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A Song For Sophia: Born On The Wing, Grown In Bloomington

Like its namesake, the song "Sophia" blends an international pedigree with homegrown craft.

  • photograph of Sophia Travis

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: courtesy Sophia Travis For Monroe County Council

    Sophia Travis, 2012

  • accordionist performing

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    Photo: by Pat Glushko, courtesy Lotus World Music and Arts Festival

    Karen Tweed performed with her group May Monday on Saturday, September 22, 2012 at the First Presbyterian Church as part of the Lotus Festival.

  • Sophia and her son Finn

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    Photo: courtesy Sophia Travis for Council

    Sophia Travis and her son Finn

  • black and white photo, string band

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: courtesy Musical Family Tree

    Sophia Travis in a publicity photo for the Squash Blossom String Pullers, a Bloomington band with whom she performed in the early 1990s.

Just three months before the 20th annual Lotus World Music and Arts Festival casts its spell on the city of Bloomington, we revisit a musical selection born of last year’s event.

The 2012 Lotus Festival was dedicated to Sophia Travis in recognition of the role she played in connecting local music with world music. Monroe County Councilwoman from 2004-2008, Travis was the Democratic nominee for that office again in September 2012, when this story about a song, and its namesake, begins.

Something In The Air

It was the eve of Lotus 2012. A time when it seems like everyone’s outside, setting up tents in the streets and waiting to welcome musicians and music lovers from all over the world to the four-day celebration.

An anticipatory, magical time.

Bloomington musician Steve Pollitt was one of the many gearing up for the festival, where he would be performing Saturday night with British accordionist Karen Tweed‘s band, May Monday.

Tweed was flying in for the festival at the behest of her friend, and fellow accordionist Sophia Travis.

“Karen was here because Sophia had asked her to come,” explained Pollitt, “and got Lee to cut her a set.”

From the sound of it, being a friend of Sophia–who acquired the name “The Velvet Steamroller” during her 2004 campaign–was handy when it came to persuading Lotus director Lee Williams to book your act. So that’s how Karen found herself en route to the States one day last September.

“And as she was coming here, from England,” Pollitt continued, “she learned that her friend that she was coming to visit had died.”

She’s at Logan Airport, waiting for the plane to Indianapolis, when a tune appears in her head, and repeats over and over and over. It’s not one she’s heard before, and she believes it sounds very much like Sophia.

Musician and civic leader Sophia Travis died of an undiagnosed heart condition, a few weeks shy of her 47th birthday, on September 19, 2012. A Bloomington resident since 1984, Sophia left behind a husband, a son, a mother and a father, and a whole community full of those she’d become close to through music and public service.

Having received the terrible news about her friend, Tweed was processing her grief in a uniquely musical way.

“She’s at Logan Airport, in Boston, about to climb on a plan to Indianapolis,” Pollitt recounts. “Waiting for the plane, a tune appears in her head and repeats over and over and over. It’s not one she’s heard before, and she believes it sounds very much like Sophia.”

This was Friday. Sophia had died on Wednesday night.  The Lotus Festival had begun on Thursday and Tweed’s set was scheduled for Saturday night.

She had just over a day to get ready.

“You Could Hear Everyone’s Heart Beat”

Tweed sketched out the tune and shared it with her bandmate, Finnish musician Timo Alakotila, and they put together an arrangement. “And in the middle of their Lotus set,” Pollitt recalls, “where they’ve already got the audience hanging on to their hankies and in the palm of their hands, she says, ‘I’m going to play this tune I’ve never performed before, called Sophia Travis.’ You could hear everyone’s heart beat.”

And in the middle of their Lotus set,  where they’ve already got the audience in the palm of their hands, she says, ‘I’m going to play this tune I’ve never performed before, called Sophia Travis.’ You could hear everyone’s heart beat.

With all of the music from Lotus weekend swirling around in his head, Pollitt forgot the notes to Tweed’s tune for Sophia, but didn’t forget the way it made him feel. So he found himself emailing the British musician to beg for the sheet music.  To hear Pollitt tell it, at the moment he was about to hit “send”, his partner–a Lotus volunteer–ran up the stairs with the score, which Tweed had given to the sound man at the gig.

Making It Local

Pollitt wanted to turn the complex piece into a simpler tune that could be sung by the average church choir. Choral director Mary Goetze came up with a four-part arrangement. But turning Tweed’s elusive melody into a singable folk song would also involve lyrics.  Confronted with the challenge of writing lyrics for an homage to someone he’d not known personally, Pollitt turned to the community.

He recalled having spent the day of Travis’ death registering others’ responses to the sad news.  “Everywhere I went, somebody got the news,” Pollitt recalled. “And every one of those people reacted with shock and lost love and longing. By the end of the day, I was just saturated with the emotion of the event.”

So Pollitt incorporated those expressions of grief and longing into his lyrics, which pose the sorts of questions we ask when someone we cherish has died.

Sue Swaney directed the choir of the Unitarian Universalist church of Bloomington, in which Pollitt sings, in a performance of Sophia at their 2013 Memorial Day service.

About Sophia Travis

Sophia Travis made a difference in the community through her work on the Monroe County Council (2004-08; president, 2006), through the Monroe County Commission on the Status of Women, which she founded, and on behalf of such organizations as Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.

But above all, Sophia enriched the community and connected with it through music. A classically trained harpsichordist, Sophia took her keyboard prowess in several different directions when she inherited her Finnish grandfather’s accordion. In addition to turns with Hoosier Squeeze, and the Latin American Musical Ensemble, she indulged her love of tango by organizing the annual event Tango and Beyond, a benefit for the Monroe County Youth Services Bureau.

Over the years, Sophia also played in numerous local, regional, and nationally touring rock bands, including a 1995 tour supporting Michelle Shocked, a performance with the Mary Janes at the 1998 Lilith Fair, and frequent performances with the bands Lola, Mitten, and the Vulgar Boatmen. Sophia recorded two collections of her own original music, Music for Picnics and Music for Swimming.

Related Links

A tribute to the life of Sophia Travis by her friend Catherine Dyar

The women’s a cappella group Kaia made an audio slide show to honor Sophia.

Sophia Travis’ recordings may be streamed and downloaded from Musical Family Tree, an online source of independent music from Indiana.

Lotus World Music and Arts Festival

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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