Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

There’s a Wall in Washington – Iris Dement

There’s a Wall in Washington

Written and Performed by Iris Dement. You can listen to the studio version here. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album, The Way I Should, here.  

Introduced by insistent bongos and a sound bed of piano and guitar, Iris Dement steps the microphone and in a clear, strong voice wails, “There’s a wall in Washington.” Her voice rasps with earnestness, the lyrics as straightforward as a punch.

Like the monument itself, the song unfolds unadorned by needless details or melodrama.

There’s a wall in Washington
And it’s made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it

She sings of three visitors – a father, a mother and a son – each making a pilgrimage to this wall. Dement does not overdramatize the moments as each reaches for a name:

A father, he traveled from far away
To walk the path ’til he finds that name
He reaches his hand up and traces each letter
The tears they fall as his memories gather
For the boy who filled his heart with pride
Is now but a name that’s been etched
In the side of this wall in Washington

Think of Lincoln’s words about an earlier war when he spoke at the Gettysburg burial ground:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

For many years, I’ve travelled to Washington, coming to visit, to do business, to protest and to celebrate, and each time I’ve made my own pilgrimage to this wall. I have no relatives honored there, no best friends, but the black stone and those names calls anyway. The wall belongs to each of us, it mutely challenges each of us in a deeply personal way that transcends mere facts and arguments.

I think of the dead as if older brothers. I think of the unlived histories that shadow our world, the live side by side the lives that continued. The uncrushed side of the bed when a wife rolled over for a hug she could not get. The father not hovering over his son, gripping a plastic baseball bat to show the boy how to swing. The man not tightening the pedals on his daughter’s new bike. The empty couch where a man might have slumped after another lousy day at work. The father not there to ground the son who took the car and came home way too late. The truck that did not get driven to make a delivery or the spreadsheet not built to track an inventory or a stock not analyzed or a case not argued in a court with one less lawyer.  The beer not drunk when the Giants finally won a Super Bowl after all those years of mediocrity.  The man not sitting in the bleachers at the high school graduation and beaming even as he shook his head when he realizes his son wore those sneakers anyway. The vote not made and the question not asked at a parent-teacher meeting and the song not sung in praise of God on a Sunday morning. The toast not made at a Thanksgiving dinner table and the new boyfriend not quizzed. The moment when the son had to figure out how to fix a thermostat as no one was there to show him how. The man not leaping to his feet when his wife stood up to accept her award as teacher of the year and the arms not there to hug her after the lump in the breast turned out to be nothing.  The moment when the bride walks the aisle by herself without a father gripping her hand and lifting her veil to kiss her. The phone not answered when the son calls about a new job or a job lost or the news that a baby would soon join them. The world that spun this way and not that way.

I think of those who did not go by luck, reason or manipulation. I think of those who went and came back, each marked, though no two marked the same. I’ve listened to the stories of men who did go, men met on the job, in bars, on the road, men who could not shut up or who stuttered till they could get out the words or said nothing, just stonily stared in response to a question or laughed it off with assurances that it was all long ago. I’ve seen the documentaries and read the news reports filled with facts and details and read the truth in the works of Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, Larry Heinemann, Gustav Hasford and Bobbie Ann Mason.

All of that helps explain why there’s that wall and none of it explains enough. All of that explains why I bow before that wall and yet it doesn’t begin to explain the tears no matter how sloppy and sentimental I may be. All those possibilities and now nothing.

Dement follows the young boy in the song as he finds his father’s name and reaches to touch it, the physical manifestation of a lifetime of memories and shadows. And then she sings:

“Who is to blame for this wall in Washington
That’s made of cold black granite?
Why is my father’s name etched here in it
In this wall in Washington?”

The artist does not have to provide answers; the questions are enough. Think of an earlier song, when the singer asked, “how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned?” The questions wait for our answers.

Dement does not name the wall for good reason. The song touches on a sad reality, that she sings not of the Viet Name war, but all the wars before and all the wars past that leave behind fathers, mothers and orphans ask why. History is less a lesson we need to learn and more a nightmare we can’t escape.

Today we fight two wars. Good wars we are told; necessary wars the President calls them. I am still the brother, but a parent now too, old enough to think of my eldest boys – age 20 and 17 – and their friends and peers. I know of the boys and girls signing up out of patriotism or obligation or a way out or because they have nothing better to do. And I listen to all the men and women (“You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks”) with their impassioned arguments as to why more young people must die. They die for the nation. They die to save lives. They die for freedom. They die for oil. They die for the way of life. They die for us. And who are we to ask them to die? Who are we to let them die?

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