Category Archives: Blues
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Friday morning, I got up early. I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off. I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.
Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece. Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves. I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen. The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song. What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?
A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood. I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product. And here is what I wrote:
“Greg: I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar. The mood suggested a title for the piece: “Weeping in Ramah” CLICK TO LISTEN from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents What do you think?
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home. Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours. I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired. The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.
I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition. Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable. Read the rest of this entry
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
Tonight I will be in concert at Moonlight on the Mountain in Bluff Park, which is in Hoover, Alabama. Hoping lots of my friends will come out. I will be sharing the evening with Adler & Hearne, a songwriter duo from Texas. The some in the first time that I have had a chance to hear them live, and I’m looking forward to it. I will have the first half of the concert beginning at 730. Adler & Hearne will come after me, and lots of friends have told me they’re coming out tonight. We’ll have a grand time! If you’re in the Birmingham area I would welcome you to come and join us.
One of my very favorite things to do is to read song titles. Titles are one of the most challenging aspects of preaching or songwriting. A title has to catch the listener’s interest. It can cause them to wonder, or it can be the hook of the song. A lot of titles, Especially in the seventies, seem to have little or nothing to do with the song itself! A good title can play with your mind. Fortunately, titles cannot be copyrighted, so sometimes you can even re-do a great title . Here’s the song list for tonight. I’m a couple of terrific friends, Brent warren and Don Wendorf, who are coming to play with me on some of the songs. He is the setlist for tonight. You can ponder the titles and come hear for yourself.
|Stuck in the Mud|
|Man I Didn’t Kill|
|Imperfections No. 2|
|Playing It Safe|
|Momma’s Only Sleeping|
|Overload of Bad News Blues|
|The Us That Used to Be|
|Trying to Remember|
|A Little Truth Can Kill You|
|People in Egypt|
|Your Whole Life In Front of You|
|Cold Hard Cash|
|What It Is|
|Sky’s a Clearing|
A few years ago, I wrote a song as part of a sermon series on the Blues. I was inspired by a book by Stephen J. Nichols called, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation. We had a great time in church—using drama of great blues figures like Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and others, and blues songs to illuminate a lot of Bible stories.
Oddly, to listen to the sanitized Suburbianity of today, you’d think religion was all panacea and no sorrow. Nothing is more unbiblical than some of the nonsense that passes for Christianity, especially on the televised versions. Getting the victory is more about American optimism than biblical reality.
If you read the Psalms and listen to the blues, you get some balance in your soul. Throw in Job for good measure. The blues are about turning pain into prayer. One blues singer down in Mississippi said of his effort to teach the old blues to young boys, “I’m putting guitars in their hands instead of guns.” You can debate guns, but no debate about killing—killing breeds more killing. Despair leads to desperate things.
The blues is the choice to explore our pain rather than yield to it or collapse from it. It turns pain into prayer. One of the most familiar of all blues lines is a prayer found in the common Christian tradition in worship going all the way back to the first two centuries of Christianity, what the Catholics and Orthodox call the “Kyrie” for the word “Lord.” “Lord, have mercy.”
Lord, have mercy. You have to sing it right– Say it like this: “LO-rd HAAAAVE MER-cy
So I tried my hand at a blues song. I wrote “Widow of Zarephath Blues.” It was based on a simple little story in the Old Testament.
NRS 1 Kings 17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Here is this widow, in Zarephath—foreigner in that time. Elijah goes to her, because Israel is devastated by drought, but even worse, by spiritual compromise and failure. Think about what she might be singing those words Elijah comes up to ask for something to eat. So I tried my hand. The song below is what I came up with.
She could have lived in North Carolina in 1931 or certain parts of any city. Back in December our church helped a single Mom make her car payment. She got evicted on December 23 with two kids. That’s blues.
Since our politicians are arguing about the 1% and the middle class, and since nobody seems to have anything to say about poor people, evicted people, homeless folks and folks on hard times, I’ll send this song out to you. Real faith is feeding your neighbor where there isn’t enough to go around. Hope we get around to it eventually. But until then, while they argue about spending money we borrowed before we made it, I’ll send this one out to the hard-times widows and their kin.
