Early next month, a group of lawyers will gather at Fordham Law School for a symposium on Bob Dylan and the Law. There’s a certain irony to this confab since Dylan’s so deeply wary of all institutions, especially powerful ones that wield the law. In Dylan’s songs, the legal system does not meet out justice; instead, it becomes a corrupt, often blind instrument of oppression designed to prop up the powerful and the wealthy. At the same time, a conference on Dylan and the law makes sense since it is a recurring theme in his songs ad appropriate as with each passing day corporate interests seem to gain at the expense of the individual.
Posts Tagged ‘Folk Music’
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.
And then came Neil Young, fuzzy guitar and wavering voice bringing a song that had all but stagnated into a museum piece back to life, a song that did nothing but ask questions, a song that made it possible to challenge, to dare. Standing in the darkness, he made it possible to wonder why and that song provided the common text around which 20,000 people could unite and know we were not alone. As the crowd cheered, we did so in appreciation of what the artist had just done for us. We stood in a collective sign of relief and empowerment, no longer alone, but connected in an experience that only certain art can provide.
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
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.
Birches – A Married Couple’s Love Song
Written and performed by Bill Morrissey
In his song, “Casey, Illinois,” Bill Morrissey sings, “Now I’m not young in a young man’s game,” a sad truth; playing and listening to rock music favors the young. The quintessential rock music still flows from Elvis’s braggadocio and broken heart rhythm and blues and Chuck Berry’s car songs. We grow excited about that new young band (Kings of Leon, anyone) and often forget or shake our heads over the Stones in their 60’s still trying to rock and roll. Many of the best artists have continued to produce as they enter their senior years and their audience ages too.
Yet much of the best music comes from older artist dealing with themes of maturity and much of the audience has aged too. Think of Dylan’s recent work – perhaps more resonant that anything he has ever written. Neil Young still thrashes about trying to make sense of the world as he sees it while Van Morrison still seeks his vision, only not as a young man would. Springsteen’s movie song, “The Wrestler,” grapples with finding victory in accepting one’s fate. Dylan’s song “Red River Shore” – arguably one of his best ever – may make no sense for the 20-year-old college student who lacks the experiences to understand, but it resonates with sadness and recognition to the older listener.
Bill Morrissey’s “Birches,” a love song as moving as any you will hear, stands as an example of a song that the young man or woman may not comprehend, but will rivet the middle age man or woman as it captures the small defeats and victories that infuse a marriage. Those familiar with Morrissey know the intricate craftsmanship that goes into his story-songs: concise, rich and telling details. Others have likened him to minimalist short-story writers like Raymond Carver, though the better comparison seems to be Andre Dubus given the New England settings, the deep empathy for their characters and the underlying spiritual dimensions in their work.