“John Brown” makes a fitting Memorial Day song, one to come after we sweep up from the parades and put away the speakers’ microphones, to remind of us of the deeply personal sacrifice made when our young go off to fight. And a song to make us think before asking one more soldier to pick up a weapon overseas.
Archive for the ‘Folk Music’ Category
Our connections to individual songs can be intensely personal. A song might be no more than white noise to one person and yet to another it can be like a punch to the chest that stops the heart and snatches the breath. So it is for me with Steve Forbert’s “Going Down to Laurel.” Released in late 1978, I had been living in Ireland at the time and don’t remember hearing it until the summer of 1979 when I returned to the States. It was the summer before my senior year of college; much of the music I fed on in high school had grown stale and began giving way to new acts like the Ramones and the Clash that would become new favorites. Here came this bright-eyed folkie, full of verve and fun, an undeniable energy synched with the rhythm of my heart.
Steve Earle headed out with guitar slung on his shoulder, a head full of ideas, a mug full of attitude, a longing heart and appetites big as Texas. Fates and circumstance led him to Townes Van Zandt who became mentor, friend and shaman feeding those appetites with everything from how to pick a guitar, turn a lyric and, so the story goes, make sure he used clean needles when shooting heroin. When Towns Van Zandt passed away on New Year’s Day 1997, Earle kept following, finding his friend wherever he turned until he finally sat down in Galway, Ireland two months later and wrote Fort Worth Blues as a tribute to his departed friend.
My Dad would’ve turned 83 today, so you won’t blame me if I gave Steve Goodman’s ode to his father’s passing a spin. Singing in a rueful voice, the whisper of strings in the background, Goodman’s meditation on his Dad teeters on the maudlin. He saves the song with the honesty of his portrait and the truth he finds.
Written and performed by Mason Jennings. An odd, moving song with music breezy as a day at the beach and a story sad enough to make you stop and cry. The strumming guitar and twinkling piano float like a Jack Johnson song, yet the lyrics tell a song of heartbreak and sorrow. It opens with our narrator sitting with a loaded gun at a little graveyard, seven police cars headed his way. He makes one plea:
Just because you say it doesn’t make it true
You can say that I’m guilty man I just don’t care
You can burn my body black
Just don’t make me go back to Jackson Square
There’s a Wall in Washington
Written and Performed by Iris Dement.
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.
Jesus, the Missing Years
Written and Performed by John Prine. These poets, or in this case, a singer-songwriter, can be trouble. No wonder Plato wanted to exile them from his Republic. These poets are like a force of nature tending towards disorder, challenging what we see, asking questions no one wants asked. It’s Warren Zevon declaring “I was born to rock the boat” (from “Mutineer”) and Bob Dylan declaring, “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” Along comes John Prine asking questions and poking fun at Jesus or at least the common notions of Jesus and you know that’s trouble. It’s why parents get so upset about the music their kids listen to. (As the elders issue their cries and objections – where are you now Tipper Gore? – over the supposed violence or misogyny of rap and hip-hop, listening to a good old Chicago folkie begs the question who’s more subservice, L.L. Cool J or Steve Goodman?)
Written and performed by Michelle Shocked.
Floating on an irresistible melody and a pulsing rhythm section, “Come a Long Way” uses a Los Angeles travelogue to tell the story of a girl falling in so far in love that’s she’s afraid of losing herself. That helpless feeling of love moprhs into anger as she storms away from her man and kick starts the tale
Written and performed by Greg Brown.
An autumnal drama, “Laughing River” tells the story of an aging minor league baseball player forced to watch his dreams slip away and learn to face a world with smaller dreams and colder reality. Soaked with the melancholy that the changing of the season and the falling of the leaves can bring, Brown gives voice to those moments when we see all too clearly that we have lost our youth and the grand hopes we nurtured, a moment when forced to accept the realities of growing up.
Girl from the North Country
Written by Bob Dylan
A Dylan staple for over 45 years and covered by others “Girl from the North Country” can first seem like nothing more than a romantic remembrance of a past love, one told with great affection and telling detail. Yet this song is not as simple as it seems; it skirts the edge of sentimentality to resonate with a potent mix of desire, loss and longing not for a past love, but for meaning. It is not an easy song, refusing to wallow in the past and refusing to deny the loss of the love and a younger self. Nor does the song take the easy way out, refusing to conclude with familiar bromides or clichéd resolves. Instead, the song ends with an uneasy sense of how our present depends upon the past.