into the song with slow finger-picking and ethereal voice, one lending itself to the other so elegantly that her solo seemed as rich as a group performance. Alongside “Ex-voto,” DeSombre performed a new song that opens to a neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago and forays delightfully into the line “Handball can be played where there’s no grass” and the refrain “Fun will find a way.”

DeSombre is scheduled to perform next at Great Brook Farms (365 Great Road, Bolton) on Oct. 4. For more information on the singer-songwriter, visit bethdesombre.com.
WELLESLEY, Mass.—The day the music died for one songwriter became the day the music came alive for another.

Beth DeSombre, the Frost professor of environmental studies and political science at Wellesley College, first began songwriting in high school, winning a contest for her music. She later chose to attend Harvard University in large part for the Boston folk music scene, which she describes as the best in North America. Halfway through her studies there, she stopped writing and performing in public. Graduate school required too much focus, and she wasn’t sure she was good enough to make serious inroads as a singer-songwriter.

DeSombre continued playing music for herself but didn’t start songwriting again until 2004, soon after her favorite songwriter, Dave Carter, died suddenly at a young age. After more than a decade, the first song she wrote, “Sarah’s Song,” dealt with the importance of music.

“The song refers to navigating ‘the crooked highways of this world below’ as contrasted to a focus on some heavenly reward, so I also see it as representing the fact that my songs often tell stories of different types of people just trying to get by in the world,” DeSombre said.

As she began to perform again, she quickly ended up with opportunities to play in front of big folk festival audiences. People began asking whether she had a CD.

“When I realized I'd written more than enough songs to make a CD, I started figuring out how to make that happen,” she said. The result is the about-to-be released album, Crooked Highways.

Desombre will present a talk and a few of her songs from the album Friday, Dec. 7, from 12:30-1:30 pm in Anderson Forum, Wang Campus Center, Wellesley College, an event sponsored by the Phi Sigma Lecture Society as part of its "Professors and their Passions" lecture series. She will also perform at her CD's release concert and party Monday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 pm at Punch’s Alley in Wang Campus Center.

“I'm holding it on campus because it's my home base— I perform at the pub once or twice a semester every semester— and I thought it would be nice to do it where it would be easy for the campus community to attend,” DeSombre said. Both events are free and open to the public.

While the Boston area is home to a specific type of folk singer-songwriter, Wellesley College offered DeSombre another reason to return to the area she loves.

“I adore teaching at Wellesley, but another one of the big draws of this place is that it's in the geographic area that is best for the music I love,” DeSombre said.

It was only recently that DeSombre’s double lives as a professor and singer-songwriter began to interact.

“Until recently I've kept my professor life and my singer-songwriter life pretty separate; my music bio doesn't mention that I'm a professor and my college Web page and c.v. don't mention my music,” DeSombre said. “But beginning to perform on campus has started allowing those identities to intermingle.”

Her songs also inadvertently reflect the professor within her.

“I also write songs you actually have to pay attention to in order to appreciate; lots of words, big concepts,” DeSombre said. “So they're kind of professorial songs, even though that's not by intention -- it's just the way I think about things.”

DeSombre plays around Boston and occasionally out of state, has made special guest appearances at major folk festivals and has won honorable mentions in national and international songwriting contests for her song “No Toll in Canaan.”

Her first release features collaborations with artists such as Tracy Grammar, Jim Henry, and Pete and Maura Kennedy—all of whom DeSombre is most excited to see as a fan. She also worked with producer Dave Chalfant.

“I’m really proud of what we came up with,” DeSombre said. For more information, visit www.bethdesombre.com.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries. For more information, go to www.wellesley.edu.
Professor and musician DeSombre debuts with album, Crooked Highways

When one reviews the published works of Elizabeth R. DeSombre, one may notice her prize-winning book, Domestic Sources of International Environmental Policy, her contribution to the Journal of Environmental Politics, or the two books she completed during her sabbatical from Wellesley, Flagging Standards and Global Environmental Institution. What you will not see on her extensive curriculum vitae is that she has not only a website (www.bethdesombre.com) but also her own MySpace page.

Professor DeSombre (Dee-SOM-bree), or, as most of her students call her, Beth, is an academically rigorous mentor by day and an up-and-coming folk musician by night. Her first album, Crooked Highways, which debuts on Monday, Dec. 10th at Punch’s Alley, should make a solid addition to her published body of work.

When asked how she managed to record an album between teaching classes she responded, “Basically, the two things I do are Wellesley and music. I don’t have time for much else.” Nevertheless, DeSombre’s characteristic dedication and attention to detail has paid off in this beautifully crafted first album.

