Listen Up: Hannah Marcus

This “Listen Up” piece, the fourth in the series, is long overdue; I dedicate it to the wonderful Hannah Marcus, who has released album after album over the years, in a changing style of her own, and who collaborates with many musicians across genres. Many people love Hannah’s songs not only for their dark tones and themes, not only for their musical imagination, but also for their humor, curiosity, and generosity, which I hope to touch upon today. This is a short piece, partly because not all of her songs are available online. But I hope it’ll introduce her music to a few people.

I first met her music in a curious way. A friend and bandmate of mine, no longer alive, pulled Hannah’s song “Demerol” out of his closet one evening. “This song is you,” he said, and put it on. It was a stunning song and equation; afterwards I tried to remember the songwriter’s name—which was fitting, because the song begins, “What is your name? Tell me, child of grace, what is your name? What a thing for an R.N. to say, what is your name? Here’s some Demerol to ease the pain, can you tell me what occurred today?….” She starts out slowly, gently, in alto notes, then soars up with “today” into the celestial part of the song.

A few years later, another friend asked me, out of the blue, “Have you heard Hannah Marcus’s music?” She told me where to find some of the albums, and I was off to the record store. It turned out that Hannah was living in San Francisco now (where I was too), so I attended a couple of her shows, and we started to become acquainted. Over time, a friendship formed, which continues to this day.

Another favorite early-ish song, from her 1997 Faith Burns album, is “Face in the Moon.” Like “Demerol,” it rises slowly. A friend told me he got all choked up over the word “joy” (when it first comes up, on a high note). So do I, returning to the song now. It is a song to ride along with, to sink into, to rise up through. The song spills longing like moonlight, and then a joy takes over. “If there is such a thing as joy in this life, let it rise, illuminated, into life.”

The songs have complex qualities and moods; there’s a subtle chuckle even in the saddest of them. One of my favorites on her Black Hole Heaven album is “Los Alamos,” which describes personal abandonment in an eerily changing world, a world marked by fires, genetic experimentation, and mythology. The wry lyrics are punctuated with samples of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of innnnfinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”). The phrases “innnfinite space” and “bad dreams” recur throughout the song.

Another long-time favorite, which I brought up in my “Song Series” piece on American epic sadness, is “Hairdresser in Taos,” from her Desert Farmers album. Like “Los Alamos,” it moves from personal crisis or loss into a view of something vaster, in this case a confusion and lostness going far beyond the self, into a cry that becomes hymnal, “Lord if only I could find a road, I’d take it.” The song is sadly comic too, especially the part about the hairdresser in Taos who “stuck my head in the sink and put red dye all over my hair…” and then “I ran out of the house with the red dye still on, I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde…:” with the piano mounting and dancing.

After Desert Farmers, Hannah Marcus’s music took all sorts of directions. The Wingfield Community Singers was (and I hope still is) a happy convergence of gifts: the composer David Grubbs, the writer Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and other members along the way. I loved the concerts and treasure the songs. Listening to this band is like having your random impulses and thoughts poured into graceful sculpture (that then begins to dance around the room). On the solemn side, one of my favorites is “Night, Sleep, Death, and the Stars,” whose lyrics combine two Walt Whitman poems. Another favorite is “Blue Daisy.”

During this time, Hannah was also learning fiddle, specifically bluegrass, and attending bluegrass festivals and conferences. (I went with her once to a bluegrass conference in the Catskills; it was quite an experience.) She has now plays fiddle/violin (as well as her other instruments) on numerous projects, in a range of genres. On Matana Roberts’s 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, she plays electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, and accordion, and sings backing vocals. This is another side of her musicianship: her support of other musicians, her admiration of their talent, her love of playing with others and continuing to learn new things: new instruments, new styles, new ways of thinking about music, new things about people.

In some ways, music can only come out of an individual, in private and in quiet. That’s why there are solo musicians, or leaders of bands and ensembles: the individual has something so powerful and different to bring. Music would not exist if it had to be entirely communal. But the wisest musicians recognize that it doesn’t begin or end with them, that music stretches far beyond them, and all they can do is play within that expanse. And that’s the joy of it: when it’s not about you, but about the music itself, wherever you find yourself in it. I admire Hannah for finding it in so many places and for playing on and on.

I made a few small changes to this piece after posting it. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Song Series #15: Doing Almost Nothing

Some of the most beautiful songs that I know work with silence and air. They seem to do almost nothing. Or maybe there’s a lot going on in them, but also a simplicity. I will bring up four such examples today.

