Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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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.

Song Series #4: What Is a Song?

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What is a song? It’s sung, and it often has a recognizable structure (verse-chorus, for instance). It’s memorable; something about it makes you want to sing along. But there’s more still; in a song, the music affects the lyrics and vice versa. Words and wordlessness interplay. Here are four classic examples.

In “Canción del árbol del olvido,” by Alberto Ginastera and Fernán Silva Valdés, performed by Víctor Jara, the lyrics are brief and haunting, ending in a reversal (forgetting to forget). The guitar tones and arpeggios carry the words languorously along, slowing down to stillness and then resuming; the song feels like it falls asleep and wakes up, again and again.

These are the lyrics:

En mi pago hay un árbol
que del olvido se llama
donde van a consolarse
vidalita, los moribundos del alma.

Para no pensar en vos
en el árbol del olvido
me acosté una nochecita
vidalita, y me quedé bien dormido.

Al despertar de aquel sueño
pensaba en vos otra vez
pues me olvidé de olvidarte
vidalita, en cuantito me acosté.

For the next song, I have to name “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. It’s an incredible example of how the music transforms the lyrics. On the page, they look like nothing, but in the music, they become a ring of fire itself; the repeated words (“down, down, down, down,” etc.) are flames leaping up. I love the off-kilter, varying measure counts, often found in Carter Family songs. Here’s the original version, sung by Anita Carter; after that and the lyrics, I’ll include the Johnny Cash version (1963), for which he brought in trumpets (an unusual choice for him). It was the Cash version that made the song famous, but I love the Carter version more.

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bringing her to the heart’s desire
I fell in to a ring of fire

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When two fiery hearts meet
I believed you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

I wasn’t sure what to choose for the third. I had a few songs in mind, but they seemed remote from the first two; I will bring them up some other time. Then I had a dream about Ecclesiastes in the form of a song, and remembered–or maybe learned–that such a song exists: Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” covered by The Byrds, Nina Simone, and many others. The music gives the lyrics a mood different from what I would expect: something sparkling and thoughtful at once. Almost the entire song consists of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Only a few words (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) are Seeger’s own. Yet the music and those lyrical additions turn the Biblical passage into a dreamy yet grounded song.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And how different and gorgeous the Nina Simone version:

Well, this brought me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” beloved around the world. The melody, instruments, and intonations bring out the song’s complex tones. I love Leonard Cohen’s original more than any cover, but as far as covers go, I am drawn to Regina Spektor’s, especially this performance with cello.

That is all for this installment of the song series. The next one will focus on songs with a sense of the absurd.

I took the photo in Central Park on Friday, August 2.

To see the first three installments of the song series, go here, here, and here.

Gratitude, Cultivated and Wild

fort tryon park july 2016

I dislike the gratitude of platitudes. I sympathize with those who resist obligatory gratitude; I resist it too, or at least I have in the past. The perfunctory thank-you card fulfills a duty but may lack some spark. Yet raw, unbidden gratitude has its problems too; it depends too much on momentary passions. It’s easy to pour gratitude into one thing or person and ignore another; this turns into self-will and self-satisfaction, a far and whooping cry from gratitude at its best. So, over time, I have come to favor a mixture of the cultivated and the wild. True gratitude, at once genuine and responsible, does exist.

The photo above (which I took yesterday evening in Fort Tryon Park) has more of the cultivated; the one below (which I took in June), more of the wild. Or maybe that is an illusion; maybe they both contain both in similar proportions. In any case, when I walk there, I sense intense gratitude of many kinds around me. People come to pause, to take things in. They walk their dogs, run up the steep hills, bring easel and paint, take pictures, recline on a lawn or bench, engage in a fencing match, or just walk empty-handed and think. The park has its troubles; there have been robberies and other crimes. Walking there too late or too early is not wise. All the same, it is a magnificent place, and the regulars, staff, and volunteers help protect it.

On another note: the short film “The Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, is filming in my building, just down the hall from me. The premise is promising (it’s based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women“), and I look forward to the film.

fort tryon park june 2016