Louisa Branscomb picks up the pieces

After a tornado tore through her north Georgia farm in late April, it’s no surprise songwriter Louisa Branscomb turned to music to help her cope. What did come as a surprise, she realized, is that she had already written the song that would get her through the darkest days in the wake of the devastation. The song is This Side of Heaven, on the recently released I’ll Take Love (From the Pen of Louisa Branscomb). She wrote it last year, inspired by an old log barn at her beloved Woodsong Farm and a Zen proverb: “If your building just burned down, there is more room to see the stars.”

In the song, God tells the farmer who watches the barn burn, “Without hard times, there’s no miracle for me to do.” Then comes a chorus so vivid and powerful I could feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck as Louisa recited it to me the other night:

This side of heaven there is heartache,
This side of heaven there is pain,
Sometimes you just can’t see
The rainbow for the rain.
So if heaven sends down lightning
And burns your building down
There’s just more room to see
The stars in heaven’s crown.

When she made it back from Tennessee, she found the shed roof had been sheared off by the wind, but the notched-log walls were still standing. The roof of the house was gone, too. And majestic, towering oaks had been tossed around like giant matchsticks. She remembers hugging her daughter and telling her, “We just need to concentrate on how great the view is.”

Weeks after the storm left its mark, Louisa admitted, “If I hadn’t written that song, I would not have known how to cope.”

These days find Louisa shuttling between her therapy practice in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and the farm. Spare minutes are spent maneuvering through the maze of red tape with insurance companies, contractors and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We haven’t even begun to deal with the devastation,” she says. “I think there will still be a Woodsong Farm. There’s just a lot to do to get there.” One of the biggest challenges is getting a green light for the work that needs to be done. “I’m trying to save this 150-year-old farmhouse,” she told me. “The insurance company wants me to tear it down.” Insurance won’t cover all the costs, so friends have started to raise money through a PayPal link on her web site.

Woodsong Farm is a special place because, Louisa notes, “this is where my music was anchored.” It’s also a place where songwriters gather for highly regarded workshops. The most recent one was held just over a week before the storm ripped through. Some of the participants, among the last people to see the farm intact, were among the first to return to help Louisa pick up the pieces. They worked all day, but saved a little time for a little picking some tunes at night.

To clear a little space during that last workshop, Louisa turned one of her prized possessions, her great-grandfather’s piano table, away from the wall. She forgot to put it back. Days later, the wall of the room was blown out by the storm. The out-of-position table was spared.

She knows she is luckier than many others, who lost loved ones and all of their possessions in the series of tornadoes that lashed across the region. And she knows much hard work lies ahead. “It feels like reality is setting in,” she said.

For now, she is focused on the little miracles, like the birds. On her first day back at the farm, she discovered an eerie silence. There were no birds. But on the second day, she was cheered to find bluebirds starting to build a new nest in the wreckage of her porch. And on the third day, the birds were singing again.

Surrounded by devastation, Louisa Branscomb is enchanted by nature’s music – and she’s trying to enjoy the view.

Louisa sent along this video of she and Joe Zauner offering a rendition of This Side of Heaven shot amidst the devastation on April 28, the day after the tornado hit.

This Side of Heaven © 2010 Millwheel Music
From I’ll Take Love (From the Pen of Louisa Branscomb) (as recorded by the Whites on Compass records)

She also shared these images taken just two weeks before the storm.