Bernice Lewis

Wisdom & Wit   

By Richard Cuccaro

Many singer/songwriters present themselves as a tapestry woven of life’s rich experiences. Perhaps no one weaves a richer tapestry than Bernice Lewis. In addition to being a songwriting instructor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. (check out our article last July on Darlingside), something of an expert in yoga and a lecturer on the Holocaust (her History Alive presentation is a multi-media discussion of her family’s emigration from Nazi Germany), she’s the first performing songwriter to be given an Artist-in-Residence position by the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon (mostly painters are chosen). It’s appropriate, since she had lived there in the ’80s and and has kept going back in the years since to work as a guide. The Canyon is her “religion,” she’s said. Her most recent album, Checks and Love Letters contains the captivating, very descriptive song,“Wings”: All those places feet can’t take you / Hakatai and shale … I look up to the sky so blue from down here in my bed / I’d have wings, I’d have wings, I’d have wings instead.

Back in the day (mid ’90s), Bernice played The Fast Folk Cafe in Tribeca on a number of occasions while I was volunteer house manager. That’s when I grew enamored of her prodigious guitar chops and fabulously witty lyrical skills. Back then, I didn’t need to be John Hammond Sr. to appreciate her skills, especially after witnessing her virtuosic dissection of Michael Smith’s fast, jazzy composition “Dead Egyptian Blues” or her humorous appeal for tolerance toward diversity in her song,“Normal’s Just a Setting on the Washing Machine.” Thus it didn’t come as a shock to learn, on a recent visit to her website,, that she studied vocal improvisation with Bobby McFerrin, guitar technique with Alex DeGrassi and Guy Van Duser, and songwriting with Rosanne Cash and Cris Williamson. What did come as a surprise was learning that her musical skills grew out of very arid soil.


Bernice Lewis grew up in Quincy, Mass. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, was a tailor and used to sing in his shop. Since there was no musical life at home — out of necessity, everyone was very practical — that provides only the faintest clue from where Bernice’s musical inclination came. She began writing poetry in the second grade and never stopped (her volume of poetry, Dreaming on Location, was published in 2009). She sang constantly and got a guitar when she was 13. They were the only Jewish family in a blue-collar Irish Catholic neighborhood and harassment and threats were frequent. During her high school years, tormentors finally made good on their threats and while the family was away on vacation, their house was burned down. Along with everything else, her guitar was lost.

The family moved to Stoughton, Mass., where things were better. Without a guitar, she became a groupie and went to many rock concerts featuring both the obscure and the famous and studied the performers. Later on, Bernice visited UMass Amherst in western Massachusetts to see a friend. She fell in love with the area and decided to go to school there. She received an A.A. in Business, a B.A. in Creative Writing and English Lit, with a minor in German, and a masters in education.

Getting Serious

In grad school, she got another guitar and became serious about learning to play. She woodshedded for many years, writing and playing songs in private. After graduation she taught for a year, but it didn’t work for her.

After teaching didn’t work out, Bernice moved to Phoenix, Ariz., on a whim. She started attending open mics regularly and met other singer/songwriters, becoming part of a circle of friends who were doing the same thing. She got serious about playing, quit her day job as an administrator at a trade school and moved to Grand Canyon National Park. Good with languages, she found a job there. With help from other players, she started playing in smokey bars four nights per week — 45-minute sets of covers with a few originals thrown in from time to time.

Bernice met her future husband, Scott, at the canyon. He wanted to finish getting his graduate degree back east, so they moved. While he studied, Bernice went to the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., night after night, seeing people like Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Patti Larkin and Greg Brown, who were then still unknown. She listened and learned.

In 1987, a year after getting married, she applied to Kerrville’s New Folk competition. She was accepted and got as far as the semifinals. Although she didn’t make the finals, it launched her career. There were enough presenters interested in her to get the gigs flowing. From there, she followed the ritual of putting together a press kit, issuing CDs and touring, which brought her to The Fast Folk Cafe. That was the last time Bernice played a public venue in the New York City area.

After adopting a child in 2000, Bernice slowed her career path considerably, but with her daughter now in high school, she’s ramped up her touring again. The wise and poignant leadoff track on Checks and Love Letters, “From Us,” is directed at her daughter: How will she know… love is so much more than flowers and lust? / She’s gonna learn how to love from us.

During February, Bernice is touring Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The performance closest to us is on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at Twelve Moons Coffeehouse in St. John’s Church, Salisbury, Conn.

We hope presenters in the New York metropolitan area will pay heed, rectify an egregious oversight and book this extraordinary performer — and that all of our readers will get out there and see her.