On Dec. 14, 2012, Mark Barden experienced the unimaginable horror of losing his seven-year-old son Daniel during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 children and educators dead.
In the wake of that violence, Barden, who was a professional guitarist before the massacre, put aside his musical career and sought to keep other families from experiencing the same devastation by co-founding and serving as managing director for Newtown, Conn.-based Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit that creates and runs programs to educate youth and adults to prevent gun violence in schools.
On Saturday (Aug. 13), a benefit concert at the Warehouse in Fairfield, Conn., helmed by Barden will kick off a new Sandy Hook Promise initiative: Artists for the Prevention of School Shootings and Youth Violence.
In addition to Barden and his daughter, Natalie, the bill will include former Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino, Aztec Two-Step and The Alternate Routes (whose guitarist Eric Donnelly lost his parents when they were murdered during a jewelry store robbery in 2005).
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’s rediscovering his love of music, which he lost after Daniel’s death. The movie, which will come out in December around the 10th anniversary of the shooting, will also include Barden performing with artist friends, including Sheryl Crow, who played at a fifth anniversary Sandy Hook benefit in 2017; Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bernie Williams and Tim McGraw, who donated proceeds to Sandy Hook Promise from a 2014 concert in Hartford, Conn.
Artists for the Prevention of School Shootings and Youth Violence provides a roadmap for musicians who want to be part of SHP’s mission by doing a concert fundraiser with Barden in the artist’s hometown, participating in the documentary through a performance or interview, joining them for the Aug. 13 fundraiser, promoting SHP through social media and live events or making a donation.
As school shootings become depressingly commonplace, Barden says he believes more musicians are ready to speak out despite possibly upsetting some fans. “We’re seeing more and more artists willing to take a stand and understanding that part of the base will not agree. It’s taken some time,” Barden says. “Artists are saying, ‘We’re going to stand up for this because it’s the right thing to do.’ We have to unite people on a common message of protecting our kids, making our communities safer and getting to a better, safer place and music plays a vital role in that because it reaches people in a completely different way and connects people.”
Director Rick Korn, who is producing the documentary through his and his partner S.A. Baron’s Plain View Entertainment, started shooting A Father’s Promise nine years ago with the focus on music’s role in healing following unimaginable tragedy.
The problem was Barden could find no joy in music, only pain, in part because of the intimate connection he and his three children had forged through music that had been torn apart.
“Even as a toddler, when Daniel was crawling around on the floor, he used to put his head up to the speaker because he wanted to investigate the sound source more closely,” Barden says. “When I was giving guitar lessons out of my house, he would want 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 family band Barden put together for his father-in-law 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 shooting the documentary and with whom he has remained friends.)
“We were looking at the role of music as a healer, as it relates in Mark’s life and as it coexists with his advocacy work,” Korn says. “When we started filming, Sandy Hook Promise was really in its infancy and Mark was basically still not playing.” Pivotal in Barden’s music journey and the film is former New York Yankee/Grammy-nominated guitarist Williams. The two have been friends and band mates for years and Williams gently got Barden back on stage playing a benefit with Paul Simon in 2013, even though “it was very traumatic for Mark,” Korn says. “We have film of all of this.”
In December, Abramorama will oversee a limited theatrical release of the documentary tied to Barden playing concerts in a number of cities, as well as link with streaming partners.
Playing live again, hopefully with some high profile partners as part of the new initiative, feels right to Barden. “It’s been a struggle returning to music [but] I identify as a musician. That’s all I’ve ever been. I really had to put that on hold so that I could devote myself to the advocacy work because there’s a huge learning curve for me. I feel like [SHP] is self-sustaining enough that now I can bring these two things together. It’s a symbiotic pairing of my two lives.”
Even as he returns to performing, there is still some music that Barden can’t listen to, including tunes his son loved hearing in the family van in the weeks prior to his murder. “Little Daniel had some interesting songs,” Barden says. “’Another Day, Another Dollar’ by Alison Krauss & Union Station and Steely Dan’s ‘Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,’ which has a line with the name Michael — and he has two cousins named Michael, so he was cueing in on those lyrics.” 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 have 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 common-sense gun reform. He was at the White House in July celebrating the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first significant federal gun safety bill in nearly 30 years.
As important as the work is, it remains a double-edged sword for Barden because it is a constant reminder that he is only doing this policy work because his son died. “We were heavily involved in meeting with legislators in the run up to the [Bipartisan Safer Communities Act] and actually crafting the bill language itself,” he says. “We were very proud of the work we were able to contribute to see this finally passed and placed into law. We’ve passed federal legislation with bipartisan support that we’ve written and passed state laws. Victories along the way have all been bittersweet because Daniel’s still gone.”