Let’s begin with Jacques Brel’s “Départs,” one of his very early songs, recorded in 1953. The guitar has a simple chord progression and rhythm; for the most part (but not always), he strums on the beat, softly. But the little variations—of rhythm, stroke, volume—give the song a brooding texture. The lyrics are extraordinary on their own (about all the friendships that we abandon, all the good-byes we say, in our urge to travel the world in search of happiness), and the guitar gives them an extra tautness. (If you click on the picture, this will take you to the recording on YouTube.)

Toutes les amitiés
Qu’on laisse mourir
Qu’on laisse tomber
Pour aller courir
Sur de vains chemins
Cherchant pas à pas
Un bonheur humain
Qu’on ne connaît pas
Amitiés anciennes
Vieilles comme la vie
Idées faites siennes
Et que l’on renie
Visage sans nom
Prénom sans visage
Rires que nous perdons
Inutiles bagagesTous les “au revoir”
Qu’on lance à la ronde
Parce qu’on croit devoir
Parcourir le monde
Et tous les adieux
Aux filles donnés
C’est trop d’être d’eux
Allant guerroyer
Les bonheurs qu’on sème
A chaque départ
Meurent vite d’eux-mêmes
Sur les quais de gare
Tous les “au revoir”
Et tous les adieux
Nous rendent l’espoir
Nous rendent plus vieux

The next song is “Csak mi” by Lázár tesók (the Lázár brothers), whom I had the joy of hearing in concert a week ago. This song (about a relationship that can see in the dark, that becomes luminous in the dark) keeps playing and playing in my head and in my headphones; it’s the first song on their album Hullámtörés. In different hands, and with different lyrics, the vocal melody could have led to something cheesy. But they make it unique with the syncopated guitar and the beautiful repetitions of piano phrases and notes. It’s that repeated note on the piano toward the end that gets me; it’s like seeing in the dark itself. I think it’s possible to appreciate this song without knowing Hungarian, but here’s a rough translation of the lyrics:

A storm is stirring, light doesn’t come in
Everything in the window is already dark
Only you, only you can see (me) as such
This is me, I emerged just now.

When everything is invisible, that’s when I live
When everything goes dark, I shine

The edge of the setting sun is dark red
It floods the evening, but comes to an end
Only you, only you keep vigil at night
And that is the time when I emerge

When everything is invisible, that’s when we live
When everything goes dark, we shine
When everything is invisible, just then we appear
Just you, just I, just we have remained

The next song is “Psalmus” by Platon Karataev, whom I will hear next week at the Mini Fishing on Orfű festival! I am going just for Thursday night: bringing my bike (and tent and sleeping bag) on the train to Pécs, and biking from Pécs to Orfű. And then head back early in the morning. This will be the first time I hear the full band in concert; I heard Sebő and Gergő in an acoustic duo last August, and I heard Sebő play a solo concert just recently. I love this song for its long layers, among other things. First there’s bass alone. Then Gergő’s guitar comes in, and then, at the instant that he begins to sing, the drums come in too. Then Sebő’s quiet backing vocals. The whole band holds back so much in this song, it builds up so slowly, and its confession or offering is so bare. (You can read the lyrics here.) The Live at Gólya video is especially beautiful, because it lets you see some of what is going on musically. The song is from their second full-length album, Atoms.

I will end with Dávid Szesztay’s “Hullámzás,” which has also been playing in my head this week. It was beautiful at the concert on Wednesday and has become one of my favorite songs on the new album. The colorful chords and arpeggios combine with the simple vocal melody and the repeated words, like “elaludtál” (you have fallen asleep) and “ideúsztál” (you swam over here), and the single repeating note in the background. I won’t translate it here, since it would be hard to do correctly. The song seems to have to do with spending time with a person, morning and night, traveling together, waking almost together. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit about death, but then, everything is, in some way.

Oh, heck, here’s one more, because it has been one of my favorite songs over many years: “Strip Darts” by Hannah Marcus, from her 2003 album Desert Farmers. (“Strip Darts” is actually the correct spelling, even though it appears online as “Stripdarts.”) For this I have to use Spotify, because the song isn’t available on YouTube or Bandcamp. Listen to its story, its incantations, and the way it goes on without words. Even within the words, there is so much unsaid; you sense a person going through a private crisis, and someone else watching from the outside, with wry compassion. There is hope in this song. “But just when you think your love’s in vain / Look out here comes the desert rain / Look out here it comes.” And yes, there is the rain, in the music, and what a rain.

