A troubadour for peace
Songwriter Cecilia St. King's acoustic pop music took a fundamental turn on Sept. 11, 2001. "In my early 20s, I sang about love and relationships," St. King says. "Typically, I was discovering myself as an adult. I wrote on a personal level."
That changed after she witnessed the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center.
"I was downtown paying a parking ticket," St. King says, and begins to weep. "It was horrific. People started running away. I saw the second building explode, and I saw people leaping to their deaths on the street."
St. King's plans to leave the next day for Nashville came to a halt as the city and its airports shut down.
"The city was so quiet afterward," she says. "There were no horns honking, no screaming. It was as if the city was holding a silent vigil for itself."
St. King and others who wanted to volunteer their help headed to the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
"There were young men being transported to Ground Zero to work, and older women who helped with food. I'm a singer, so I sang," St. King says.
As she sang, others in the crowd stood up and asked to sing songs.
"A woman from Bulgaria asked to sing," St. King says. "And a guy from the Ukraine. One man, from Spain, who spoke broken English, asked a girl from the Bronx to recite one of his poems.
"Everywhere, I could see humankind measuring up. I could see that we are one big family, and I knew that we would get through the dark time together."
The next night, St. King visited a park in Greenwich Village.
"Hundreds of people were gathered there," St. King says. "They sat quietly holding candles. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of surrender to a situation completely out of control. I started to play my guitar and move to the center of the crowd. I was singing 'An Eye for an Eye,' written by Christian songwriter Vaughn Penn. The lyric was 'I'm not going to hate, even if I ache inside. I'm not going to hurt someone, even if it's justified. I'm not going to lie, even if I've been deceived. An eye for an eye is not the life I choose to lead.'
"Everyone started singing the song with me," St. King says. "And I thought, if my music could transcend pain, then I was doing a job."
Still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks, St. King was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about six months later.
"If you've ever dealt with cancer, you know that it stops you in your tracks," St. King says. "I'd been in the music business for a number of years. I'd stopped singing for a long time because I was tired of the industry. Music is all about business in Nashville. But when I was faced with the reality that I may never sing again, I saw it as a gift."
Things happened pretty fast for St. King after her diagnosis. She underwent surgery at a New York hospital and, two weeks later, caught a plane to Palmerston North, New Zealand, to study spiritual leadership at Shamballa.
"After Sept. 11 and cancer, I wanted to retreat to a quiet place and reflect. I wanted to get clear," St. King says. "It all happened very quickly. A friend gifted the air miles, and the building that I was living in was sold. One door closed, and another opened so easily."
When St. King returned to America, it was to upstate New York, due to her anxiety over the terrifying ordeal in New York City.
"I was very quiet about my music when I got back," St. King says. "I looked for spaces to perform spiritual celebrations. I wasn't interested in being on a national stage, and I was writing a lot."
For awhile, St. King became involved in Howard Dean's campaign bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
"To me, he made sense as a politician," St. King says. "Then I realized that to be a true peace troubadour, I had to be nonpartisan. So I changed direction.
"At Shamballa, I learned that we are really all one. I realized that I needed to transcend the self to a place of humanity."
St. King did an interview with Internet radio Good News Broadcast in New York City and through that connection was introduced to folk and protest singer Pete Seeger.
"I was asked to write a song for Seeger's work with World Water Rescue Foundation," St. King says. She wrote "Water Not Weapons" and began performing with Seeger at peace vigils in parks around the Hudson Valley.
Since then, St. King has performed for conferences for the United Nations, The Peace Alliance, The M.K. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence, Fellowship of Reconciliation and, in September, she emceed the U.N.'s Vigil for International Peace and Ecology in New York City's Central Park. Last year, St. King received an Ambassador for Peace award from the Universal Peace Federation.
"You have to trust that everything happens for a reason," St. King says. "We are propelled to a place of awakening. Being famous is just an illusion. We're all here just trying to make our lives work."
St. King's newest album is titled "Your Word is Magic," and one of her songs, "Peace on Earth," is set for a compilation to be recorded by conductor and producer David Eaton and his New York Symphony Orchestra.
The Ghandi Institute has sponsored St. King's national tour. She'll be performing at prisons, churches and schools.
"What we think and say creates our reality," St. King says. "If anyone can walk away from one of my concerts chanting lyrics from my songs, then I've done my job.
"If you can hold peace in your heart during times of uncertainty and chaos, then no one can take it away from you."