Southern Girls Rock Camp
Sarah Bandy is changing lives and empowering youth, three chords at time
Using a multi-colored ribbon in an attempt to occupy Sausage, her 1-year-old Himalayan cat, Sarah Bandy looks through her purple glasses frames and shakes her head. “He’s half Siamese and half Persian,” Bandy says.
Sausage seems mildly amused as his “mother” continues to try, unsuccessfully, to stop him from attempts to participate in the morning’s conversation in her tidy home in the Brick Church Pike area.
“We adopted Sausage,” Bandy says, noting that her partner/boyfriend Tommy Stangroom is the “dad” of the frisky feline. “He’s a great drummer,” she says, meaning Stangroom rather than the cat. “He plays in a band, Supermelt. He sells cymbals,” she says. “He’s on a business trip to Texas today.”
Bandy, 31, continues doing her best to keep Sausage from interfering in the conversation. The room around her is filled with vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and images of her musical heroines captured in what could be easiest termed as folk art. It’s the perfect setting for someone who has given her life over to helping young women — and a few guys, too — learn how to live by playing rock & roll.
The comfortable one-story perched on an acre is a perfect fit, Bandy says, noting that this was the first and last house she looked at when she was ready to sink roots three years ago. “I saw it, and it looked just like the old Polaroid square picture of the home in Baltimore where my mother grew up.”
So, naturally, she stopped her real estate search and bought it, knowing she’d found home. She is obviously not shy about making emotional attachments. Oh, of course, now the home’s interior decoration is similar to that found in the bungalows and ranchers and glorified sheds of most East Side musicians. At least except for the valved gizmo she had installed on the one toilet. “That’s a bidet,” she says. “You’ve got to have some luxury.”
Sausage, the cat, simply keeps his bright, blue eyes focused on the ribbon as his mother talks about Southern Girls Rock Camp and how she was introduced to the cause that now occupies her professional days and populates her personal dreams.
“I was visiting a friend in Murfreesboro,” says Bandy. “That was back in 2007 and a friend of mine from the College of Charleston was living in Murfreesboro, and she was volunteering at the [Southern Girls Rock Camp]. She said I should go over to MTSU and teach the girls.”
A harp player who bends the angelic tones by using guitar pedals (she is finishing up a tape of her tunes, she says), Bandy’s first love is Brazilian jazz and the music of North Africa, like that of late Nigerian Afrobeat king and societal saddle burr Fela Kuti. But her world really spins around rock music.
In fact, a mural painted on her office wall in the back part of her tidy house shows Nina Simone, Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell. She points out the mural was painted by Sandy Gonzalez, a volunteer teacher and more or less the camp’s art director.
“They are the godmothers,” Bandy says of the three women in the mural. She uses them as examples when teaching her young charges at Southern Girls Rock Camp and its coed offspring, Tennessee Teens Rock Camp about what she calls “the herstory” of popular music.
While there are basically identical offerings in 85 locations worldwide, Murfreesboro’s Rock Camp, founded in 2003, was the second of the week long programs that is open to girls 10 to 17. The Murfreesboro program was directly fashioned after the original camp. A dream birthed in 2001 in Portland, Oregon, by Sleater-Kinney indie musician and TV’s Portlandia actress Carrie Brownstein. The goal was to empower girls through music — and that remains the mission as additional rock camps continue to sprout up.
It must be noted that while Bandy is the highlighted heroine of this story, the seed for this flourishing series of camps in Middle Tennessee was planted in 2003 by student Kelley Anderson. She organized that first year’s camp as a joint project by Women for Women, a female empowerment group on the MTSU campus that would become the current June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students.
After Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in recording industry production from MTSU in 2005, she along with fellow Rock Campers Jessi Zazu and Nikki Kvarnes, formed Those Darlins, a Nashville band that mixed country, rock and punk to international acclaim.
But we should go back to the summer of 2007, when an punk-powered epiphany struck Bandy during her first day at the Southern Girls Rock Camp.
“I walked into the camp at Murfreesboro in 2007. I was super-duper nervous,” Bandy remembers of the day that led her to throw her life full-speed into using musical learning and camaraderie to help young people learn to grow, to mature and to understand our differences by realizing we all are the same.
“I peeked into this classroom at MTSU. [The girls in that room] were were playing ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ by Iggy Pop,” she recalls of the song originally recorded by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Stooges, aka Iggy and The Stooges.
As those girls were pounding out the three guitar chords of that distortion-heavy, classic heavy-metal, punk tale, “I looked in there and it was there that I realized these girls are in charge of themselves in a way that I was not,” she says.
While it’s difficult to define any Stooges song as an anthem, “Dog” could be called an ode to in-the-moment, blindly unfettered-by-gender- typecasting, immediate sexual gratification. It pretty much fit the scene Bandy encountered.
“Being a woman, there are a lot of issues you inherently have with your body,” Bandy says. “They weren’t thinking about any of that. That would just slow them down.”
The girls banging away on The Stooges’ metal- sex-punk masterwork “weren’t worried about, ‘This boy thinks I’m fat.’ Or, ‘I should look like this magazine.’ Or, ‘What would my dad think of me doing this?’” Bandy recalls.
Instead, the guitars, drums, and vocals spoke more of both independence and camaraderie and their effects on female empowerment and diversity, be it sexual identity, race, economic background, or whatever. And, of course, it came all wrapped up in a playful shroud of rock & roll music, that, of course, “has a backbeat you can’t lose it. . . . ”
So, enamored of the experience, Bandy volunteered. Then, as an apostle of the concept, she went home to Charleston, her family hometown, and began a camp there.
