When Rachel Sumner moved from California’s Mojave Desert to Boston in 2011, the flutist’s goal was to study orchestration at Berklee College of Music and to eventually score films.
But when she fell in with a group of bluegrass and roots musicians at school, she picked up guitar — and discovered a love for songwriting.
Last May, Sumner entered the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, an international competition. In September, she won the Session 1 Folk Grand Prize. Another group of artists competed in Session 2; those winners were announced in March. In April, the public voted for artists in both sessions, which resulted in Sumner winning the 2021 John Lennon Award in Folk.
One of 12 winners, she now completes against artists from Iceland to Australia who have won other genre categories — country, gospel, hip-hop, pop, and rock, among them — for “Song of the Year,” a $20,000 grand prize, and equipment. (Her folk win earned her recording equipment.)
That decision is now in the hands of celebrity judges — including Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Clinton, Jimmy Cliff, Sheila E., and the Bacon Brothers. The winner will be announced in July.
Originally from Lancaster, Calif., Sumner, 29, now of Winchester, has worked at Passim in Cambridge for nearly seven years, doing “everything from serving to box office to teaching.” She is now Passim’s School of Music manager.
Sumner cofounded the Boston bluegrass group Twisted Pine, leaving in 2019 to go solo. Her new band, Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light, will release their debut album in August. You can catch Sumner’s band at Passim June 4. The John Lennon Award winner in the country music category, Brittany Ann Tranbaugh, opens.
Influenced by murder ballads, Sumner entered her song “Radium Girls (Curie Eleison).”
“I thought it was my best work, but I also thought there was a message to it,” Sumner said in a recent phone interview. John Lennon wrote quite a few message songs, “so I felt like it might resonate with the folks at the competition. Plus, I want as many people as possible to know about the radium girls.”
The radium girls, she explained, were a group of women factory workers circa World War I who painted watch dials with a glow-in-the-dark paint containing radium.
“The women didn’t have lead-lined [protection] — they just sat at tables and painted. The factories knew it was dangerous. The women started to disintegrate. Their jaws would break off. They’d get huge swollen lymph nodes, their teeth would fall out. They started dying,” she said. “The factories said it was from syphilis.”
Why write about it?
“I’m very interested old English ballads, in the functionality of them. Old murder ballads were written about actual murders and cases,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing something like that, but never found a story I connected with until I discovered the radium girls.”