Singer/Songwriter Rachel Burns Healing Generational Trauma Through Feminist Lyrics

Singer/songwriter Rachel Burns. Image by Libby Danforth

By Rachel Burns

Someone once told me that if you speak the truth, you can heal seven generations ahead of you and seven generations behind you. As a songwriter, I hold this sentiment in all of my songwriting and have kernels of truth weaved into each song. For the most part, I write silly cabaret-style feminist satire songs, like “Mansplainin” and “Tiny Hands.”

There are truths in these songs, but the truth is more hidden inside the dry humor of my lyrics. However, when I wrote “Pollyanna’s Lament,” I spoke more seriously and directly to the truth in hopes of healing some of the generational trauma that preceded me, but also for my two daughters. 

Backing up a bit, I am a singer/songwriter from Washington, DC, who writes feminist songs. I also am a mother to two wonderful girls and a breast cancer survivor of 10 years. My grandmother also was a two time breast cancer survivor and lived until she was in her mid-80s. She was regal, smart, and always happy. As a grandmother, she was patient, kind, loving, and devoted.

She taught me how to read, spent weekends taking me to the Smithsonian, and later taught me how to sew. She sewed all of her clothes herself; she always wore suits that looked like they were from Chanel, but she, in fact, sewed them all herself. Sewing was one of the many examples of ways she adapted to make lemonade out of a bucket of lemons. 

My grandmother was born in 1909. At that time, a popular novel was out called Pollyanna. Pollyanna was a fictional character that was orphaned and crippled and had to live with an aunt that didn’t love her nearly half as much as her parents did, but she never complained, always was “glad” and always helped everyone out that she met.

My grandmother was so similar-she too was orphaned at age 16, and lived with aunts and in boarding schools, but managed to be independent, graduate from college, and get a job writing and traveling by herself for Parents magazine and teaching drama in the 1930s. After her parents died, she decided never to complain again and appeared to be happy and upbeat no matter what life threw at her. I have even found writings of hers expressing how she must always maintain the appearance of happiness.

She married my grandfather, and it wasn’t the best for her. He controlled her access to money-giving her an allowance of $5/week, and didn’t allow her to drive anymore. He moved the family around often for new jobs and left for stretches of time to follow jobs in remote places-leaving my grandmother to raise three kids on her own, and find a job and housing to support the family. She learned to sew her own clothes, budget herself carefully and take the METRO, in high heels, a lot. She was so much like the fictional Pollyanna, always putting a smile on her face no matter what troubles life brought her. 

One morning at 4am I woke up with a haunting melody in my head. I felt my grandmother’s presence and went downstairs to my piano. My hands started playing almost by themselves, and soon the lyrics felt as if they were whispered in my head. By the time the kids woke up, I had finished the song and felt as if the song were her words of regret. The refrain of, “It never crossed my mind, I was so blind, it never crossed, it should’ve crossed, it could’ve crossed my mind,” in the chorus repeats until the end when she speaks of her final regret that all along she could have just left.

Regrets are paved on the road of “ould’ves” and I was thankful to illustrate that in this song. After I wrote the piece, I felt the arc of the song was similar to the famous Purcell aria, “Dido’s Lament,” where Dido finally laments her final wishes before she dies. I also felt the archetype of Pollyanna and imagined that this was her voice in a confessional, vulnerable moment when she laments that all along, she should have stood up for herself, spoken her truth, or even just realized that she had the ability to empower herself inside all along-she just had to acknowledge it instead of burying it. And so I named it “Pollyanna’s Lament.”

Singer/songwriter Rachel Burns. Image by Libby Danforth

As a breast cancer survivor, I know deeply, as women, how we hold inside things we wish we would just speak out loud. We hold onto hidden truths and even sometimes deny they are there as a way of negotiating our world. Sometimes as women, we go along to get along as a way of fitting in or accepting things we are scared to change.

Even though my grandmother never spoke about the things that were sad in her life, as a two-time breast cancer survivor, and with all the grief she experienced in her life I believe she held some deep sadness and truths internally. She tended to bury and deny they existed because, at that time, it wasn’t acceptable to stand up for herself, and so she believed it was the best way she could function and negotiate her life. She forgot that all along, she was an independent, strong, and wonderfully powerful woman.

As a songwriter, I hope I voiced her regrets in a healing way as well as hope I created a song that my children can listen to at a time in the future that serves as a warning, a guide, or a healing. As a mom who faced cancer early on in my role as a mother, I realize that I may not be here forever to guide them through all the life stuff throws at them. But through my songs, I hope I can map out a guide for them in case I’m not here to say, “Hey, don’t feel stuck, there’s always another path to take if the path you are on isn’t working. You have the power all along, anyhow-you are a strong, independent, and powerful woman-just listen to your gut, for it always speaks the truth, and let your instincts guide you.” 

Rachel Burns truly is a Wonder Woman, figuratively and literally. The cancer-surviving mother of two has been an outspoken activist both on the streets, where for years she dressed in a Wonder Woman costume protesting the Trump administration, and in her music – using her voice as a beacon of positivity and a vessel for change. She is a graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music with a degree in Classical Vocal Performance, and has captivated audiences with a mix of pop, country, jazz, and blues songs. After 25 years working in business and playing music on the side, Rachel found her calling as a songwriter: 2022 saw the release of her debut EP ‘LIVING MY BREAST LIFE’, a five-track collection that employed a mix of humor and hope to tell her breast cancer story in a unique way. For Rachel, songwriting is her way of celebrating life and spreading joy. She brings that same animated spirit and unique personality to her sophomore EP ‘WHAT A NASTY WOMAN,’ out July 7, 2023, a record of resilience and protesting the patriarchy while celebrating the power of feminism. You can follow Rachel on Instagram, TikTok and listen to her music on Spotify.