Click here to listen to“Widow of Zarephath Blues”
Tonight our band is going to perform in one of the most prestigious gospel venues around our region—the American Gospel Quartet Convention, here in Birmingham. Here many of the great African American gospel groups gather to sing, worship and honor fellow performers each year. It’s meeting at the More Than Conquerors Church in Birmingham. I like the names a lot of the independent churches give themselves. It says something about “who we want to be.” I heard about a midwestern church that actually named itself “Christ Memorial Church.” What in the WORLD! Ain’t you people heard about Easter???!!!!
Anyway, many of the greats of gospel have played here over the years—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Fairfield Four (remember the quartet singing in “O Brother Where Art Thou” when the boys are about to meet their maker at the end of a rope?) Gospel and Blues have often conflicted with each other. Some in the church even disapproved of the blues, feeling that it conflicted with the joy of the gospel. I read once that the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972, refused to sing the blues. “’Blues are the songs of despair,’ she declared. ‘Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.’”
Mahalia Jackson may be one of the greatest singers EVER. Her rendition of the song of the day I posted today, “Precious Lord,” plays at the Lorraine Motel while you stand at the spot where Martin Luther King died, at least it did when I visited, and the tearful experience I had there inspired my song “Lorraine.” I have to gently disagree, though. The blues, they are Bible songs, too, if we read the Psalms right. There is a whole section scholars call, “Psalms of Lament.” Over sixty of the psalms are considered “laments,” mingling despair and hope as a prayer calling on God for help. Somehow, to win victory by denial is a diminishment of the spiritual journey.
Still, the fork gospel music became offers a place of respite, joy, and at least a chance to voice the vision of victory. Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord,” embodied this contradiction and conflict between blues and gospel. Son of a pastor, he rebelled against his raising early in life and went to Chicago in the early blues scene and gained some renown under the name “Georgia Tom,” but he struggled financially and spiritually.
“Precious Lord’ was born out of his own tragedy. The preacher’s kid who had the foundation, whose parents prayed for him, who drifted away, into the nightclub world and secular success, then, two mental breakdowns, and finally, surrender to the gospel ministry and a long, long career at the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago nevertheless suffered terribly.
In 1932, in the midst of his transition back into gospel for good, his wife Nettie died during childbirth, along with their firstborn, Thomas Andrew, Jr., who died the next day. Thomas was away at a gospel meeting, and got the news. Out of the anguish of that song came “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was the end of his blues singing for good, oddly enough.
His gospel greatness came out of that crucible of suffering. There is no guarantee about life. If the Bible is any guide, the blues will be the way to Gospel Joy. They are different parts of the same journey. I hope you’ll enjoy a listen to a version of Dorsey’s song I recorded with my bandmate, Nancy Womble of Shades Mountain Air. We recorded it at my house, with me playing bass, guitar and mandolin and simply a lead vocal. It is spare, recalling the hallowed, bluesy, holy crucible of Tom Dorsey’s suffering. Ann Lamotte says there really are only two kinds of prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” One is gospel, the other blues…
NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing. This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.
Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day. The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness. It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.
Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.
Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.
Who is right? Mary or Nietsche? Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts? Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition: “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.” “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”
Mary’s song bears some study for us. We sing things that come from the deepest places in us. Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing. To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.
The question is, “Which song?”
I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.” It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple. It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round. It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him. It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.
One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.” It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen. If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”
The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them. In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them. It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.
The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God. Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.” Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:
NRS Exodus 15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over. They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.
That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition. One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s. Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.
That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary. It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.
Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one. Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway. Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.
Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture. But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world. The nobodies are somebodies to God. The forgotten are remembered. The lost are found.
Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.” One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either. For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar. If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.
Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship! One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–
- We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
- We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values. If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus? Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
- True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.
Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?” And the answer is, “No.” What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know. Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”
But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination. To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche. He said, “Yes, you are right. Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.” Niebuhr wrote:
The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.