My descriptions here have been rather sparse, but that’s in the spirit of doing almost nothing. These songs have a way of coming back again and again.

Listen Up: Cz.K. Sebő

Cz.K. Sebő (Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén). Photo credit: hvg.hu.

When was the last time you discovered new music and couldn’t stop listening to it? One piece, one song after another draws you in; you play your favorites over and over, and then find another, and wait, what, another! Another song goes straight to some part of you that had been sleeping or sloppy until now. An experience that you know to the bones but also have never known before. You want the whole world to know about this, you want to take these songs and hold them up to the light somehow. Except that they can only speak for themselves. Words about music are a little bit like helmets worn as gloves. Still, you have to give it a try. The first piece in my “Listen Up” series was dedicated to the Hungarian band Platon Karataev; the second one, right now, to one of their founding members, Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén (solo name: Cz.K. Sebő), who has released four EPs since 2014, as well as some singles, and is now recording his first full-length album.

If you are drawn to music in this vein—music along the general, disparate lines of R.E.M., Pavement, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, The Smiths, the Breeders, Damien Jurado, Sonny Smith, Granfaloon Bus, Grandaddy, Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Art of Flying, Kid Dakota, Rufus Wainwright, Hannah Marcus, or other folk or indie rock with a special relationship between lyrics and music, a disciplined dreaminess of word and sound—then Cz.K. Sebő’s songs will likely hit home. And even if you listen to a different kind of music entirely, you will find something beautiful here.

I plan to introduce just five of his songs, four of which are in English, and one, his most recent recording, in Hungarian. To hear more, you can go to Bandcamp and YouTube. I recommend listening to the entire albums; in each one, the songs form something together, and it’s hard to leave any of them out.

Cz.K. Sebő is about 27 years old. When I first fell in love with this general kind of music and started listening to it all the time, when I first played (clumsily) in a band, he wasn’t born yet. His songs evoke music that has long been part of my life, sometimes filling it, sometimes just being there with me, yet there’s something “sajátos” (particular, individual) about them. The best way to understand this is to jump right in. So, after all these preludes, let’s go.

The first one will be “Out of Pressure” from his second (2015) EP The masked undressed. I love its combination of dreariness and soaring. Like many of the songs, it steals up on you. Also, the lyrics (in American English) are both natural and unusual: the song seems at home in the language and outside it at the same time.

It begins,

Out of pressure Sunday morning
Feeling nothing but this soaring
I’m alone here in this gray room
With a thought of a beer, but drinking coffee.

The way the voice soars on “gray room” gives you the whole picture: there is a kind of bleakness mixed with glorious solitude. It isn’t unhappy.

I’ll skip the next verse so as not to overanalyze this and to get to the chorus, which to me holds the brilliance.

Another morning after a boring night with you
Why are you falling into the see of society
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony

The words are so simple, but when they culminate in “What I seek is harmony,” they give infinite meaning to “seek” and “harmony.” The seeking is that longing and striving and working and waiting, all of those things together and more, and “harmony” here is so much more than a few notes that sound pleasant together. It’s something you pursue and yearn for all your life long. The second “seeeeeeek” brings the whole song together. And as the word is elongated, the chord progression continues beneath it, so that without realizing it, you have been brought back to the beginning.

The second one is “Disguise,” from the same EP and from an even earlier release, Fugitive Feelings (2014). (There’s a passionate Platon Karataev version too, on the Atoms album, but I love this early version even more.) In an interview somewhere, he named it as his favorite of his solo songs; I don’t know whether that’s still true. I can see why it was, or is, his favorite. It’s sometimes my favorite too. I will just let it speak for itself.

I won’t bring up “Light as the Breeze” here (from his EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze), since I mentioned it in a recent blog post, and there’s so much to mention. Along with “Hart,” it might be my favorite of them all. I’ll just say that it changed my outlook on life and on music, slightly but strongly. Songs don’t teach us how to live, but they give us inklings of something. Those hints can’t be translated directly into life, but they become part of it, something we carry with us. “Light as the Breeze” is a song that I carry with me, even without an audio device; I hear it in my head at various times in the day.

