By Daniel Dixon
Nancy Raven is a singer of songs who lives and works around here. I’m proud to declare that she's also a friend of mine. This woman is a messenger of the truth. On stage or back stage, she never drifts off key.
Maybe that’s why she gets along so well with children. Kids can spot condescension and hypocrisy from here to eternity. But Nancy treats chlidren as though they stand just as tall as she does. She turns kids on, not off.
Each of Nancy’s thirteen recorded albums is intended for children. “But they’re not just for kids,” she insists. “They’re for families.” She sings for and about about the little guys, the big guys, the important guys, the forgotten guys. Nobody’s excluded. Everyone’s welcome to sing along.
Schools, libraries, and other institutions up and down California regularly invite Nancy to make their day. “I try not to instruct,” she says. “I simply share what I know and feel.” She also works in coffee houses, retirement villas, at public events, and in private homes. “No birthday parties, though,” she says firmly. “Not any more. Except my own.”
Nancy speaks English and Spanish, but also sings in Russian, Japanese, French, German, Italian, and Tagalog. “Music,” she says, “is a universal language and singing is the most universal music.” She accompanies herself on the guitar and has a repertoire of at least 500 songs -- nonsense songs, comic songs, songs of protest, songs of celebration, songs of loneliness and regret, songs of wandering and wondering, songs of love found and lost and remembered. You name it, she sings it.
Wherever Nancy performs, she’s usually billed as a “folk singer.” Well, maybe.
The classical folk singers — Joan Baez, for instance — have innocent voices. Their purity is ethereal. Like angels, they rarely get their tonsils dirty.
But Nancy’s voice is different. It belongs to an earthbound woman, and its timbre is shadowed and roughened by experience. “Here’s what I am,” it tells us. “Here’s what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned. Here’s where it tickles. Here’s where it hurts.”
And Nancy has taken some harsh punishment in her time. One of her three children, Jenny, died of a brain tumor. “That was a killer,” she says. “But it led me into playing and singing for kids who had cancer, and also for kids who were mentally disturbed. A great experience. When things were really rough, music helped keep me going.”
Nancy’s just turned seventy, but age and trouble haven’t marked her very much. She looks years younger than she really is, stands as erect as a West Point Cadet, and moves with the supple ease of a dancer. Her hair has turned white, but not her enthusiasms. She never runs out of things to do, places to go, sights to see, lessons to learn, or gas.
Art is another of Nancy’s passions. Her eye is as sensitive as her ear. “I was an art teacher before I was a musician,” she told me. “That’s what I did for years. But even back then I used music as a tool in the classroom. Music, poetry, painting — they’re all related. As you learn about one, you learn about another.”
After her daughter died in 1984, Nancy decided to give up teaching and concentrate on her music. By then she was performing more and more for kids. “I appeared wherever they needed a human songbook,” she says. “Schools, hospitals, libraries: one after another. It was very satisfying, but I began to get antsy after awhile. So a few years ago I packed up, moved here to Monterey, and made a new start.”
These days Nancy lives in a small, cluttered house at the crest of a hill that overlooks the Monterey Bay. It’s crammed with books, keepsakes, works of art, and a whole orchestra of musical instruments, including a Chilean nose flute. No tuba, however. “Not yet, anyway,” Nancy says.
Music is more fun to Nancy Raven than to anyone else I’ve ever known. She’s always ready to break out her guitar and into song, whether or not she gets paid. When she performs, she glows with the sheer pleasure of it. That glow makes other people want to join in, and pretty soon a party is in progress. Nancy likes a jamboree.
Not long ago she threw herself a birthday bash. It began at eleven o’clock in the morning and was still going strong at ten that night. Dozens of Nancy’s friends showed up, some from hundreds of miles away. Many also brought their instruments, mostly guitars.
When my wife and I arrived shortly after eleven, the first group to play was already tuning up. Anyone without something to toot, pick, rattle, or drum was supplied from Nancy’s collection. I was even permitted to strum my ukelele.
One of the guests that memorable day was Bob Phillips, who’s generally acknowledged to be the premier jazz pianist in these parts. He and Nancy have talked about teaming up for local gigs, and she’s already working on her material.
“I’ve listened to a lot of jazz,” she told me recently, “but I’ve never been a jazz singer. Now I’d like to give it a try. Different tunes, a different style, a different audience — it’ll be quite a challenge. But I think I can handle it. I’m ready for another change.” She smiled. “It’s never too late to learn.”
No, I guess it isn’t. Not for my friend Nancy Raven.