The title Crooked Highways, DeSombre admits, has multiple meanings. “The first is the lyric it comes from ‘To navigate the crooked highways/Of this world below.’ I feel as if my writing focuses on people trying to deal with their everyday lives. Also, there’s a lot of traveling in my songs.” She aso added that the title alludes to the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

While DeSombre’s academic writings may seem to deal with issues on the macro level, involving large groups of people, DeSombre skillfully manages to record the experiences of average individuals in a way that ennobles them and reveals their dignity.

Although DeSombre’s experiences in Ohio, for example, dealth more with the challenges and rituals of collegiate life at Oberlin, DeSombre instead sets her sights on the lives of “townies,” a corn farmer and his child, in “For Winter.” From the woman in a restaurant on “2nd and Magnolia” to the flod victim of the “The Lucky Ones” to the trucker, DeSombre places herself in the life of another in a way that does not seem like cheesy Americana, but compassionate and sincere.

DeSombre agrees that it is the people who have made this album so special. “I have been lucky enough to work with my musical heroes in the making of this album,” she said.

On her MySpace page, DeSombre lists Dave Carter, Tracy Grammer, Richard Shindell, Crooked Still, and the Kennedys as her musical influences. In the box above, three of those musicians appear in her album information: Tracy Grammer, Pete Kennedy and Maura Kennedy.

DeSombre added that no only did they play a role in recording her songs, but they have also played a supportive role by advising DeSombre during the recording process.

To those unfamiliar with modern American folk music, DeSombre’s album serves as a great introduction to the genre. Her “biggest hit” as likes to call it, “No Toll in Canaan,” which has received som attention from the folk community, is characteristic of her style. Her youthful soprano lilts long intervals up and down to deceptively simply lyrics, a mandolin, and a finger picking guitar. “I tend to write wordy songs,” DeSombre confessed, “a lot of people tell me that they love my song and would want to record it, but the range is too wide for them.” The effortless harmonies of the chorus evoke rustic images of fall foliage road trips in the Berkshires, favorite sweaters and heirloom quilts.

The wandering nature of the music combined with the calm, pensive simplicity of her lyrics makes it great for rides in the car. DeSombre manages to make music that is delicate despite its tendency towards lots of syllables and familiar speech.

These types of songs, such as “No Toll in Canaan,” “Sarah’s Song,” “Between the White Lines,” “When I Leave This Place,” and “Song of Joy” are most common in her album, and are her strongest suit. The songs are stylistically different and tend to lack the proper contrast needed to bring out the song. Moreover, because of her emphasis on the virtuosity of her musicians, DeSombre’s voice is sometimes lost to the sounds of the instruments.

Even in the songs that achieve a delicate simplicity, her vocal lines too often stay dynamically unvarying. DeSombre explained that “Over time I learned how to make a better take for our recording. I think the next time I record will be a lot easier.”

In addition to her training as a political scientist, DeSombre has performed and written folk music for much of her life. After her parents exposed her to folk music as a child she came to Oberlin to participate in their local music scene. She emphatically states that she chose to go to graduate school in Boston specifically for its top-notch folk scene. She is often found listening in her office to WUMB, UMass’s folk radio station, before driving off to a gig in the Boston area. The songs on the album span the period of the past five years. “I’m really lucky to do both [teaching and performing] because it gives me a lot of opportunities to support myself and pursue music.”
Jessica Forde - Wellesley News (Dec 5, 2007)
Wellesley Professor Releases Debut Folk Album

Beth DeSombre, political science, first began songwriting in high school, winning a contest for her music. She later chose to attend Harvard University, in large part for the Boston folk music scene. During her studies there she stopped writing and performing music. Graduate school required too much focus, and she wasn't sure she was good enough to make serious inroads as a singer-songwriter. More than a decade later, the first song she wrote, "Sarah's Song," dealt with the importance of music.

"The song refers to navigating 'the crooked highways of this world below' as contrasted to a focus on some heavenly reward, so I also see it as representing the fact that my songs often tell stories of different types of people just trying to get by in the world," DeSombre said.

As she began to perform again, she quickly ended up with opportunities to play in front of big folk festival audiences. People began asking whether she had a CD.

"When I realized I'd written more than enough songs to make a CD, I started figuring out how to make that happen," she said.

DeSombre will perform music from her debut CD Crooked Highways at her release concert and party Monday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Punch's Alley.

"I'm holding it on campus because it's my home base -- I perform at the pub once or twice a semester every semester -- and I thought it would be nice to do it where it would be easy for the campus community to attend," DeSombre said.

DeSombre plays around Boston and occasionally out of state, has made special guest appearances at major folk festivals and has won honorable mentions in national and international songwriting contests. For more information, visit www.bethdesombre.com
- Wellesley Week (Nov 28, 2007)