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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Instant of Love: The Uncharted Sea

From A Nashville Woman and Other Sorrows:

That Uncharted Sea 

My phone clock says 3:33 a.m.
As a cold rain beats against the bedroom window.

I toss and turn on sweaty sheets,
Lose at Solitaire, and finally give in to my compulsive need.

A light touch on the phone’s photo icon brings up a pic
Of us on the day we met:

She’s leaning against me smiling,
Her face turned toward mine…

I’d just finished a guitar gig
At the CMA Fest with a sister group called Moss Rose…

As I emerged from a stadium exit ramp with my guitar case,
I was swept along with a crowd of people,

A clap of thunder and the pouring rain
Sent everyone running willy-nilly for shelter in the storm…

I slipped under the awning of a display booth
And she crashed into me…

We were all laughing,
Totally drenched, soaked to the bone…

I smelled lavender in her hair
As her Belmont friend Jolene snapped the photo...

She turned to me then, and her green eyes
Cut through all the protective cynical layers and reached my heart –

I’d looked into many beautiful eyes,
But none had transformed me, taken me out of myself before,

I knew in that moment I could never, ever stop loving her,
So I sailed with her current into that uncharted sea –

Was this the Sea of Love or the Sea of Heartbreak?

It did not matter to me.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Outlaw Way

The term "ballad" essentially has two meanings. In the first, more general sense, it is any light, popular and usually romantic song that's slow in tempo. In a more specific, traditional sense, a ballad is a "poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas."

Historically, many ballads (in that specific, traditional sense) have been written about outlaws, enough to call the outlaw ballad a sub genre. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature mentions outlaw ballads written and sung at the end of the Middle Ages (the 14th and 15th centuries) about Robin Hood and suggests that the outlaw tradition is even older.

Country music writers and performers have kept that tradition alive in modern times. There are many examples of outlaw ballads in country music. This link leads to two John Dillinger ballads, the first sung by Joe Smith (the Colorado Cowboy), the second written by Tom T. Hall and performed by Billy Grammer.

There were songs written about other outlaws too, famous in their own time, but not as well known now. When I taught the Intro to Poetry Survey at the college I worked at for thirty-three years, I used a song about the 1920's outlaw Otto Wood as an example of the outlaw ballad.

1926 cover from UNC Libraries
Otto was notorious for his eleven prison escapes. When he was in prison in 1923, he wrote an autobiography in hopes that it would inspire others to avoid the kind of life he had chosen. The Old Time Herald says that Wood
was known as North Carolina’s “one man crime wave,” Otto Wood. Also dubbed the “Houdini of Cell Block A,” Wood had cemented a national reputation for his crimes, but it was unquestionably his daring prison escapes that most caught the public imagination. It was his string of daredevil jail breaks—four of which were from North Carolina’s Central Prison in Raleigh—that gained Otto Wood such notoriety. His escapes were all the more remarkable considering that he had a crippled foot and was missing his left hand!
The NCpedia reports that Wood was arrested for car theft in Tennessee and sentenced to three years in prison. 

After six months in the Tennessee prison Wood made his third escape. In two weeks he was arrested in his native Wilkes County. A year later he escaped from the Tennessee Penitentiary a second time, leaving in a dry goods box being hauled from the prison yard. Chased by blood-hounds through the night, Wood knocked out a 250-pound guard and grabbed onto the caboose of a freight train. After disguising himself as a brakeman, he joined the chase for himself.
Wood was killed in a shootout with police in December of 1930. A year later in 1931, Walter Smith of the Carolina Buddies penned a song about this famous bandit.
They put him in the pen, but it done no good'Cause it wouldn't hold a man they call Otto Wood
It wasn't very long till he slipped outside
Drawed a gun on the guard, said, "Take me for a ride"
Otto, why didn't you run?
Otto's done dead and gone
Otto Wood, why didn't you run
When the sheriff pulled out that 44 gun?
See complete lyrics at MetroLyrics. 

The version of the old outlaw ballad I used in class was from Doc Watson's album, "The Best of Doc Watson, 1964-1968." But the following is the original recording of the song by the Carolina Buddies.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Shadows of Guilt

"Prayer in Open D" is a reflective song and is included on Emmylou Harris's not so successful 1993 album, Cowgirl's Prayer. Ms. Harris was 46 in that year and her eight year marriage to English songwriter/producer Paul Kennerley ("Born to Run") had just ended.

I'm speculating, but I imagine this was probably a time of serious reflection for her.


Prayer in Open D, Emmylou Harris
(first verse)

There's a valley of sorrow in my soul 
Where every night I hear the thunder roll 
Like the sound of a distant gun 
Over all the damage I have done 
And the shadows filling up this land 
Are the ones I built with my own hand 
There is no comfort from the cold 
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul 

I think most of us have those times, those long nights -- or days -- when we tally up "all the damage I've done." These times of intense reflection seem to occur after a particularly trying experience and, in my opinion, with more frequency as we age. We look back with deep regret and guilt on all the wreckage we've left in our wake.

