Women of the Bible finally get a voice in Jan Seides’ moving Unsung project 

Photo by Valerie Fremin 2018

Like all creative people, Austin singer-songwriter Jan Seides maintains a constant state of vigilance, always looking for the next idea, the next inspiration. But she’d never imagined that simply singing a song she’d written while laid up with a back injury would lead not only to her first album in six years, but to her first book, complete with her first foray into illustration. Not to mention a pilgrimage she’d dreamed of taking since she was a teen.

The song, “Sarah Laughed,” was her take on the biblical story of Sarah and Abraham, which she learned when her daughter was studying it to recite for her bat mitzvah.

Seides didn’t know it at the time, but that was the genesis of Unsung, a 12-song album packaged with a book containing lyrics, illustrations and short commentaries about each song.

“Sarah Laughed” refers to Sarah’s reaction when an angel told her husband that she would give birth — despite the fact that both were over 100 years old. Seides’ song addresses the difficulty of believing in miracles; at that point, she felt healing might require one.

But Seides recovered (no miracle needed), and after she performed the song one night, an audience member came up and suggested a book, Women in the Bible, noting the stories of those women might make good songs.

“They were all old, familiar stories, but this time when I read them, what struck me was how many important people in those stories never got any attention,” Seides reflects. “Leah was responsible for eight of the 12 tribes of Israel. There are two sentences about her in the Bible. Two. I decided it was my job to tell those stories.”

The album was produced by Bradley Kopp; the book was illustrated by Seides and Vanessa Lively, who added watercolors over line drawings she encouraged Seides to create.

Born in Detroit, Seides was raised there and in New York. Though her father’s parents were orthodox Jews who spoke only Yiddish, her family wasn’t particularly religious; she didn’t even attend Sunday school past first or second grade. But she was always fascinated by religion — especially the biblical stories and how beliefs and practices evolved. And she’s always been attracted to “the community and the tribe and the rituals”; as a young teen, she belonged to a Jewish youth group, which sparked her interest in visiting Israel.

“They talked about Israel the way that Little House on the Prairie talked about the American frontier, and I was just enamored,” she says. But as life intervened, the trip remained a dream. Then she started writing these songs, and realized that she needed to go while she still could. She decided to make it a working trip, and through connections, booked some performances — which also served as the ultimate litmus test for songs set in that very place.

“I started with the Jacob’s Ladder Festival; I sang one of the first songs and the audience loved it,” Seides recalls. “And I thought, ‘OK, then.’”

She began the project with “Rachel’s Sister,” the song about Leah — whose husband, Jacob, intended to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying her older sister first.

“I have sisters and I know that dynamic fairly well,” explains Seides, a middle daughter. “It’s like, ‘I’m nobody. I’m just Rachel sister.’ Then I’m reading the story of David and Bathsheba and I suddenly realized what her name means: Daughter No. 7. So then I was off and running.”
That story, of Bathsheba’s seduction and rape by David, who impregnated her and killed her husband, became “Your Neighbor’s Garden.”

“After a while, the songs started writing themselves,” Seides says. “Mostly the subjects are people I didn’t think got a fair shake from the narrative presented in the Bible.

“A lot of research went into choosing them, and I learned aspects of the stories I never would have known otherwise,” she admits. Among the books she cites for providing insight are Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible, by Alice Bellis, and The Stolen Light of Women: A Quest for Spiritual Truth Beyond Religion by C. C. Campbell.

But ultimate inspiration came from her characters. Leah even inspired the album’s title; Seides says she regards Rachel’s sister as “an unsung hero.”

Seides’ rich, expressive voice, lovely melodies and elegant arrangements bring each character to life; her words, and the accompanying images, turn them into relatable beings. Kopp’s production keeps the focus on her voice and their intricate acoustic guitar picking, accompanied only by occasional backing vocals (contributed by Kopp and Lorrie Singer) and subtle touches such as castanet chimes or woodblock taps.

“Since the songs were so complex, we made the production as simple as possible,” Seides says. It was a wise choice; their beautifully interwoven stringwork provides all the momentum needed to help carry these stories along.

And what stories they are. With frankness and even humor (“Mom Always Liked You Best”), Seides gives voice to biblical women who were given short shrift in both testaments, usually treated as peripheral characters even when the story was about them.

“The Torah was oral for hundreds of years, and when it finally got written down, a group of men decided what was going to be in there,” Seides notes. “I just provided the rest of the story that they left out.”

While distinctly feminist, Unsung is hardly an exercise in man-bashing. Seides says she found humanity in both male and female characters, and though she initially expected all the songs would be about women, they’re not.

“I started telling the story of Goliath (“Mighty Goliath”), and it was supposed to be one of the light-hearted, funny ones,” she says, “but about halfway through, I started feeling sorry for him. So the song is tragic. I also thought they’d all be Old Testament, and that didn’t turn out to be the case, either.”

The album begins with “And So I Followed,” the story of Mary Magdalene, told from her point of view.

“She’s been conflated with two other Marys, and they have her painted as a prostitute; that wasn’t her. And they had her painted as the one who dried his feet with her hair; that wasn’t her, either,” Seides says. “According to the research, she was a woman with money, a Canaanite, but she heard what he had to say and she believed he was on the right path and that she should follow. So she was pretty much footing the bill for a while.”

In the song’s first verse, Seides clarifies Mary’s role, singing, Never walked the streets/I’m glad of that. Never washed his feet/But I wish I had. I was a woman who believed/And so I followed.

Though an album in which she inhabits biblical lives is a first for her, Seides has created music involving religious themes and cultures before. For the Texas Library Association, she developed a show of Yiddish songs and stories. Performing for church services led to writing songs for some of them, one of which became the title track for her 2010 album, Because You Believe.

But fans are more likely to find her performing at Austin’s Kick Butt Café, where she hosts a songwriters’ circle the second Sunday of each month, or New World Deli, which reminds her of Chicago House, a long-gone, but still beloved Austin songwriters’ hangout.

Seides, who earned a music degree at the University of Texas, also gives voice and instrument lessons to clients ranging in age from 41⁄2 to 85. Previously, she played piano for the Austin Ballet and, in Los Angeles, for dancer/choreographer Stanley Holden. She first performed at 3, and began studying piano at 4. She added guitar as a teen, and more recently, mandolin and ukulele. Unsung is her fifth album; it follows 2013’s Siren Song. While working on her first album, 1992’s Slowly But Surely, she met her recording-engineer husband. Ten years later, she released Everyday People, a collection of songs based on stories people told her. Family Album followed in 2007.

Though her previous output has been, to paraphrase her title, slow but sure, she’s already considering a second volume of Unsung songs.

“People are far more enthusiastic and forthcoming about this subject than any others I’ve written about,” Seides says. “It makes me really happy when people connect with my songs.”

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Photo by Valerie Fremin