Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Windfall by Son Volt – A Song for My Son

Windfall

Performed by Son Volt and written by Jay Farrar, lead singer of the group. You can listen to live versions of the song here, here and here. You can buy it from iTunes here.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

Released in late 1995 on Trace, “Windfall” is the first song on the first album from Son Volt, a band formed by Jay Farrar after the break-up of Uncle Tupelo. The song captures a melancholic urgency, a longing for connection through music. It is one of the most personal songs in my life, in part because of the nature of the song and in part because it ran through my mind so often during a particular crisis that it became part of that formative moment.

One verse captures the essence of the song:

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven

You could see yourself driving across an endless night, fiddling with the dial to hear a little more clearly. Farrar’s voice makes it work, plaintive and full of desire. When it comes time for the chorus, his voices picks up and a fiddle lifts the song. The chorus offers a benediction:

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away

We have certain songs that fuse to moments in our lives and become an integral part of those moments. There may be no particular reason why these songs bind to us, some combination of happenstance and openness. I’m not talking about songs that serve as a soundtrack to events or even those that evoke a certain time period. No, I’m talking about songs that become part of our very fiber.

“Windfall” is one such song for me and here’s the story of that song and me.

Cast back to February 1996 and I have “Windfall” running round my brain. WFUV, my favorite station then and now, had it in rotation. It is a Saturday night, shortly after midnight, the covering OB tells my wife and I that the umbilical cord appears to have wrapped itself around our unborn child’s neck so she want to perform a C-section. A few minutes later, I’m holding our newborn son, John Lee, in my arms, weeping like the sappy sentimental fool I am, weeping with the same joy that coursed through me when I held each of our first two boys, reaching for my bride’s hand and squeezing tight. The OB put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Congratulations” on the way out of the room. It would be a long time before things so simple and clean again.

An hour or so later, the covering pediatrician, another stranger, entered the recovery room, eyes down, fiddling with a button on her white hospital smock. Her white sneakers seemed too white and too large. She tried to look at us as she said, “there’s some news…about your child…he may have Down Syndrome…a mild case perhaps…need to confirm…not certain.” She stood there for a bit, looking at her hands, saying something about services.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

My wife and I kept nodding. We shrugged our shoulders. We thought we knew – Down Syndrome, okay – but we knew nothing. We hugged. We knew enough. Our boy, John Lee, Down Syndrome. Okay, we go on, three boys, each different in his own way.

Not till the next morning did the world we expected begin to fall apart. It should have been scenes of Mom nestling her newborn, his brothers fanning around asking to hold him, family members stopping by with big smiles and uplifted eyes. Instead, I arrived with a downloaded list of conditions that accompany Downs Syndrome as my wife finally succeeded in convincing our regular pediatrician to examine John Lee because he hadn’t held down any food. All the day before the medical staff ignored the warnings of a mother who knew something was wrong and the x-rays revealed the mother’s wisdom: John’s intestine had not fully formed, a blockage prevented food from getting through. As we held him on our arms, John Lee had been starving. Check one box on the Chinese menu of maladies and malformations that I carried in my hand. One from column A, two from Column B and a few thrown in by the house for good measure.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I followed the ambulance to Westchester Medical center, the tertiary care center, big medicine for my little boy. My menu of afflictions stated with warnings of heart defects, but the new doctors, stern, busy, speaking with professional dispassion, assured me his heart was fine. Yes, his heart was fine. Then I overheard the senior fellow ordering an EKG for the newborn with the heart murmur.  Welcome to the world of the NICU (Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit) where dissembling comes with the program. While the doctors hurriedly assured me it was nothing much and not to worry, the paper in my hand warned of Atrioventricular Septal Defects and Ventricular Septal Defect.  John Lee was no longer fine, now his heart had holes.

My boy lay in a clear plastic box, wires and tubes glued to his chest. So close, but untouchable, unreachable. The doctors poked and prodded. One scribbled notes on a chart and looked up, made an off-hand observation, “They try to save these babies now.”

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I am a physically large man. In those days, I carried the title of Chief Operating Officer for a management company. I ran things. I built things, yet there I stood, alone, hovering over my boy. Humbled, wanting to do so much with so little I could do. I wanted my wife, needed her, but she lay helpless in a hospital bed, miles away, recovering from the cut they made to pull her son from the womb.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I read everything I could; I asked every question I could imagine. I piled facts on facts hoping for wisdom. I pushed back at the doctors, poked and prodded the bald man who screamed up at me, “We’ll tell you what you need to know.” I argued back, it was the least I could do for John Lee. Yes, he would have intestinal by-pass surgery. Of course, I will sign the papers but can you tell me what they say?  

