The Spirits of Remembrance

Live gig review by Elaine Sponholtz March 11, 2013
The ghosts must have been dancing at the Thomas Center last Friday. Katy Carr, a graceful British songstress, began her performance by recounting stories from the 1940s in between sweetly evocative renditions of tunes made popular in the dance halls of the era. The innovative program, part of The Wall Speaks Project, was presented through the sponsorship of the City of Gainesville and the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies.
Attired in a demure chestnut-colored dress that had belonged to her 98-year-old grandmother Dorothy, Carr continued by confiding, “I was allowed to raid her wardrobe about four years ago, and found it behind some old coats and it fit!”
As the rapt audience responded to her unaffected sincerity and enthusiasm, her voice softened. In a pensive tone, 33-year-old Carr invoked the spirits of generations past, musing, “I’m singing for the ghosts tonight.” Quiet descended on the room. Then, in a lilting tremolo, the nostalgic melodies of “Five Foot Two,” “Heaven,” and “Lilly Marlene” floated up to the second floor gallery, as Carr strummed her vintage ukulele. Around the room were glimpses of long ago, tapestries of 1940s children’s photographs.
Who knows what phantoms might have been in attendance? The elegantly appointed Spanish Court of the former Thomas Hotel, where the event took place, welcomed such luminaries as the poet Robert Frost in its heyday. With her music still reverberating around the hall, Katy Carr dedicated the evening to her beloved grandmother, who died a year ago, explaining how her work of the past three years began with hearing Dorothy’s stories about WWII. For decades Dorothy refused to reminisce until asked about the war years. “Once she started talking,” Carr recalled, “she talked for five days.” Luckily, Carr had her Dictaphone ready.
With a creamy complexion set off by a fur hat worthy of Ginger Rogers, Carr’s retro-chic appearance took on a deeper meaning as she described her personal and artistic connection to the era and to the Polish people. Through collaborative work with Sarasota artist/filmmaker Wojtek Sawa, Carr has been connecting with the Polish half of her ancestry by writing songs about the struggles of a people whose homeland was lost. Poland was partitioned at the end of the war, with half ceded to the Soviets at Yalta. The theme of the loss of homeland fuels her creative output.
Tracing the origin of his Wall Speaks Project, Sawa said he realized it grew from “stories told by older adults, but that they were really the stories of children, from their child’s perspective and experience of the war years.” Pointing to the project storytellers’ childhood photographs, he spoke of the stories he had collected while interviewing Polish survivors, and his plans to bring their stories to other campuses. He said, after finding her music through the internet, he began working with Carr, who is based in London. Both Sawa’s projects and Carr’s music tell stories of bravery and resistance in Nazi concentration camps and Soviet bondage. Next, Sawa will be presenting two workshops in April at UF’s Center for European Studies.
As a girl in Nottingham, Carr recalled admiring famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, eventually becoming a licensed pilot herself. Introducing her song about the 303rd RAF Squadron comprised of ace Polish pilots, Carr expressed her veneration. Sung in Polish, the title translates as “Butterfly.”
Her song, “Kommander’s Car,” is about the harrowing escape of Kazimierierz ‘Kazik’ Piechowski. Imprisoned for being a Polish Boy Scout, he was able to flee Auschwitz with three other prisoners, in German Nazi uniforms, driving out the gate in camp commandant Rudolph Hoess’s car. Accompanying herself on piano, Carr’s voice became more insistent, as if willing the man she calls her adoptive grandfather through that gate.
The story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, inspired Carr’s song “Mała Little Flower.” Incredibly, Irena managed to save 12 Polish Jews by hiding them in the basement of an SS officer’s home for two years. Once discovered, she was forced to become his mistress to prevent their deaths. After their escape, she reunited with the group after the war.
Carr concluded her remarks by saying that we should all collect firsthand stories before they disappear. She pointed out how lucky she was to be prepared when her grandmother’s stories streamed forth. “Grab your Dictaphone! Get those stories that will soon be out of living memory,” she urged.
During the last few songs, Carr led an audience sing-along, bringing smiles to faces of all ages. As if harking back to a simpler time, she crafted a sense of community through a delightful shared experience. Dorothy’s spirit must have been ever-so-proud as her granddaughter left the crowd pleased with its good fortune. Perhaps even Robert Frost approved. The ghosts can rest easy; their stories are in capable and talented hands.