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 #2: Presser/Csík, Art of Flying, Waits

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On this blog I recently started a song series, in which I intend to present songs I have introduced in class, am planning to introduce, or wish to include for any reason. My main purpose is to draw attention to songs themselves and what they can hold and do–but purposes aside, this is fun. The first post focused on songs that I had brought to various classes and that we had sung along with cello.

This time, I will introduce three songs that remind me of each other in some way, whether musically, lyrically, or otherwise. All three are tremendous (they come up to you slowly and then shake something up in you); all have to do with love in a broken and transitory world. They all convey hope in some way without sidestepping loss and sadness. The Gábor Presser and Art of Flying songs remind me of each other melodically and rhythmically (in the chorus); the Presser and Tom Waits, lyrically. The Art of Flying lyrics stand apart. The similarities between these songs compelled me to consider them together; their differences are even more interesting than what they share.

The song “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” (“You will take my hand and take me home”), written by Presser, has to do with two people staying together even after everything and everyone else leaves them–youth, money, comfort, health, family, friends. Here are two different renditions; each one brings something different out of the song. It was Marcell Bajnai’s cover that introduced me to the song; I then heard it in a concert by the band Csík (this past Saturday night). Although I love the instrumental parts of the Csík version (and the way they transform the song), Marcell’s cover brings out the lyrics and gives them room. The mood of his rendition is different too: more reflective or matter-of-fact than exuberant.

Now listen to Art of Flying’s “Tomorrow” (one of my favorite songs in the world, on their wonderful album “Garden of Earthly Delights“); you will hear how the two choruses remind me of each other. As far as I know, there’s no video of the song; the recording is up on their Bandcamp site, where you can listen to all of their albums. I am proud to have played cello on one of their songs. Here, by following the link below (in an image of the record cover), you can listen to “Tomorrow” and read the lyrics, which begin:

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

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These lyrics, like many Art of Flying lyrics, hold a range of times; they are ancient and modern, immediate and evocative at once. The vocal harmonies go so gently along that you hardly realize what is happening to you until the song is over and you think, wait, what? How did that song get into my bones?

Finally, here is Tom Waits’s “Time.” The similarity between these and Presser’s lyrics lies not just in the theme, but in the relation between verse and chorus; in both, the verses (mostly) hold the brokenness, and the choruses the simple affirmation. Also, both speak of the future in some way; although Csík refers to physical action (taking a person’s hand and bringing the person home) and Waits to some metaphysical state (of it being “time” for something), they both speak of something that will endure or come into being. It was the Presser/Csík song that reminded me of the Waits song and how great it is.

That wraps it up for the second installment of the song series. Next time, unless some other ideas occur in the meantime, I intend to present a few songs that have had special importance to me over the decades, songs that have stood out as favorites over time.

I took the photo by the Zagyva river on Sunday night.

Update: After writing this post, I realized (on my own) that I had made an error: “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” is written by Gábor Presser; this is stated in Marcell Bajnai’s video credits, but I mistakenly thought he was a member of Csík. The Csík version is a cover; in the video, Presser performs it with them. I adjusted the post and title accordingly (and made some other edits too, while I was at it). Here is Presser’s own recording of the song. This adds to the correspondences; his voice and Waits’s have a similar texture.