Dawn was once a popular name. I don’t know anyone naming their daughters this today. There are four Dawn’s from all around the country still in my life, all born within years of me in 1962. It was once a popular name.
Dawn (Drury) Dekker was my first best friend the years my family lived in an old farmhouse atop a hill overlooking Sharpsburg, a tiny gulley town caught smack dab in the middle of the battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
I didn’t know this then, when on a chilly drab April day we moved from the suburbs of Washington D.C.–Rockville, Maryland–to the 26 acres roaming down to the corner of Mondell Road and East Chaplin Street, one block from the town Square. My father’s father had died, leaving his only child whatever he had, and my parents hitched their wagon to the promising “back-to-the-land-movement” in the early 70’s, though they wouldn’t be necessarily building our house, harvesting all our food. But close enough. It was my mom’s dream to be “in the country” out of the sterile and “ticky-tacky” suburbs, to raise chickens, can vegetables, drink whole milk from the neighboring dairy farmer. Dawn Drury is two years older than I; she joined my mom’s Girl Scouts troop soon after we moved there. After Dawn graduated high school and went off to Georgetown, I visited her there, and by the time I left for Eastman, we’d lost touch. In 2010, because of Facebook, we reunited and have been close since.
is a soprano and teacher who came to Eastman to join Jan’s studio a year after I started. The two Dawn’s. She was big and brassy and seemingly completely self-possessed, funny, cheerful and kind. Classy. Always dressed and lipsticked and polished. She is still in Europe singing, arrived there after she left Eastman. We’ve reconnected because of this book I’m writing.
It took me more than seven years, no kidding, to nail down an interview date with soprano Dawn Upshaw. In September 2015, we shared memories and breakfast in her now hometown of Rhinebeck, New York. Gil Kalish joined us as they were performing that evening together at Bard College. Dawn and I have an unusual “non”-history that makes talk and connection easy when we do run into each other. We met when I was a sophomore at Eastman because of a boy. One we both loved and she married. [You cannot make this stuff up.] She studied with Jan at Aspen and almost came to Eastman for graduate school, but instead stayed in New York at Manhattan School of Music. I remember being in the audience for her final recital there in the spring of 1984, her singing Kurt Weill‘s “Je ne t’aime pas.” I remember weeping by the end of this gorgeous and prescient concert. I was there for her quick and eminent rise: the contests won, the radio broadcasts, the opera roles, the recordings. So many I love, too much to go into now, but she will figure in this book on Jan. Because she has in many tangible ways followed Jan’s lead and in her footsteps. Since 2004, she has been the Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg Professor of the Arts and Humanities and artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard Conservatory of Music, a program she created. She figured in my life, too, a little larger-than-life presence I looked to and admired, was curious about endlessly, and for so many reasons. She was the real deal, something any of us who knew or observed her in those early days simply understood. A step apart. Clear, directed, unattached to the art but wholly in it. She seemed to have zero self-consciousness about herself as singer, performer, especially to this young, insecure undergraduate studying at Eastman. Like Jan. Dawn was like Jan. Is like Jan. She’s been giving concerts all over the world with Gil Kalish since Jan’s leaving us. Circles. Full circles.
We sat over breakfast and laughed easily, warmly, as if we’d been in each other’s lives all our lives. Which for me, she kinda has been. I’ve posted a bit about her here, and she will return in the book’s pages.
And this morning, I texted my friend painter/ singer/writer Dawn Boyer whom I met a few summers ago at a writing workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts where we both earned our MFA’s. When we met, we learned we literally lived four miles from each other in Southern New Hampshire. We both sang, performed, wrote, and we were both named Dawn. I wrote to her this morning because her beloved partner–whom she found a little later in life, musician and writer Brett Hartenbach–has been fighting brain cancer for many years now, and I knew the end was near. According to a recent article about his life, Brett was one “who has long played in the shadows of others – albeit brightly – as a sideman and collaborator… with such folks as Daniel Johnston, Rachael Davis, Wooden Eye, his wife Dawn Boyer, as well as sharing the stage with Ellis Paul, Mary Lou Lord, Teddy Thompson, Eddie from Ohio, Susan Werner, Garnet Rogers, Girlyman, Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli and Josh Ritter. He died on April 15th, Easter Saturday.
Now this Dawn is on the road just as I was last year, to see family, the country, “to find herself.” I can’t wait to welcome her here to The Blue House in Mississippi. I sent her this photo of one of her paintings I adore; it’s hanging now in my new kitchen.