So we must love while these moments are still called today

Take part in the pain of this passion play

Stretching our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust

Until time makes history of us.

Emily Saliers ’85C wrote the song “History of Us” soon after graduating from Emory, the same summer she toured Europe in a Volkswagen bus with her father, theology professor Don Saliers, and mother and three sisters. Now, when she looks back on her time at the College more than fifteen years later, Saliers still lights up with pride and genuine fondness.

“I can tell you I loved my years there,” Saliers says. “They were very fruitful in terms of my friendships, and what I learned, and me and Amy exploring our music. It was like a springboard for the rest of my life.”

As one half of the internationally acclaimed folk-pop duo the Indigo Girls, the openly gay Saliers is one of Emory’s most celebrated graduates. She’s known for her lyrical, guitar-spun ballads that resonate powerfully with a diverse, devoted fan base. After seventeen years and eight full-length albums (the most successful won a Grammy and went double-platinum), Saliers and her musical partner, Amy Ray ’86C, continue to play sold-out shows around the world.

It’s easy to forget the pair put out their first single on the Emory campus, selling it at a table in front of the DUC for $1.

Besides making music, Saliers’ favorite memories of college are of intimate, impassioned talks with her circle of close friends, who helped shape her early activist leanings. Her classes, she says, helped her learn to question, to challenge, and to think independently; her English courses, with their focus on language and expression, also shaped her songwriting. She and Ray embraced the University’s emphasis on public service and furthering a community good.

Today, the Indigo Girls’ progressive social activism is as much a part of their public persona as their guitars and boots. Their efforts on behalf of Native Americans, women, and the environment are well documented. They are also strong advocates of gay rights.

“I know we are perceived as this radical activist lesbian band, and that becomes a problem in an industry run by men,” Saliers says. “A lot of women sell records through their straight sexuality. On the other hand, we have this great career, we have all this control, where we are able to speak our minds and enjoy the freedom of that.”

At Emory, Emily was not yet out as a lesbian. “I just didn’t have the self-awareness when I was a student there to get to the point of coming out,” she says. “I dated guys, but I was sort of exploring the beginnings of my gay life. When I look back, I wish I had had more courage, and I admire people whose vision was so clear. But when my moment came, it was so clear and right, and okay with me and God and my family and anyone who mattered to me.”

Saliers is particularly proud of the strides Emory has made toward equality and acceptance for gay community members. When the Indigo Girls appeared on campus for a performance and talk during the University’s Year of Reconciliation, she was impressed by how far students have come since she graduated. Many of their questions focused matter-of-factly on the singers’ sexual orientation.

“The whole tenor of the evening certainly felt very open-minded,” she says. “When I was in school, kids didn’t feel comfortable raising questions of sexuality like they do now. I consider that progress. And for Emory to open up and give that opportunity to us was something I really appreciated.”

Saliers’ connection to Emory runs deep. Her father is the director of Emory’s Master of Sacred Music program and the William R. Cannon Professor of Theology and Worship in the Candler School of Theology. A noted scholar and author of more than a dozen books on Christian theology, Don is also, like his daughter, a musician at heart–and soul. He has served as musical director of the ecumenical University Worship for some twenty years, and he composes and performs sacred music that lends itself expressly to spiritual experience.

Emily says she grew up in an intellectual “community of lefties” where music and learning were as essential air and water. Don says the first song Emily and her sisters ever wrote was a protest song about pollution. He remembers when the entire Saliers clan would harmonize together for hundreds of miles on long family car trips. At a recent photo shoot in the University’s Performing Arts Studio, he and his second-oldest daughter couldn’t resist noodling around together on the piano and guitar that were supposed to serve as props.

Despite stylistic differences, the two seem to approach their music in much the same way–striving not only for artistic excellence, but for meaning and message that reach soul-deep. This shared pursuit has led them to plan a collaborative project, a book they will write together about music, sacred and secular, and the experience of making it.

“I think there is much we will agree on,” Don says. “Both of us want our music to touch the human heart in a way that is deep and meaningful, to offer images to live by and live to–even if they are painful. We want music to be honest, truthful. Of course, as a composer of sacred music, I would add that I want it to awaken awe, and wonder, to speak of transcendence.

“Although, you know,” he adds, “there is a kind of liturgy that goes on in the Indigo Girls’ concerts too. People take the words and music into their hearts, into their bodies. They can get seven thousand people to sing, or bring them total silence–I think that really says something. There is a wonderful dialogue that happens when they are at full stretch.”

Don and Emily already have begun work on their book by taping hours of conversations with one another, which is how they plan to develop most of the material. To a father and daughter with rich careers and rigorous schedules, setting aside time for heart-to-heart talks–and calling it work–is a rare pleasure.

“We have spent a lot of time talking about our own personal experience, and how it affects our relationship as father and daughter,” Emily says. “I can’t even tell you how it feels to be able to have time like that with my father. I feel so blessed that he is part of this academic community, and it’s a part of my life, too.”–P.P.P.



© 2002 Emory University