Professor Mark Simos

Mark Simos, associate professor of Songwriting

Mark Simos is an associate professor in the Songwriting Department whose songwriting credits include Alison Krauss and Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes. A guitarist and fiddler, Simos’s writing and teaching styles both focus on diverse perspectives—honing one’s own voice, but always being open to new directions.

At a recent panel open to the Berklee community responding to the ongoing news concerning Ferguson, Missouri, two Berklee faculty members, Jetro da Silva and Mark Simos, shared a story of collaboration. The following is Simos’s account of how he came to be inspired by his colleague.

In mid-August 2014, as tragic events in Ferguson were unfolding, I was following a number of posts on Facebook, including those of my Berklee faculty colleague, Jetro da Silva. I had only met Jetro in passing, with a few polite handshakes. But I’d heard him play, and was in awe of his musicianship, as I am with so many Berklee colleagues—faculty and students alike. I remember one piece he played on piano, where my wife (at the concert with me) and I turned to each other, marveling at the deep, sonorous time he took between chords—profound, expansive, contemplative.

As I was reading one of Jetro’s posts, this phrase leaped out to me: “If I am walking unarmed in the streets do not arrest or shoot me only because I am a black man…. Ask me who I am. I may be your kids’ teacher.” Somehow this struck home to me. I pictured Jetro and me walking a city street together; me stepping into a corner store for a coffee, Jetro waiting outside—and suddenly being not Jetro da Silva, musical giant and hero, but just some “big scary black dude” in the eyes of a police officer or a stranger passing by.

Well, you can’t very well drop a phrase like “Ask me who I am…” to a songwriter and expect to get away with it! My songwriting students know I’m a fanatic for catching “song seeds”—little phrases and inspirations that can serve as focused starting points for songs. Recently I’ve been writing songs, and starting collaborations, from song seeds from social media (even former students are not safe from me on Facebook; I may read a status update from some unsuspecting alumnus/a in Nashville and fire off: “Song seed there—write that song!”). So this phrase, and the image it evoked for me, got me off and running. I finished the lyrics lying in bed—typing away with my clumsy fingers on my iPhone—then sent them off to Jetro to let him know his words had reached me.

I wasn’t sure how he’d react. After all, I was speaking from a point of view I can’t authentically own from my own experience. But that’s what songwriting often is anyway—an attempt to walk a while in others’ shoes, supporting the effort as best we can with imagination, research, or just listening to others’ words. I’m delighted that Jetro liked the lyrics. He encouraged me to put them to music—as they were intended from the start as song lyrics, not poetry. I hope this will turn into a finished piece of music to be heard, and some other people may find themselves pulled into the collaboration before we’re done! For now, here are the lyrics and the “genesis tale” to go with them:

© 2014 Mark Simos (Devachan Music, BMI) / Jetro da Silva (Cushite Music Publishing, administered by Capital Christian Music Group) (V2 – 11/26/14)

Ask me who I am
Because you do not know me
I may be your children’s teacher
Or the doctor for their mommy
I may be the man who braves the flames
When it’s your house that’s burning
Or the pastor who dissuades a
Troubled soul toward violence turning
Believe without inquiring
And the doors of knowledge slam
Oh, let those doors swing open; I sing:
Ask me who I am

Ask me who I am
And hasten not to judge me
For the law’s hand is not gentle
When it stretches out to touch me
And by more than court or judge alone
Is judgment’s cold work done;
Ask who I am
When I sit in your classroom
Seek a business loan
Or buy the house next door to you
When I call you sir or ma’am
Can you not wait to name me till you
Ask me who I am?

Ask me who I am
Before you reach to bind me
For the color of my skin
Cannot begin to define me
Though the fire of fear be all around
We do not need to feed it
Mistrust may whisper
Rage call out its cold command
Don’t heed it
Let our swords be beat to plowshares
Lion lie down with lamb
Peace starts with a question:
Ask me who I am

Lesley Mahoney
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