On December 14, 2012, Mark Barden experienced the unimaginable horror of losing his seven-year-old son Daniel in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 children and educators dead.
In the aftermath of the violence, Barden, who was a professional guitarist before the massacre, put his music career aside and sought to prevent other families from suffering the same devastation by co-founding and serving as Newtown’s chief executive. , Connecticut. Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization that creates and runs programs to educate youth and adults to prevent gun violence in schools.
On Saturday, August 13, a benefit concert at the Warehouse in Fairfield, Connecticut, led by Barden, will kick off a new initiative Sandy Hook Promise: Artists for School Shootings and Youth Violence Prevention.
In addition to Barden and his daughter, Natalie, the bill will include the former Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino, Aztec Two-Step and The Alternate Routes (whose guitarist Eric Donnelly lost his parents when they were murdered in a 2005 jewelry store robbery).
The concert will be filmed for inclusion in A father’s promise, a documentary about Barden and the work of Sandy Hook Promise and Barden rediscovering his love of music, which he lost after Daniel’s death. The film, which will be released in December around the 10th anniversary of filming, will also include Barden performing with artist friends including Sheryl Crow, who performed at a fifth anniversary Sandy Hook Benefit in 2017; Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bernie Williams and Tim McGraw, who donated a 2014 concert to Sandy Hook Promise in Hartford, Conn.
Artists for School Shooting and Youth Violence Prevention provides a roadmap for musicians who want to be part of SHP’s mission by hosting a fundraising concert with Barden in the artist’s hometown, by participating in the documentary through a performance or interview, joining them for the August 13 fundraiser, promoting SHP through social media and live events, or making a donation.
As school shootings become mundane and depressing, Barden says he thinks more musicians are willing to speak out despite the possibility of upsetting some fans. “We see more and more artists wanting to take a stand and understand that part of the base will not agree. It took time,” Barden says. “Artists say, ‘We’re going to champion this because it’s the right thing to do.’ We need to unite people around a common message of protecting our children, making our communities safer and getting to a better and safer place and music plays a vital role in this as it reaches people in a completely different way and connects people.
Director Rick Kornwhich is producing the documentary through partner SA Baron’s Plain View Entertainment, has begun filming A father’s promise nine years ago with a focus on the role of music in healing after an unimaginable tragedy.
The problem was that Barden could find no joy in music, only pain, in part because of the intimate bond he and his three children had forged through music that had been ripped apart.
“Even as a toddler, when Daniel was crawling on the floor, he used to put his head towards the speaker because he wanted to investigate the sound source more closely,” Barden explains. “When I was giving guitar lessons away from home, he wanted to greet the students, bring them water, make them feel welcome. He was just a wonderful little ambassador.
At a young age, Daniel already showed musical talent, serving as the drummer in a Barden family band set up for his stepfather’s surprise 90th birthday party. (In the film, Barden watches footage of that performance with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, whom he met four years ago while filming the documentary and remain friends with.)
“We were looking at the role of music as a healer, as it relates to Mark’s life and as it coexists with his advocacy work,” says Korn. “When we started filming, Sandy Hook Promise was really in its infancy and Mark still wasn’t performing.” Pivotal to Barden’s musical journey and film is the former New York Yankee/Grammy Williams nominated guitarist. The two have been friends and teammates for years and Williams kindly brought Barden back onstage playing an advantage with Paul Simon in 2013, although “it was very traumatic for Mark,” Korn says. “We have a movie of it all.”
In December, Abramorama will oversee a limited theatrical release of the Barden-related documentary performing concerts in a number of cities, as well as a tie-in with streaming partners.
Playing live again, hopefully with high profile partners under the new initiative, seems fair to Barden. “It’s been a struggle to get back to music [but] I identify as a musician. It’s all I’ve ever been. I really had to put this on hold to be able to dedicate myself to advocacy work because there is a huge learning curve for me. I feel like [SHP] is self-contained enough that I can now bring those two things together. It’s a symbiotic pairing of my two lives.
Even though he returns to the stage, there’s still music Barden can’t listen to, including tunes his son loved to hear in the family van in the weeks leading up to his murder. “Little Daniel had some interesting songs,” Barden says. “Alison Krauss & Union Station’s ‘Another Day, Another Dollar’ and Steely Dan’s ‘Turn That Heartbeat Over Again’, which has a line with Michael’s name on it – and it has two cousins named Michael, so it relied on those words.” The van still sits in the Bardens’ driveway, with the unplayed CDs in the CD player. “I haven’t been able to play them since. Like literally 10 years they’ve been in my CD player in the van,” Barden says.
As he turns tragedy into transformation, Barden’s role as head of SHP’s advocacy arm, Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, keeps him busy working on sensible gun reform. He was at the White House in July to celebrate the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major federal gun safety bill in nearly 30 years.
As important as the work is, it remains a double-edged sword for Barden as it is a constant reminder that he is only doing this political work because his son is deceased. “We have been heavily involved in meetings with legislators as we approach the [Bipartisan Safer Communities Act] and drafting the wording of the bill itself,” he says. “We were very proud of the work we were able to contribute to finally get this passed and enacted into law. We passed federal legislation with bipartisan support that we wrote and passed state laws. The wins along the way have all been bittersweet because Daniel is always gone.