“Beulah Rowley was a midwestern singer and songwriter who lived during the Depression era. She wrote songs at the piano, sitting on a custom-made wrought iron piano bench she inherited from her grandmother. Beulah stored her compositions along with her diaries inside the bench, which she closed nightly with a lock and key. Sadly, she died in a tragic house fire along with her husband and infant daughter while just in her twenties. But the bench and its contents survived, getting passed down over the generations from flea markets to families until one day ending up in mine. The key had been lost in the fire, so we were never able to open the bench to find out what was causing the strange rustling sound inside. On my tenth birthday, my father asked me what I wanted and I said, “I want you to open this bench!” He took me and the bench in our station wagon to a local locksmith who, after what seemed to me like hours, finally got it open. And there they were—stacks of faded staff paper, with melodies and words all in Beulah’s own hand, along with her diaries. A budding musician myself, I took the discovery home, figured out her songs sitting on the very bench where she wrote them, and fell in deeply in love. I decided that I must grow up and become a famous singer so that I might bring her story and her songs back to the world where they belonged. So here at last, with love and hopefully a fair amount of accuracy, are the songs of Beulah Rowley.”
Mary Lee Kortes’s The Songs of Beulah Rowley is a uniquely personal creation, in which the acclaimed New York singer-songwriter channels the spirit of Beulah Rowley, a young Depression-era songstress whose life and songs carry a timeless emotional resonance and embody universal themes. Although she is the product of Kortes’s fertile imagination, Beulah and her songs have the unmistakable ring of truth.
The long-gestating project first began to take form several years ago. Having already released four internationally aclaimed albums of her original compositions with her band Mary Lee’s Corvette, as well as a cult-classic album-length interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Kortes was looking for new creative inspiration.
“Beulah took up residence in my head and heart several years ago, and she’s been very patient,” the artist explains. “I was on tour in the U.K. and went to bed in London one night, thinking about what to do for my next record. When I woke up in the morning, there she was: Beulah Rowley. I immediately started writing ‘Born A Happy Girl.’ I came home from the tour and wrote her short bio, then started writing songs ‘by’ her. I worked on the project on and off for quite a while and whenever I came back to it, there she was, alive and well, and ready.
“Originally, I thought that her story would simply be liner notes in a CD package. But after I started sharing it with people, other possibilities begged to be explored. I’ve performed it in many different settings—big band, small band, rock venue or sitting in someone’s office—but the story and songs seem to speak to audiences no matter how or where I perform them.”
Before Kortes had even decided how to present it to the public, the project had taken on a life of its own. A copy of her synopsis reached Judith Dolan, Associate Dean of Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. Dolan was so taken with the story that she assigned it to her graduate theatre design class, whose students presented it as a live stage production. Encouraged by the positive response but lacking the funds for a full-on theatrical presentation, Kortes mounted several sold-out performances of the songs and narration with her band at Manhattan’s Cell Theatre. The rapturous audience response convinced her that she was on the right track, and she began formulating plans to record The Songs of Beulah Rowley as her next studio album.
The project came several steps closer to fruition when visionary producer Hal Wilmer took a personal interest, and offered to help Kortes bring Beulah Rowley’s songs and story to life.
“Working with Hal was tremendous fun, and the recording process felt absolutely magical,” Kortes notes. “As a songwriter, I appreciated how much he worked from the lyric sheets and was always very focused on letting the story come through and shine. This record is an attempt to tell a bit of the Beulah Rowley tale, present some of her poetry and a number of her songs in an engaging and poignant way. We didn’t want to lean on any of the clichéd old-timey stuff, yet we wanted to pay homage to that era while adding modern elements to the music.”
Although she first began writing songs and poetry while growing up in Portland, Michigan, Kortes had no intention of pursuing a musical career when she moved to New York. But her vocal talents soon won her work as a session singer, and her nascent songwriting efforts paid off when her composition “Everywhere I Go” became a hit for pop-country star Amy Grant.
Kortes’s own recording efforts began with the musically spare, self-released 1996 EP Mary Lee’s Corvette. Despite minimal promotion and sparse distribution, the homespun disc won substantial national attention. She continued to expand her fan base and artistic reach with 1999’s True Lovers of Adventure, 2003’s 700 Miles and 2006’s Love, Loss and Lunacy.
Kortes acheived a surprise breakthrough with her 2002 release Blood on the Tracks: Recorded Live at Arlene’s Grocery, a personalized song-for-song reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s classic LP of the same name. She had initially issued the disc herself, with the intention of selling a few copies at gigs and on her website. But word quickly spread across the internet and in Dylan fan circles, igniting a groundswell of grass-roots demand that led to a wider mainstream release of the album, substantial worldwide sales, and a slot opening for Dylan himself.
Meanwhile, Kortes’s talents as a singer have led to her contributing backing vocals to albums by a dizzying array of artists ranging from folk-pop diva Jewel to legendary salsa king Tito Puente to opera star Placido Domingo to alt-garage-rockers Rocket from the Crypt, as well as releases by such friends and peers as Laura Cantrell, Marshall Crenshaw, Thea Gilmore, Freedy Johnston and the Bottle Rockets.
Her prior achievements aside, Kortes feel particularly passionately towards The Songs of Beulah Rowley. “To me, the main theme is that our voices may be heard, whether we know it or not. The centerpiece song for me is ‘Will Anybody Know That I Was Here?’ Another implicit theme is the power of music, how it can sustain people, how it survives through time and continues to be relevant and life-giving. I love the idea of music being handed down from another generation, and being a kind of savior that changes and enlarges one’s own life.
“The cycle of writing songs for records that were supposed to be from my voice, having to believe that that voice was important and worth listening to, and then having to enter into the relentless frenzy of self-involvement and self-promotion lost its appeal for me. I started enjoying writing for/as Beulah much more. I came to view Beulah as a rescuer of sorts. Perhaps my own voice won’t be heard that far and wide, but maybe hers will.”