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Labor of love produces songs of hope
By: Steve Feitl , Managing Editor 05/20/2004

Parkinson's benefit CD continues family tribute.

   There's a new collection featuring singer-songwriters showing up in record stores across the country and online music outlets. And while a double-CD set featuring well-known artists like Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby and Graham Nash will surely have national appeal, the genesis of the album can be traced all the way back to an English classroom at Lawrence High School.
   That's where former Lawrence resident Selma Litowitz taught for 20 years. She retired to confront a battle more challenging than any Shakespearean translation — her own fight with Parkinson's disease. It is something she continues to struggle with 15 years later.
   "ParkinSong Volume 1: 38 Songs on Hope," is a musical benefit released May 11 by the ParkinSong Foundation Inc., a Princeton-based nonprofit organization that supports the search for innovative therapies for Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disease for which there is no known cure. The foundation was formed by Ms. Litowitz's children in 2001.
   "This CD is part of an evolution that began with my sisters and my desire to come up with a way to honor my parents and their struggles with Parkinson's," said son Rob Litowitz of his efforts with sisters, Debbie Frank and Carol Golden.
   The siblings initially created two benefit concerts, the first of which was hosted in 2001 by Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Mr. Stewart graduated from LHS in 1980, and was a proud student of Ms. Litowitz, often noting she was the only teacher who ever liked him as a budding comedian in high school. A second concert was held the next year with Philadelphia rock DJ Pierre Robert at the helm.
   Using music in their mother's honor seemed like a natural fit, Mr. Litowitz said.
   "I think people respond to music," he said. "It's an emotional and visceral vehicle. My mother was someone who loved music. She wasn't a musician, but was someone with a song in her heart."
   While the concerts were big successes, raising tens of thousands of dollars for Parkinson's research, they also took a toll on the siblings in terms of logistics and organization.
   That's when the concept of the benefit album came to Mr. Litowitz.
   "I naively set out upon the idea of making it happen," he said. "I used Verizon's slogan, 'Make progress every day.' I figured if I do a little every day, I can see if I can make this happen."
   He was lucky to receive overwhelming support from the music industry. Artists like Ana Egge and Grey Eye Glances that performed at the benefit concerts were generous in providing selections for the set. Lloyd Maines, the father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, came on board as producer. Soon, the fledgling project had 38 tracks and ballooned to a double-disc collection.
   The musical selection spans numerous genres, starting with the warm harmonica introduction to alt-country star Terri Hendrix's "Goodbye Charlie Brown," and shifting through many folk transitions before winding up with Alejandro Escovedo's frenetic "Castanets."
   "There's all different styles, but what holds it all together is the storytelling," said Ms. Egge, who contributed the track, "Wedding Dress," from her album, "101 Sundays." "All the songs seem passionate to me. The songwriters are clearly trying to communicate something to the listener. It's a crazy time right now and people are looking for meaning."
   With six of the songs either recorded for ParkinSong or previously unreleased, many of the older works were selected with special care to the overall theme of the album. Many offer uplifting tones such as "Lucky Day," by the adult alternative trio, Stone Coyotes. "Whatever you do, don't be discouraged/Do you hear the words we say?" they sing, "Something might be coming around the corner/This could be your lucky day."
   Ms. Egge's song, "Wedding Dress," doesn't offer a literal tie to Parkinson's, but rather a tale of a woman struggling to come to terms with her own family experiences falling short of the dream of marriage. But it is Ms. Raitt's contribution that caught Ms. Egge's ear.
   "Fearless Love" kicks off the second disc and features the Grammy-winning artist's 1998 portrait of commitment despite any necessary sacrifices.
   "It sounds like it came off one of her earliest records, which were my favorites when I was growing up," said the 27-year-old Ms. Egge. "It's so beautiful. It just pulls you in."
   And several of the songs do relate directly of the struggles of Parkinson's, including Crosby and Nash's 1975 ode to Mr. Crosby's mother, "Carry Me," and Tom Russell's "Muhammad Ali," a tribute to the proud former heavyweight boxing champion, who also has Parkinson's. Eastmountainsouth's "Mark Song," is dedicated to Ms. Litowitz's husband, Mark.
   The most direct line may be drawn by Dave Alvin, a Los Angeles punk/rockabilly artist, who offers a personal account of his own father's struggle with the disease on "The Man in the Bed."
   Written from his father's perspective, the exclusive version of the song tackles the effects of Parkinson's with honesty, strength and even a sense of humor. "The nurse over there doesn't know that I ain't some helpless so-and-so/I could have broken her heart not that long ago," Mr. Alvin sings, "Young and wild like I'll always be/The man in the bed isn't me."
   The compilation already drew mentions in Billboard and Rolling Stone, and Mr. Stewart agreed to promote the album through an interview with the Associated Press. Joining the promotional push is television actor Richard Kind, who grew up in Yardley, Pa., and worked on the TV show, "Spin City," with actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's.
   Finding people willing to go to bat for the cause hasn't been a problem for Mr. Litowitz, who noted that the celebrities and music artists seem to react strongly to what they see as a "labor of love."
   It was something Ms. Egge realized early on, meeting Ms. Litowitz for the first time at the 2001 benefit concert.
   "She's affected so many people's lives for the better," Ms. Egge said. "The way that people responded to the benefits speaks amazingly about the way people think of her."
   The effort — from the original concert to the new album — has also gotten a positive reaction from Mr. Litowitz's parents.
   "They've really been touched by it," Mr. Litowitz said. "It's a way of fighting back against the disease and the toll it's taken. It's a way of doing something positive out of something that has been quite devastating."
   A scientific advisory board will assist the foundation in selecting appropriate grant recipients as a result of the album's proceeds. And Mr. Litowitz hasn't ruled out a second compilation in the future — assuming this first effort is successful.
   So he hopes people give "ParkinSong Volume 1," a chance, even if they aren't familiar with names that aren't fixtures on pop radio.
   "It is a who's who of the greatest American singer-songwriters today," Mr. Litowitz said. "Not only will purchasing this album help Parkinson's research, but you'll also have two hours of great music."

For more information on "ParkinSong Volume 1" or the foundation itself, visit

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