I will go on to “Hart,” from his 2017 EP Junction. I originally included “Sham Melancholy” instead, and it’s a tough call, since I love both songs. But I realized that “Hart” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and I can’t leave it out. It carries you slowly from the contemplative beginning to the expansive, night-filled middle to the quiet end, all of this in three minutes and three seconds. It builds without your knowing it, in a short time; it starts with simple strumming, then the chords and single notes catch your attention, and then the voice comes in slower, with its own rhythm that rises and rises and then sweeps the guitar along with it. There’s so much motion now, everything is moving, but it’s motion in stillness, a falling and sitting, a wounded but joyous arrival. And then the stillness takes over.

Look at me now my friend, I’m on the ground and sitting
Look at me now my friend
Look at me now my friend

Now I’m falling, but I’m sitting here arrived
In the same time I found the road I was searching for so long

Many of these songs have to do with solitude, which is part of why I am drawn to them. Another favorite, in a different mood, is “Chamomile.” It’s the most humorous of his songs that I know so far. It has subtle self-mockery and mockery of the world, but without cynicism. The guitar is so understated and catchy; it takes you in right away, but grows on you too. The storyline seems somewhat as follows: the narrator has been working on songs, just finished one, and now it’s time to rest, but his apartment (or his mind?) is filled with people. So he tries to join the strange, dreamlike party for a little bit, but realizes he would rather be by himself. This song will be on his full-length album.

Not only do I relate to the story, but I enjoy the melodic phrase that elongates specific words, “written,” “season,” “name here,” “solo.” It’s as though they were set in musical italics, but more than italics. They the song a kind of wryness, an amusement with the whole situation, an affable antisociability. The song’s structure allows you to anticipate favorite moments, such as “fingers / linger,” “festival season,” the break (the “Oh my mind, oh my mind, oh my mind is on fire” part) and the ending. In general, his endings are superb. And the video is brilliantly done, with all sorts of subtle details, capturing, as he said in an interview, “that state where a person doesn’t know if they are awake or asleep.” (My favorite moment is the look on his face when he sees Soma Bradák drumming in the bathtub.)

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), whose video appeared just last Friday. The song is (perhaps) about this Covid era that we have been living in for a year now; the video was shot at Coney Island, which he visited in winter. In an interview with KERET Blog, he said,

Sok lassú dalomra mondom, hogy boldog, de nem tagadom, ez egy szomorú dal. Körülbelül a mögöttünk álló egy évről szól. A szorongásokról, bizonytalanságról. Viszont van itt egyszer egy trükk: ezt a dalt 2019 végén írtam, amikor még nem a Covidtól féltem, hanem inkább a klímapánik jeleit éreztem magamon. Nagyon érdekes, hogy mégis mennyire megtalálta saját magát ez a dal 2020-ban, számomra mindig ezt a mögöttünk álló (- és sajnos most is aktuális) időszakot fogja felidézni.

Rough translation: I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It speaks of the approximate year behind us. Of the anxiety, uncertainty. Yet there’s also a catch here: I wrote this song at the end of 2019, when I wasn’t yet afraid of Covid, but rather feeling symptoms of climate panic. It is very interesting to what degree this song found itself in 2020; for me it will always evoke this time that we have been through (and which unfortunately is still going on).

What’s interesting is that this song steps into a slightly different musical zone; with the lyrics in Hungarian, the music reminds me slightly of songs I have heard here: for instance, Gábor Presser’s “Te majd kézenfogsz.” It proceeds gently through the sadness, verse by verse. I won’t translate it all here, since that would just distort it. But here’s one of my favorite verses:

Ha panaszkodni akarsz,
akkor légyszi menj el
Nekem már betelt a füzetem ezzel
mégsem lettem könnyebb.

(If you want to complain,
do me a favor and leave
My notebook is already filled up with this
and I didn’t get any relief.)

And then, not obviously in the song, but in the author’s commentary, there’s a bit of humor, three verses later:

Talán boldog is vagyok
Ez a keserűség éltet
Keserű nélkül nincs is édes,
Mint só nélkül sincs étel
((a szerző itt megkérdőjelezi improvizációs készségeit))

(Maybe I’m happy too
This bitterness vitalizes me
Without the bitter, nothing is sweet,
As without salt, there is no food
((here the author questions his improvisational skills)))

That last line is Cz.K. Sebő’s comment on what he just wrote. Yes, the analogy just before it seems slightly off. But it also works beautifully: “éltet” (vitalizes) off-rhymes with “édes” (sweet) and “étel” (food); there’s also an alliteration between “keserű” (bitter) and “só” (salt). And the parallel syntax makes this all come together, even if we aren’t sure at the end whether it entirely makes sense. But it does, it does! If you think about it, salt can be compared to bitter taste, and food to life, and through this, the larger meaning comes through. Yet it does so as an afterthought, an improvisation, a grappling for some kind of meaning. The uncertainty leads into the very end, “I wait for tomorrow”:

Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot

which could seem hopeful, but which sounds like sleep, waiting, and a long stretch of uncertainty.