Like most people, I don't think of myself as an evil person, or especially bad. I've always tried to treat other people fairly and with respect, even those few students or colleagues I encountered over the years that I didn't especially like being around. If they were students, they probably got even more consideration than some of the others in my lame attempts to be fair and objective.

I don't think of myself as abnormally pessimistic or depressive. But I've had those times of reflection, those long nights when I seem to dwell on the hurts I've caused, the pain to others that's resulted from my bad, and (since I'm trying to be honest), sometimes deliberate choices.

Most of the time, I don't start out the day or night with a plan to indulge in this painful exercise. It just happens. Occasionally, I have an early nightmare that awakens me and triggers the reflection. Other times a random thought will just zip through my brain and the guilt follows the same trajectory right behind the thought.

I don't wallow in this predicament; it's usually gone by the next day, and I'm back on track. But in the throes of such remorse, I sometimes pray, as does the singer in this song, for "that highway risin' from my dreams."

However, in some cases there's no highway, either real or imagined. A person gets trapped in despair.

In my book of poetry about people and themes in country music, A Nashville Woman and Other Sorrows, the narrator in the first set of poems is in just such a predicament. He's trapped, unable to escape the guilt and regret he feels after his lover has died. This is poem 2 from the set.

Every Breath I Breathe

Shadows of guilt hang over me,
Darkening my way.
I sometimes blur the causes with drink,
But the shadows remain.

Everyone has a special guilt
That blots even their brightest reds and yellows
With its sickening grayness.

I have mine –
A dream screwer
A gut twister,
A black snake
That wraps around my throat,

And chokes me –

It stifles every breath I breathe.

At the end of the set, the narrator also imagines a road (a tour with fellow musicians) that will take him out of this prison of guilt and regret.

The road sings its siren song,
But I’m lashed to a mast of grief,
Dead inside, unmoving,

Before he can get past his guilt and regret, he has to spend some time in the Catatonic Hotel with other people suffering from similar emotional issues...

Go getters whose go is gone,
Self-pity-ers whose self-pity has turned to self-hate,
People who once thought big, but now think small,
Others who once were early but now are very late –
We aren’t doing much,

Not doing much at all.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

There Ain't No Next Go 'Round

One of my favorite country/alt bands is the Old Crow Medicine Show. They're very good now, but were super special when Willie Watson was with the band.

Picture by Joel Rhymer, Freedom, NH

Watson and Sketch Secor met in Ithaca, NY, and along with Chris Fuqua co-founded the group in 1998. Watson co-wrote several songs with Secor, and this one is my favorite, "Next Go 'Round."

Lyrics from AZlyrics             "Next Go 'Round" 

When the summer is come and gone
As the leaves fall on the lawn
I think about pleasures pass me by
And I am thinking of my old home
And the love I left behind
No I couldn't I go back there if I tried

On my next go round
I'm gonna keep it to
The dreams we knew
Before I broke them down
Gonna take your hand
Wanna be the man
Who pulls you from the ground
I won't let you down
On my next go round

We were standing on the edges
Of a thousand burning bridges
Sifting through the ashes every day
What we thought would never end
Now is nothing more than a memory
The way things were before
I lost my way

On my next go round
I'm gonna keep it to
The dreams we new
Before I broke them down
Gonna take your hand
Wanna be the man
Who pulls you from the ground
I won't let you down
On my next go round

Now the winds are blowing steady
My bags are awful heavy
I wish that I could stop and turn around
But there are no second chances
In a world of circumstances
Oh in this life you don't get no next round

On my next go round
Gonna start again
Gonna let you in
Gonna lay our burdens down
Gonna be the one to never turn and run
I'll always be around
I won't let you down
On the next go round

I won't let you down
On the next go round
 This country song = poetry. The images, the sentiment, the idea, the rhymes, the melody, everything -- it all fuses together into a great poem/song.

I'm sorry Watson left the group in the fall of 2011. He and Secor did some good writing together. But I understand his decision. He did release a solo album, "Folk Singer, Volume 1," in 2014. I'll be checking that one out soon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Three kinds of S. O. B.

In 2012, Alan Jackson released a new single, "You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore," penned by songwriters Jay Knowles and Adam Wright. The knockout line for most folks was "I'll be the S. O. B." in the first stanza.

This great song was included on Jackson's album Thirty Miles West that same year.

IMHOP there are at least three kinds of S. O. B. -- (1) the person who consistently by his deeds and words is a true S. O. B., (2) the person who makes a stupid mistake that hurts someone or a group, and (3) the person who deliberately plays the role of S. O. B. to get something done.

(1) First, there's the real, authentic son of a bitch.  Most of us have know a few. They might be in our family or maybe we worked for them or with them. But they're pretty good at disguises and deception so you might not realize what they are at first. Some of them even go into politics :-)  I don't think I personally belong in this category (although I know a few people who might disagree).

