A life in song: Carmen Gillespie’s playlist

Poet, scholar-teacher, friend, and mother, Carmen Gillespie, who taught at Bucknell University for 13 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly this past August. In each of these roles she soared and touched an infinite number of lives. 

Carmen Gillespie (1965-2019) a beloved poet, teacher, friend, and mother who appreciated popular music of all kinds.

Carmen Gillespie (1965-2019) a beloved poet, teacher, friend, and mother who appreciated popular music of all kinds.

We knew each other for over 20 years. One of our most intimate connections was a shared love of music, film, theatre, the visual arts, and literature. Here, I reflect on our mutual passion for music in various forms—pre-rock popular standards, radio hits, Broadway and Off-Broadway repertoire, film songs and beyond. Whether cruising in a car, or lounging around the house, music always filled the atmosphere. Some of our most memorable adventures have included seeing Rent performed in Washington D.C., watching performances of Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd during a 2002 Stephen Sondheim revival, and hearing jazz vocalist Diane Schuur sing out in Bethesda, Maryland, among others. It’s important to share some of the contents of these conversations so they are not lost. Below, I walk through “Carmen’s Playlist” to illuminate an important dimension of her life.


“Over the Rainbow” (Judy Garland, 1939)


Carmen’s favorite motion picture was 1939’s Wizard of Oz defined by Judy Garland’s epic rendition of Harold Arlen’s beloved theme “Over the Rainbow.” As many times as other vocal artists have interpreted the song (Eva Cassidy’s 1992 rendition was a favorite of Carmen’s, for example), Judy’s version reigned supreme for Carmen.


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Ella and Louis (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1956)

 Carmen loved the peerless musicianship and effortless chemistry between these two beloved jazz masters. She often wondered if any contemporary singers could ever approach their sublime sound. This question remains an open challenge.


“Touch Me in the Morning” (Diana Ross, 1973)

“Theme from Mahogany (Do You know Where You’re Going To)” (Diana Ross, 1976)

Carmen and I often discussed her profound fascination with the 1970s, especially for African-Americans. For her, movies like Car Wash, new musicals such as The Wiz, and the budding popularity of icons like The Jackson Five, represented a renewed sense of optimism for African-Americans. She was especially interested in singer, actress, and icon Diana Ross. Years after propelling The Supremes to the forefront of American pop in the mid-1960s, Ross went solo in 1969. Along with admiring her bravura performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Carmen appreciated Mahogany’s status as the rare screenplay to focus on the aspirations of a black female character.  She also found pleasures in the campy nature of songs with spoken passages, notably Ross’s 1973 hit “Touch Me in the Morning.”


“ABC” (The Jackson 5, 1970)

 “I’ll Be There” (Jackson 5, 1970)

“Never Can Say Goodbye” (Jackson 5, 1971)

Carmen was born in 1965 and grew up with the Jackson Five, whose precocious lead singer, Michael Jackson, left a deep impression on Carmen. An avid fan of 1970s pop, she adored Michael as a member of the J5 and as a solo vocalist. The J5 transcended music, appearing in a popular Saturday cartoon (The Jackson 5ive which aired for one season), on the cover of teen magazines, and inspiring imitators like The Osmonds. Her admiration for Jackson extended into his solo career, including key songs from Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous.

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Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder, 1976)

 Carmen’s favorite album of all time was Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. Wonder spent over a year working on the album, which appeared as a double album with a four song EP. A pivotal album for popular music, it was the first album by a U.S. artist to debut at number one on the albums/LP charts, won four Grammys, including Album of the Year, and has influenced generations of artists. “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “As” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “If It’s Magic” would uplift any album as single recordings. The fact that each of these classics appeared on a single album is a marvel. Carmen recognized the album’s vibrancy most poignantly on Wonder’s epic ode to the power of love, “As” which she often quoted and sang in a very lively fashion.


Sign “O” the Times (Prince, 1987)

 Prince’s mastery of funk, rock, soul, and pop forms, dazzled Carmen who was adamant about his “genius” status. Though he was a prolific artist with a vast discography, she was most impressed by “his double album Sign O’ the Times. Though the lean Purple Rain soundtrack is my personal favorite of his, she always insisted that more of Prince (more songs, longer songs, more jams) was always better. It’s hard to argue with an album that included “Adore,” “U Got the Look,” “Hot Thang,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and the topical title track.  

Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Volume 2 (Jill Scott, 2004)

Like many discriminating listeners we fell in love with the words and music of Ms. Jill Scott around 2000 when her debut dropped. Beyond all the “neo-soul” clichés people may have applied to her, Jill was everything—jazz, gospel, poetry, theater, and glorious black womanhood. As much as Carmen loved her debut, she was smitten with the songs of her second studio album. “I’m Not Afraid,” “Golden,” and “My Petition” were signature Jill Scott anthems Carmen enjoyed. She was especially attuned to the political and ethical nuances of Scott’s Bush era anthem “My Petition.”


“Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” medley, (Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, The Judy Garland Show; originally broadcast in 1963)

Arguably, the two most iconic singing actresses film of our time singing two of their defining songs together is a kind of surreal vocal heaven. Carmen loved their two voices harmonizing together, flowing side-by-side holding hands. She loved playing songs on YouTube and regularly pulled up Barbra and Judy’s iconic moment. The duet appears in multiple places including Streisand’s 2002 Duets collection and Garland’s 1964 compilation That Old Feeling: Classic Ballads from the Judy Garland Show (Live).


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Sweet Honey in the Rock (collected works)

The beautiful, booming voice of Bernice Johnson Reagon felt like home for Carmen. Johnson Reagon, who began her career singing in the SNCC Freedom Singers in the 1960s, founded the four piece vocal ensemble group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. The group’s voluminous stylistic range incorporated a sweeping range of influences, from gospel to folk to jazz, and though Johnson Reagon retired from the group in 2004, the group persists as a recording and performing ensemble.  Carmen was adamant about exposing her family and friends to the ensemble’s intricate vocal harmonies and uplifting lyric perspective.


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Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast, 2015).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s celebrated multicultural, hip-hop musical regarding the life of Alexander Hamilton was a sign of life for Carmen that the music of Broadway, which she has always respected, remained a vital cultural force. Before viewing the musical in person, Carmen, and her daughters, committed the lyrics, melodies, and rhythms to their memories. For Carmen, it was especially meaningful to visit Hamilton’s birthplace in Nevis with students during an annual summer abroad trip to the Caribbean, and explore the unfulfilled promise of democracy.


Other recordings Carmen enjoyed included Eva Cassidy’s “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Azure,” Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” k.d. lang’s “Skylark,” Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New,” and “Seasons of Love” various artists from the original cast recording of Rent. Her personal musical canon was complex, unpredictable and formidable, much like the woman herself.


To learn more about the works of Dr. Gillespie please visit her website: https://www.carmengillespie.org/