And the Coney Island footage, so slow and peaceful, so beautiful, but also sad, because of the desolation, the soapy sea. It brings up my own memories of Coney Island, of the time I rode the Cyclone (with whom? I don’t even remember).

Well, I think that’s a start, and that’s all it can be at this point; I have only recently begun listening to this music and look forward to much more. There’s much more that I could have said about these songs. But that’s the way it is with music, and with this music in particular. Thanks to everyone who helped to bring it out to the world.

P.S. A few updates and afterthoughts:

Cz.K. Sebő is pronounced “cé ká sebő” (very roughly, if this were French, “tsé ka chèbeu,” with an elongated “eu”). As for his full name, you can hear his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergő Balla introduce him at the beginning of this interview. In Hungarian, the surname is said or written first, then the given name; Sebestyén (Sebő for short) is his given name. You can hear many more of Sebő’s songs on Bandcamp and in videos of his wonderful concerts at the A38 Hajó: one in 2018 and one in 2020.

When I started this “Listen Up” series, I hadn’t listened to “Hart” yet, but I realized later that the words “listen up” are in the lyrics of the song. So let the series title be in honor of “Hart.” The next piece in this series will feature Art of Flying.

I made various revisions, additions, and edits to this piece after posting it, but the basics are unchanged.

“I Still Love Christmas….”

Cultural differences surprise me over time. It seems that with all our international media, such differences are disappearing or blurring, but this is not so. At Christmastime especially, I notice the differences between the U.S. and Hungary–or, rather, coastal U.S. and Hungary. Many people I know in the U.S. (particularly in New York, Boston, and San Francisco) say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; there’s a certain discomfort with saying “Merry Christmas,” since the addressee might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of another faith; or nonreligious, or otherwise non-Christmas-celebrating.

Yet this Christmas-nonmentioning custom seems fairly recent; I grew up with Christmas and Merry Christmas, albeit of a secular sort. We had a Christmas tree every year and decorated it with cookies shaped like birds. On Christmas morning my sister and I found presents under the tree. When we lived in the Netherlands, we celebrated Sinkerklaas. In high school I sang Christmas songs and sacred music. One of my favorite works was Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols; I still remember the sound of Louisa Burnham singing the solo of “Balulalow.” Looking back, I wonder what it was like for my Jewish classmates to sing Christmas songs year after year. I was barely aware of being Jewish myself, and had no idea, until later, that there could be a conflict. Today I don’t think there has to be one–it’s possible to celebrate or recognize Christmas, in some way, no matter who you are, or what your origins or beliefs–but I understand its sources.

But in the U.S., Christmas also means a lot of stress: rushing around for presents, worrying about what to buy and what you might or might not get, bearing with loud workplace parties and Secret Santa rituals, surviving tense family gatherings, etc. This remains unchanged even under the “Happy Holidays” banner. Many people understandably object to the way the holiday has been commercialized over the decades. Yet we also love the Christmas displays in storefronts and on the streets. Gaudy and ungreen as they may be, they still bring cheer and nostalgia. I have happy memories of going with friends to see the Macy’s displays–and why? because they are so pretty, because we enjoy the Christmas spirit and its electric manifestations.

That is one of myriad reasons why “I Still Love Christmas” by my friend Hannah Marcus is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s so funny and sweet, with one zinger after another, and such beautiful performance; on top of that, it captures the ambivalence that so many of us feel: the uneasy love of Christmas, the quasi-guilty, defiant delight in its rituals. This, I think, is foreign to many Hungarians; here Christmas is celebrated (whether religiously or secularly) with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever, except by those who feel pressured into or constrained by it, who may be more numerous than I realize.

And I still love Christmas, with misgivings that are culturally untranslatable. “You can’t take that from me, no siree….” I would have a tree this year, except that the cats would definitely pounce on it and bring it down. So my tree this year is double: a lovely illuminated wreath-hanging that a friend gave me yesterday, and a dried floral wreath given to me by another friend a few weeks ago, just before Hanukkah.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, enjoy, or “still love” it, and Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to all.

I took the top photo outside the Szolnok Airplane Museum and the bottom photo at home.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

hutton

Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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