(2) As for category 2, I guess most of us have done or said something stupid a few times in our lives. I know I have, and I still remember and regret those times today. I've made some mistakes, said some stupid things that hurt someone. I can't go back and erase those things, all I can do now is accept my mistake and hope for forgiveness.

(3) At other times a person plays the role of S. O. B. in order to do a job. I'm thinking for example of the executive or administrator who because of circumstances has to fire someone, or of the military TI who has to discipline a recruit, etc. I've been in this category at least a couple of times, but it was over fifteen years ago, so the statue of limitations has probably run out.

The narrator in Jackson's song fits in this category as well. He's willing to play the S. O. B. role if it will make his lady's life easier after their breakup. The Knowles/Wright lyric is simple and unadorned, but very powerful emotionally. Take this verse, for example:
I'll be the bad guy, I'll take the black eye, When I walk out, You can slam the door, I'll be the S.O.B, If that's what you need from me, So you don't have to love me anymore. 
This great song has it all. A son of a bitch (at least a guy willing to play that role), a breakup, a broken heart, a sacrifice, a sense of regret...the very life blood of country music. And then there's the great singer who brought all that emotion to life -- Alan Jackson. All that makes it a top 100 song in my book.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Some Songwriter Wisdom, Part 1

“A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it.”
Hank Williams, Sr.

“Loving is the only sure road out of darkness, 
the only serum known that cures self-centeredness.”
Rod McKuen

"I am putting to music and words things that angered me and hurt me."
Nanci Griffith

“Country Music is three chords and the truth.”
Harlan Howard

 “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.”
Dolly Parton

"I was rolling cars and wrecking motorcycles, drinking and doing everything I could to die early. But it didn't work."
Kris Kristofferson

"Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I've had to make myself."
Shel Silverstein

I don’t know why I write really depressing songs.
I’m a kind of melancholy guy, I suppose. But I figure I’m about normal.”
Townes Van Zandt

Monday, October 5, 2015

Kris Kristofferson and Jonathan Swift on Poetry

The narrator in Kristofferson's talking blues song, "To Beat the Devil," says,
It was winter time in Nashville, down on Music City row,
And I was lookin' for a place to get myself out of the cold.
He says, "It'd been a month of paydays" since he's been paid and his "hungry needed beans." He steps inside a tavern and begins a conversation with an old man in a bar who tells him that songwriter poets' lead a "tough life" and asks the narrator, why waste your time speaking the truth to people who don't listen.

The narrator recognizes that this is the devil he's talking to and that "the devil haunts a hungry man."

So, in the end, the songwriter narrator doesn't claim to have "beat the devil," but he "drank his beer for nothing./ Then I stole his song." In other words, instead of giving in to the devil because he's hungry, he makes poetry out of it.

Listening to this song again recently reminded me of a poem by Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish writer best known for Gulliver's Travels. In "The Progress of Poetry," Swift says pretty much the same thing Kristofferson says. He compares the poet to a goose who when fat "with corn and sitting still," can't "get o'er the barn-door sill," but when forced to look for food and exercise will eventually grow "lank and spare" which will enable her to successfully try "her wings" and take flight.

Both poets indicate that poetry is born from hunger and suffering and that success and riches might work against its creation. This explains why a successful songwriter's earliest work might be much better than that which comes after he's achieved success and has grown fat "with corn and sitting still."

Here's Swift's poem (you can find it and other poetry at The Literature Network).
The Progress of Poetry
The farmer's goose, who in the stubble
Has fed without restraint or trouble,
Grown fat with corn and sitting still,
Can scarce get o'er the barn-door sill;
And hardly waddles forth to cool
Her belly in the neighbouring pool!
Nor loudly cackles at the door;
For cackling shows the goose is poor.
But, when she must be turn'd to graze,
And round the barren common strays,
Hard exercise, and harder fare,
Soon make my dame grow lank and spare;
Her body light, she tries her wings,
And scorns the ground, and upward springs;
While all the parish, as she flies,
Hear sounds harmonious from the skies.

Such is the poet fresh in pay,
The third night's profits of his play;
His morning draughts till noon can swill,
Among his brethren of the quill:
With good roast beef his belly full,
Grown lazy, foggy, fat, and dull,
Deep sunk in plenty and delight,
What poet e'er could take his flight?
Or, stuff'd with phlegm up to the throat,
What poet e'er could sing a note?
Nor Pegasus could bear the load
Along the high celestial road;
The steed, oppress'd, would break his girth,
To raise the lumber from the earth.
But view him in another scene,
When all his drink is Hippocrene,
His money spent, his patrons fail,
His credit out for cheese and ale;
His two-years coat so smooth and bare,
Through every thread it lets in air;
With hungry meals his body pined,
His guts and belly full of wind;
And, like a jockey for a race,
His flesh brought down to flying case:
Now his exalted spirit loathes
Encumbrances of food and clothes;
And up he rises like a vapour,
Supported high on wings of paper.
He singing flies, and flying sings,
While from below all Grub-Street rings.