How Songwriting Helps Homeless Kids

The power of music, in action

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Darden Smith
Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images

Darden Smith at SiriusXM Studios on April 17, 2013 in New York City.

Sometimes it’s easier to sing one’s feelings than to say them — and, says singer-songwriter Darden Smith, the benefits of singing don’t stop there.

Smith is a founder of a program called SongwritingWith:, which is best known for helping soldiers write songs in order to share stories of what they had seen. SongwritingWith:Soldiers has gotten lots of press over the last few years for the way songwriting helps the soldiers and veterans, but it turns out they’re not the only people who have seen a lot and can be helped by music. Though it hasn’t gotten as much attention as the military arm of the program, SongwritingWith also has an arm for people who have a different kind of difficult story, the young people at Covenant House in Newark, N.J.

Covenant House provides services — most famously a national network of shelters — for homeless and at-risk young people and, since 2009, those services have included songwriting workshops. Smith and his fellow songwriter Greg Trooper visit Covenant House clients from New York and New Jersey with the goal of creating music. There’s no SongwritingWith:Covenant House album, but now you can listen to a few of the songs — in this post, below — written and performed by participants.

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In each visit, the songwriter sits down with about a dozen residents to chat about their lives. “I wait till somebody says something that sounds like a song title, and then we go,” he says. Within a little as 20 minutes, an off-the-cut comment can become a song. (Smith does most of the actual songwriting, using the words the participants come up with.) “I highlight that I don’t know you and we come from very different places. I’m a 50-year-old guy from Austin, Texas, and you’re a kid from Newark, New Jersey, but we collaborated on something. I could never have written that song without you. I can’t know what you know. Value that.”

The end result might be something like “Not Easily Broken,” the song below. “A girl was just talking about how hard it is on the street and how being in Covenant House is still not ideal but that it’s better than the street. But then one of the boys said, ‘Yeah, but it makes you tough.’ One of them just said, ‘I am not easily broken.’ And I just went, wow, that’s a fantastic hook for a song,” says Smith. “It’s all about resiliency. A lot of people think looking at homeless people that they’re of no value, but they’re tough people.”

“Not Easily Broken” from Covenant House, by Darden Smith.

Another example, “Misery’s Not Welcome Here No More,” came out of a conversation about a gang conflict happening at the shelter, says Smith, and the tension in the room on the day of the workshop. “We’d written a song already and a bunch of people left the room,” Smith recalls. “After they left one of the girls had said, ‘I’m just tired of all this misery. I don’t want it here.'”

“Misery’s Not Welcome Here No More” from Covenant House, by Darden Smith.

No matter what the song is, Smith says having someone sing your words back to you means someone is listening to what you have to say. “There’s something magic that happens there,” says Smith. “If someone can speak about a traumatic situation, you can turn it into a song and other people can sing it, it somehow lifts the burden off of you.”