song: Bruce Springsteen “State Trooper”
song: Richard & Linda Thompson “Down Where The Drunkards Roll”
song: Mary Black “Columbus”
song: Gretchen Peters “Saint Francis ”
song: David Olney “1917”
song: Buddy Mondlock “The Cats Of The Colosseum”
song: Blind Boys of Alabama “Moses”
song: Sweet Honey In The Rock “Sylvie”
song: Ribbon Of Highway Cast (Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Ellis Paul, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Michael Fracasso) “This Train Is Bound For Glory”
This is the last in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
Haven’t done as well as I thought I would
I’m not dead but I’m damaged goods
And it’s getting late
As we grow older, the monsters and ghosts that haunted us in childhood trade in their garish clothing for something more mundane, more fitting to middle-age. They take the shape of lost causes, lost opportunities, lost love. They stare back at us from the mirror. They go by names like Futility, Defeat, Failure.
You don’t live this long without regrets
Telephone calls you don’t wanna get
Stones you’d rather leave unturned
Anyone who’s telling the truth will tell you that there are regrets. Eventually your limitations, your weaknesses and your failures rise up to greet you, and you either make peace with them or they haunt you, or kill you. Keep moving forward. Survival is heroic. It’s the struggle, not the victory.
This is the tenth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
I threw a rose to the matador
Not sure who I was cheering for
My aim was true, my heart was full
I loved the fighter and the bull
Federico García Lorca describes the Spanish concept of duende as a kind of dark spirit, a creative power which seizes an artist and brings forth the deepest, most elemental creation. The artist does not surrender to the duende, but battles it, “on the rim of the well”. The power of the duende is such that it takes control not only of the performer but also the audience. We’ve all felt it when the hairs on our neck are raised by a singer in thrall to a song, when we inexplicably cry at the turn of a phrase. Duende brings the artist “face to face with death.” But what about his audience, and the woman who loves him?
To fall in love is to lose oneself temporarily. To be pulled into another’s world. To love an artist like this is to be pulled into the furnace of his creative fire, to be swallowed whole by his world. And to resign oneself to being a spectator, at times. But oh, the view.
This is the ninth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
i worship no idol i seek no god
i don’t believe in no holy jihad
i don’t believe in original sin
i believe in the heat underneath our skin
When we’re children we enjoy ourselves without self-consciousness. Then somewhere along the way we stop trusting pleasure. Our puritanical inheritance kicks in and our animal selves check out. We start to buy the idea that the carnal is, if not evil, at least base. And the schism between the mind, the heart and the body deepens, until our souls are so out of whack that we do something radical. Maybe something that looks like a midlife crisis, or a cri de coeur, or the act of a crazy person. But in this world awash in craziness – people mowing each other down in WalMart to buy televisions, churches exhorting their congregations to hate – is it so crazy to stop worshipping at their altars and turn towards home, and each other?
They say religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who’ve already been there. We look for sustenance in a junk food world. Not so surprising that we find it by using our senses – the ones we were born with. Made in God’s own image, indeed.
This is the eighth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
In the heat of the moment he cried out your name But the moment it didn’t last long Ten minutes later he’s driving away And you’re putting your pantyhose on
The cracks are beginning to show. She hides behind a self-effacing laugh, but payment on that big debt is coming due. You can only bury the past for so long before it comes back up like a nasty splinter, working its way to the surface. Killing the pain trumps feeling the pleasure, what pleasure there is to feel. And there are so many ways to kill the pain. Endless, seductive, easy ways; sex, booze and drugs the old standbys, but they’re inventing new ones all the time.
The cruelest by-product of her pain is the shame, a layer of grime you can’t wash away with a hot shower and a cup of coffee. What happens to a little girl whose trust is violated by the one she trusts most? She decides it’s her own damn fault. That’s the conundrum, the riddle, the unknowable, heartbreaking salt in the wound. Wounded, we wound ourselves.
The sins of the fathers are not meant for daughters But somehow you felt you’re to blame And the ghost in your head and the men in your bed They all look like they’re one and the same
This is the seventh in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
Baby lock that old front door
Got a good red wine to pour
Cause the world is just too much for me tonight
I’m a soldier back from war
Too tired to care no more
And too sad to put up any kind of fight
We’re all soldiers. Every one of us fights some kind of battle every day. The enemy may be the soul-sucking job, the overdue bills, the supermarket line, the alcoholic brother-in-law, the bully down the street, the bottle, the needle, the scale. The emptiness that won’t be filled no matter what you feed it. Life. We come home to the TV news – and it’s all bad. A relentless, soul-battering barrage of gloom, doom and horror.
And here, in a state somewhere between exhaustion and panic, we try to find something – peace, or maybe blessed oblivion. Retreat. Sometimes all you can do is all you can do. Lock the door, keep your angels close, and, be it ever so humble, give thanks for home.
This is the sixth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
There’s a man out here puts his head in the mouth of a crocodile
Puts the whole thing in, takes it out and gives the crowd a great big smile
And they walk away with their illusions of safety safely intact
And they tell their little wide-eyed kids it’s only an act
Picasso said that Art is a lie which makes us realize truth. It’s an act of death-defying. It’s a Hail Mary pass at eternity. The artist creates an illusion. The illusion is made of pieces of herself. Her blood, her tears, her sweat. Broken bones, broken hearts, broken lives. All of these glittering things are held together with hope and baling wire, to create something true.