In a last faithless act, I summoned a priest. He had fingers thin and short like spent cigarettes that opened a battered prayer book. We stood side-by-side as he baptized John Lee, waving his hand and reciting the words, “dust unto dust.” He smelled of the oils on his fingers and lime after-shave. He anointed the sick, the sick being John Lee, my two-day old son, not some elderly person at the end of a long life. The priest tilted his head and shrugged. “You never know with surgery, but I am sure it will all be fine. Have faith.” He put the hand that had rested on hundreds of shoulder on my shoulder, all he could offer. This was not God’s choice, not God’s plan. No, we’re talking randomness, an extra chromosome and what happened next depended not on prayers but on the skill of the surgeon.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

They rolled him back and said the surgery was successful, a long bandage over the side they split open. Another doctor began to talk in acronyms – ASD and VSD – small holes in the heart that need patching. John hit the jackpot, had it all. “Not now, he’s too small. He has to grow to withstand the surgery…but he cannot grow until he has the surgery.” The doctor dropped those words and then scrammed.

I offered my son my exhaustion. I could barely stay awake, but could not let myself sleep. I shuttled back to the community hospital and hugged my wife. I shared facts. I told her what the doctors could do. She felt so cut-off, more helpless then me, laying in her own hospital bed, so disconnected from her son. I regaled her with talks of when John opened his eyes, of his tiny nose, his tiny hand of any detail that made him real

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I drove home to see the older boys, Paddy and his big eyes, curly hair and trying to act so big for his six years and Jamie, blonde and wily and not understanding how Mom and Dad could go out Saturday night and then not come back. They peppered me with questions and I did my best to offer certainly, to offer sense in a nonsensical world. I thought of my own Dad and how he never showed doubt. How did he do it? I immersed myself in my boys’ world, listened to Jamie’s pre-school foibles, making paper hats and molding something with green Play-Doh; Pat scored another 100 on a first grade spelling test. Their world seemed not to include the sterility of the NICU where babies slept like specimens in plastic boxes. I pulled them tight and hugged hard as if the hug could hold in my absence, but my arms felt the impermanence of smoke than muscle and bone.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

Family and friends called and stammered congratulations and hesitant condolences. Why condolences? A boy child born to us. My mother-in-law dismissed our anxiety. “He will be productive, can get a job pushing a broom, you’ll see.” At birth, each child is infinite, each can become Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Odysseus, each full of joy and happiness and you give him a broom?

Family offered prayers and counsel. “God gave him to you and Carol because you can handle the burden.” My son, a burden? I imagined a cartoon God, flowing robes and hair, Zeus-like lightning bolt in hand, scouring the earth for happy families so he could smite them with affliction.

 “May the wind take your troubles away.”

We were lucky. My brother and sister taking care of our older boys. My friend Cliff, the best ex-offensive guard turned surgeon, finding us a cardiologist we could trust. We had friends who listened with no attempt to explain or promise away what none of us could understand.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I stood my guard over John Lee, hovering. I had so little to give, so little I could do. I wanted to wrap him in my arms, to pull him tight to my chest as if we could heal each other. I wanted arms big enough, strong enough to wrap all my boys to me, to hold my wife, to keep us together, to keep us whole in a world where everything pulls apart as if I could love hard enough to overcome the laws of physics.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

I read poems to John. I read Whitman for his optimism and rhythms, his longing and completeness. I read Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, the poet’s gift to his children at birth, his verses, prophecies and blessings. And I sang the only songs I knew, as Kinnell writes:

not the songs

of light said to wave

through the bright hair of angels,

but a blacker

rasping flowering on that tongue.

Even with the birth of our third child, I knew no nursery rhymes, no children’s songs. I croaked my version of old Dylan songs – “One Too Many Mornings,” “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and in moments of joy looking at my son, “New Morning.” I sang old blues numbers and slow ballads. And I sang “Windfall.” I sang the chorus like a chant, an offering and a blessing for my boy:

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away

I sang as if John’s life depended on it, as if my own life hung in the balance. I sang as if my voice could patch the holes in his heart, as if the very sound of my voice could tether me to John, keep us from floating apart. I sang for my son cause it was all I could do. I had nothing but my voice to reach him, nothing but words and my off-key notes. I could not touch, could not act, I could only speak and sing.

“May the wind take your troubles away.”

Three months later at a different hospital (Columbia Presbyterian) and different doctors, John underwent successful open-heart surgery and he has thrived ever since.

 John Lee turned 14 years old this past February and finishes up the 8th grade next month, though he can barely concentrate on school given his excitement over going off to high school next year. If you meet John, you instantly share his happiness. Stay around long enough and you will hear him sing, maybe even see him dance. John loves to sing. He and I often sing together, walking down the street like two happy drunks giving full chorus to the sun and stars. He asks for the songs from when he as a baby and we sing his favorites, ”Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Be-Bop-A-Lu-Lu.”

He asks me to sing him to sleep at night. I sit on the edge of his bed and lean over him to do my best with “Girl from the North Country” and he smiles like no one else. And when he drifts off to sleep, I hover over him and softly croak, ““May the wind take your troubles away.”

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One Response to “Windfall by Son Volt – A Song for My Son”

  1. What a beautiful story, thanks for sharing it. May the wind take your troubles away.


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