I tell you this: it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion. Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest. A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself. Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption. Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us. Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.
We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world. We seek security by power and it eludes us even more. We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.
We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster. The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness. The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.
The church is not exempt from this way, either. We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.
If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way. I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life. It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.
But the alternative is worse. If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus. I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others. I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.
Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on. When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings. We might change the patterns of the past. We might find healing and health. We might make a difference in the world.
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary, don’t you weep
Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
One of these days about twelve o clock,
This old world’s going to reel and rock
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep
When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out
Pharaoh’s army got drowned
O Mary don’t you weep
Do we have any idea what we’re singing?
- Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
- Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
- Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
- Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
- Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
- Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
- Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.
For a change, Alabamians were watching anxiously for everyone else’s safety as Irene ripped up the Eastern seaboard. Alabamians are used to hunkering down in our safe places with flashlights and batteries, bottled water and a weather radio, waiting for the all clear. So we waited this time, but the memories of April were still with us. I have a daughter in New York, so I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg’s caution.
There is a delicious sweetness in hunkering in the dark during a storm. Routine stops, you call and gather everyone who matters most to you and let go of a frightful number of things that seem, normally, indispensable. So, for a moment, flights grounded, schools closed, ballgames stop, traffic ceases, the world grows still as nature roars its terrible beauty and we wait. It is delicious and sweet because the ache for life is powerful. Anxiety, just enough to give an edge, focused toward listening and being ready. Tomorrow, when the storm passes, not only will we have the euphoria of having survived, but we will also probably see the most beautiful weather in months. We are alive, and it feels good. We have remembered for a moment who matters to us, and what doesn’t matter at all, and it is clear to us.
Storm names are the oddest thing to me. Will I one day kneel in terror as “Hurricane Howard” or “Tropical Storm Myrtle Mae” bear down on me? Weird. We don’t name the tornadoes. They come too quickly and they’re gone. We only give them terrifying numbers: F4 or F3, as though they were aliens dropped on the earth to destroy us. Life and death, so close that we can think about it, not just abstractly.
So, glad it’s over. But it drove me to somber singing this weekend. Thought about old Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene” when some man had painted a hasty sign he nailed to his outer banks property, “GOOD NIGHT, IRENE.” Good night, indeed. And goodbye. We dodged death once more. We are a little more alive, although some didn’t make it. Count our blessings, clean up, and move on.
Had a little time this afternoon, so I recorded “Good Night Irene,” and remembered what a sad and tragic song it really is. It’s odd to see what happened to it. Leadbelly was a convicted murderer in prison who sang well enough to get a pardon or two, but the song is deeply sad, about a broken heart in an early marriage between two young, immature people. The singer struggles with temptation to die, to throw himself into the river and drown. Later mainstream folkies softened and sanitized it. The Weavers’ version sounds like something from “A Mighty Wind.” You can almost see Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball.
No, a good blues song is a serious thing–about life and death and pain and hellhounds. No white picket fences, just the storm of some life, roaring toward you, and the sheer audacity of living when you know you’re going to die sooner or later. Hunker down in a storm shelter, think about love and family and what matters, and your heart starts pouring out. So you sing it and the storm passes and you’re still here, the truth is out there now, in notes and tears, and you can get up and go on a little more, relieved, glad, breathing still. Now that’s a song. So, goodnight Irene. See you in our dreams, fears and all. Good to still be here.
I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley. Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr. This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians. It’s a pretty great list. Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key” I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.” We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.
Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life. Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever. A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels. After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.
Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music. Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be. Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.
Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage. If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere. She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style. Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo. Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies. Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.
They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice. Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have. They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake. They should have been playing on porches in 1946. Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.
That was August 12, a week ago as I write. Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died. Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday. I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country. We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer. But sometime in that day, the news came. “Elvis Presley died this morning.”
I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us. His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach. The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say. Not unlike Hank.
Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know. They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it. Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off. And then they were gone.
So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977. Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters. Thirty four years ago, the King was gone. Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too. What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life. So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing. If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”
So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both. You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go. We won’t forget you. Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”. Rest in peace.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.