The artist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. She’s embracing failure, uncertainty, fear, death. Holding up a mirror.
Making you look.
They say I got a death wish, yeah, but I don’t think that’s true
As far as I can see it’s less about me and more about you
You see it ain’t your fears so much as what your fears reveal
This is the fifth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
I got no use for harps and wings
I got no time for foolish things
There is no heaven, there is no hell
There’s only you, my dark angel
There are people who come into your life who seem too pure for this world. For them, the membrane that separates our protective delusions from the cruel world is paper-thin. They feel too acutely, empathize too much. Often, and perversely, they’re the ones who come into the world with the heaviest burdens. They wear a halo of vulnerability, but conceal a deep strength, too. They are the old souls.
Maybe they’re the real angels. Maybe heaven, and hell, are here, now. In pursuit of some idealized version of the future, and of ourselves, we overlook what’s staring us in the face. Our ragged, imperfect selves, living in our ragged, imperfect present. Each others’ angels, each others’ saviors.
and if there is no hereafter
and there is only here
life is still a beautiful disaster
ah, but we both know that, my dear
BeliefNet.com has featured “Dark Angel” as their Song Of The Week. Click on the link to preview the song. Many thanks to Rodney Crowell, who sings the duet vocal on “Dark Angel”.
This is the fourth in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
Earthquake shook the California ground
Took a freeway out and some buildings down
Well I’ve never felt the earth move under my heels
But I got a pretty good idea how it feels
Flood, fire, earthquake, hurricane, tsunami. We go from calamity to calamity. Hello cruel world. Meanwhile the world spins on, unconcerned, deaf to our questioning. Why is this happening? What does it mean? We seek explanation, we blame God, we blame each other, we blame the Other. We look for signs and portents. To infer meaning from random events – it’s hubris, it’s human. Does nature make mistakes? Does God? Is it possible that none of it means anything, or more probably that the answer is so far beyond us that we can’t comprehend the question?
We build our houses on fault lines; we give our most vulnerable selves to each other – and sooner or later disaster strikes. Keep your heart and your door closed and you may be able to avoid pain, but you never feel the wild aliveness of the world. Open your heart and you risk it all. Love is a natural disaster.
This is the third in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released January 2012.
They’re in the front seat, he’s got the radio low
And the moon hangs over Idlewild as the planes touch down
He is talking but she’s not listening
She is thinking of her father, who died when she was young
In the mid-1960s my little world and the much larger one around me were both coming apart at the seams. You don’t see the correlation until much later – years later – but it’s there, and from the distance of decades it takes on its own kind of symmetry. From that distance another thing becomes visible: how much things have changed, and how little. Families still fall apart, hate still spawns more hate, the names change but the troubles don’t.
My father was a journalist; his beat was the Civil Rights movement. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, my father, in a state of grief and anger, locked himself in the basement. As a small child, I found that terrifying. Not long afterwards, the family of Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights leader, came to stay at our home in Pelham, New York, so that his widow Myrlie and my father could work on her memoir. During their visit there was a snowstorm, and their youngest son, Van and I built a snowman together in the front yard. It was the first time Van had ever seen snow. He was momentarily transported beyond his grief by the magic of it.
On our black and white TV in the kitchen, I watched Kennedy riding in the back of a limo – shot, fatally wounded, and falling into his wife’s lap, over and over again. In my front yard I played in the snow with a little boy who saw his father gunned down in his own driveway. The political is personal; the personal is political. We think we’re walking on the moon, but we are dancing in the dark.
We shoot our rockets, we shoot our presidents
We shoot the commies and the niggers and the Viet Cong
Everything changes, everything stays the same
And the moon hangs over Idlewild as the planes touch down
This is the second in a series of blog entries about the songs on the upcoming album “Hello Cruel World”, to be released worldwide in early 2012.
Most nights I come home from work and I pour a glass of wine
Sometimes it’s three or four before I stop
And Jesse makes a sandwich if I sleep through suppertime
And she leaves me on the couch to sleep it off
I know this woman. I see her in line at the grocery store, pouring coffee at a diner, stopped at a traffic light at rush hour. Part of me pities her, part of me admires her, part of me is her. There but for the grace of god. She’s caught at the crossroads where the struggle to come to terms with one’s mortality meets the urge to slip into unconsciousness. The hell with it; have another cigarette, another glass of wine, another piece of pie. Feeling the weight of her past, and watching it as it bears down on her own child.
But she’s a heroine, not a victim. It takes more guts to survive than to give up. To admit your mistakes, to acknowledge the hard truths and keep going. To persevere, to endure.
Somehow I’ve let myself go gently down the stream
A fine example I have set
Between the working and the livin’
and the ghosts that haunt my dreams
I’ve got five minutes, and I’m gonna smoke this cigarette
Many thanks to Tidal for the opportunity to write about two of my biggest heroes, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. This essay was published March 7, 2019 to mark Women’s History Month. An excerpt: “My real education in songwriting began that night. You have to be real. The songs come from…
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