“I went home, and I copied it,” Bandy says. “I did it with six other people.”
Similar pods began to spring up elsewhere to the point where “there is a Girls Camp Alliance now. . . . It kind of exploded all over the world,” Bandy says. “I helped run the Charleston program for a few years. Eventually, it was more self-sustaining. It was more successful. More volunteers were accepting it.”
When the young apostle of the Girls Rock Camp movement was ready to leave her home town there was really just one place she wanted to relocate and enlist in the spreading of the good word of rock empowerment.
“I moved to Nashville where I kind of crashed on [college friend Jodie Rosenblum’s] couch for about three months or so until I found my own place.”
With a goal of working at Rock Camp she was aided in her dream by Olivia Scibelli, the volunteer co-director of Nashville camps. Their goal of bolstering the Rock Camp beyond Murfreesboro and into Music City was boosted thanks to YEAH! (Youth Empowerment through Arts and Humanities), a Nashville- based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“There was an opening at YEAH! for a Rock Camp program director,” Bandy says. “I did that for a year or so and eventually the YEAH! executive director left, and I took that position.”
For a while, Bandy was running YEAH!, working with Scibelli for Rock Camp, and writing as many grant proposals as possible. Through that grant writing, she pulled in enough funding to hire program director Hailey Rowe, now in her third year on the team, and office manager Jess Hawthorne, who over eight years, has been part of Rock Camp as a volunteer, then staffer.
Rowe and Hawthorne both fit the often-followed- pattern of former Rock Campers working as volunteers: “One in five volunteers used to be a camper,” says Bandy.
As noted, the Murfreesboro camp has been going on 16 years, and the Nashville camp has been around for four years. And then there’s the offshoot coed Tennessee Teens Rock Camp, now in its eighth year.
Of course, the Murfreesboro camp remains at MTSU. The other two are held at Vanderbilt University’s Sarratt Student Center with Southern Girls (Nashville), July 9-14; Tennessee Teens (Nashville), July 16-20; and Southern Girls (Murfreesboro), July 23-29. The camp fee is $320 per pupil, but through grant-writing and donations, funds are available so that no one has been turned down for inability to pay, according to Bandy. Scholarships are given based on need, with some students receiving full scholarships.
“We have 50 [students] per camp, and we have never turned away a kid due to lack of funds,” she says.
Bandy professes pride in the fact the camps are so welcoming, since she spends so much of her time raising funds and asking for donations so all can be involved, no matter their wealth and taste or social status.
In addition, the camps are a safe and welcoming place where young people who still are sorting out their gender identities are just another part of the unusual quilt of personality holding the camp concept together. As Bandy says, one of the goals of the camp is to put students together with students who “they normally wouldn’t be around” in their daily lives.
The highlight of the camps is young people learning to gel through rock music, with a sort of playground pick-’em format used to bring five students together for each group. Drums, guitars, bass and microphones are provided, and the campers, regardless of skill level, learn to play together. It all culminates in a band showcase at community-minded rock star Jack White’s Third Man Records Blue Room performance venue.
Bandy points out her three-person team does work year-round, with programs in the schools and other YEAH!-sponsored learning and performance opportunities. Dedicated volunteers from the music community, in particular, throw in their time, talent and space for all the programs. That giving spirit hits its peak in the summer, when about 35 people volunteer to help facilitate the camps.
Though some of the Rock Camp bands have gone on to perform as professional units, Bandy stresses the talent-level is not as important as willingness to participate, fully, in the proceedings, from the strumming, to the sharing, to the philosophizing.
“They learn to interact with other kids they may not interact with at school. They learn problem-solving. They write a great song. . . . It puts kids in a place where they can make mistakes. It gets rid of the idea that you have to be an expert,” she says. “Making mistakes means you are learning. It is by making mistakes that people grow.”
She adds that, because the campers are minors, they have not for the most part seen live bands in performance before. Every lunch hour during camp, that is remedied by local musicians putting on showcases for the young people.
But, really, when it comes right down to it, while the camps are about music, they also have as a goal teaching the young people about social justice, giving them a non-conforming place to share their concerns and learn of differences, similarities, and equality.
Bandy uses the recent slaughter of young people out at an Antioch Waffle House as an example of things that could or would be addressed in this idealistic community the camps help create.
“Kids know about it. They all have feelings about it,” she says of the massacre of young adults who were basically the Rock Camp musicians’ and volunteers’ peers. The kids may feel uncomfortable discussing their fears around the family dinner table, but “we are giving them a place to talk about that and to share,” Bandy says. “Making a safe place where they can make music together is very important, but the music is just the starting-off point.
“The point of Rock Camp is to connect them and have them make music together and use their voices. It is collaboration over competition. You can play in a warehouse or play in the biggest rock venues, but what matters are you are being yourself.”
Sausage’s blue eyes continue to shine as he plays with the multi-colored ribbon, basically entertaining his mom while she does this interview and shares her hopes and dreams. Bandy smiles as she notes that the next day she and some of her volunteers — again, mostly members of the music community — are going to be moving drum kits and other camp gear from one storage location to another that is more accessible, right in the middle of East Nashville.
“Maybe I’m naïve,” she says, looking through her purple spectacles frames. “Music is just a tool. Kids, using their voices, are better equipped to save the world.”