Recorded in 1974 under the auspices of a senior project at a small Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, “Eternal Life” is the product of Shira Small’s four years away from the Wagner Projects in East Harlem. In Harlem, Small grew up imitating Ray Charles, the Temptations, Ella Fitzgerald—and Joni Mitchell. “When I was younger, I could do a great Joni Mitchell imitation,” Small remembered. “I used to really nail it.”
“Eternal Life” came together from a scribbling on a bathroom wall (“Change is life’s only constant factor”), a troubling remedial math class (“The line of time and the plane of now”), and inspiration from turbulent feelings rocking her friend group during the Vietnam era. Interviewed in 2006 by LA Weekly, Small herself noticed a difference between her lyrics and other songs of the day: “There’s lots of talk about how short life is. And [my song] is how life never stops, how big it is. I have a strong spiritual core, but not that really religious thing.” Her voice is brassy and confident, less delicate and lofty than many of her contemporaries. “That light, airy tone … you think they’re just hovering in La-La Land, but some of that stuff is kind of dark,” she mused.
Recognizing talent, her music teacher Lars Clutterham convinced her to record an album of original material as her senior project. The money to press the album was drummed up by pre-sales and a few generous parents, with all 500 copies distributed to students and faculty of Newton’s George School. The album’s other highlight, “Gimme Magic,” also made it to The Journey Of Persephone, a bizarre student musical performed by the school’s theater department.
It was her final performance, but that suited Small. “I was such a flotation device, going with every single flow. I would’ve self-destructed,” she said of any potential stardom.
–Ken Shipley, 2006