John Prine

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I’ve been MIA again.  Sorry.

And there’s been lots of significant passings in the music world that I haven’t noted here.  Sorry.

It’s just that all the death and sadness and silence of losing good music got to me a little bit.  And all the COVID-19 stuff lately has got me feeling extra worried and fearful, which means I’ve been withdrawing even further into myself.

But this is drawing me back out.

John Prine was one of those superb musicians that was mostly only listened to by other musicians and a cult of knowledgeable fans.  That was always a criminal shame.  No one could break your heart with the grace, literacy, and humor of John Prine.  And my heart feels just a little bit broken right now.

But I am grateful for all the beautiful music he left for us to enjoy. It seems so massively unfair that this man who beat cancer twice was done in by this stupid little virus.  No, not unfair.  Unjust.  Because if there were any justice, Prine would still be alive amd singing.

“Angel from Montgomery” will always be more famous.  “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” will always be more acclaimed.  And “The Speed of Sound of Loneliness” will always be my favorite.  But I’ll leave you with what is the most appropriate song in Prine’s stellar catalog.  Because even if a lot of people feel like crying right now, even if we feel like raging at the wrongness of the world, Prine would rather we laugh.  With just a enemy little bit of anger at the end.

Kiss my ass, COVID-19.

“Joy to You Baby”

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I usually have my ipod set to shuffle–like the best radio station ever because it only plays what I like–or I listen to podcasts.  But for the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a Josh Ritter playlist I made almost nonstop.  It’s about two hours long.  When it ends, I just start it over again.  I’m not sick of it yet.  So you could say I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Ritter’s music.

I did a post for this song way back when it first came out in 2012 but didn’t comment on it other than to say that it (along with most of the rest of Josh Ritter’s catalog) makes me really happy.  I feel like I want to say something about it now, but I’ll be honest.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this one.  We could end up someplace. . . interesting.

There’s something luminous about “Joy to You Baby.”  It is sad, melancholy even.  A meditation on a lost love, on broken hearts and missed chances.  “There’s no ghosts in the graveyard.  That’s not where they live.  They float in between us, what is and what if.”  An ode to what was and what might have been if only things had been a little different.  It’s a sad song, yes, but that sadness glows with a light that I can only describe as holy.

Special note:  I have no idea what Ritter’s religious beliefs are, or if he even has any.  All I know is that from the content of many of his lyrics, he’s clearly pretty familiar with belief and believers, whether he is one or has lived among them.  When I say that the light I hear in this song is holy, I mean that in the most general definition of the word.  It is holy in the sense that imparts some sense of a greater power than this mere mortal coil could ever possess.  Something closer to the sound of pine trees whispering in the wind or vast twinkling brilliance of a starlit night.

I love the way this song makes me feel.  Sad, yes, but happy, too.  Forgiving and generous.  Open and free.  Loving someone can be an amazing experience; losing love can be just as awful an experience (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).  But letting go of that love, even after it has died, is a whole different beast.  Letting go of the sadness and anger is like letting go of a boulder.  You become weightless, free, flying: “And joy to the many, and joy to the few.  And joy to you baby, and joy to me, too.”

I’m not much for love these days, largely because it’s never really gone my way.  But the tenderness, grace, and yes, sadness, of “Joy to You Baby” makes me feel like all that heartache in the past was worth it.  That the tears and the emptiness and the loneliness was nothing more than the equal and opposite reaction to the happiness and warmth and contentment that came those few times it did work.  Or the price I willingly paid for the pleasure of dreaming and aching for an unattainable person.  Yes, sometimes even the ache of unrequited love can be pleasurable.  To quote another Josh Ritter song, “I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know.”

“Henrietta, Indiana”

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Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while.  And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.

I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song.  Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song.  1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant.  A former worker develops a drinking problem.  One son loses his faith in god.  The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator.  The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear.  Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney?  Were they simply innocent bystanders?  Who ended up dead?  Who were the police looking for?  What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”?  Why wasn’t he crying?  Was he the one that committed the crime?

You know what I’m gonna say here.  That the answers to these questions aren’t important.  And they aren’t.  But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down.  It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.”  It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge.  It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.

“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully.  It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.”  It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome).  There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs.  A restlessness, an anger, a dread.  In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last.  I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place.  It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul.  Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness?  Is it really living if all you do is survive?  Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with.  Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.

“Time (The Revelator)”

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I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc.  That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch.  I missed Dar but got Gillian.  And everything just kind of stopped.

There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time.  I don’t know what it is; I don’t care.  I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply.  That would take some of the wonder out of it.  And she is a wonder.  Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability.  There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world.  It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.

There is a distinct lack of context in her songs.  Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist.  The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world.  There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction.  It simply is.  The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything.  There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.

The song ends on what I’d call an open note.  The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops.  There is no conclusion, not really.  And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.

 

Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

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I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post).  And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more.  There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”

For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955.  Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman.  (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.  Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.)  Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.

There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all.  The myth of Southern gentility and propriety.  The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us.  The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.”  Sex, race, class.  And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.

When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss.  (Note that the spelling is different.  Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.)  Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide.  If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.

I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer.  As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song.  The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices.  They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song.  The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned?  Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this?  What the fuck is going on here?

The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking.  Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”

There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry.  While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip.  And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now.  But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983.  She just dropped out of sight.  Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her.  Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything.    In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river.  She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.

“Oops!. . . I Did It Again”

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Some weeks ago, I went and saw Richard Thompson at my local indie record store, Fingerprints, and the highlight of the all-too-brief show was his cover of this Britney Spears hit.

Thompson originally recorded this song for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he examined a bunch of songs that were the tops of the pops in their day.  Thompson proves that his talent is wide-ranging and prodigious by making what is an atrocity Britney Spears’ hands (or at least in the hands of her production team at the time) a truly entertaining tune.

Have I mentioned that I really dig Richard Thompson?  I might be just a wee bit biased.

But actually, he does demonstrate that this overproduced, pretentious piece of fluff is actually a fairly well-written and structurally sound pop tune.  The sight of cute little Brit in her red catsuit is there to distract us from the fact that her vocals are autotuned to the point of nonexistence and the music seems to be all played by computer.  The fact that there seems to be almost zero human input into the making of this song is disturbing, but we shouldn’t blame the song itself.  To be fair, it’s not a great pop song; it’s average at best.  But to see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable if rather sexist song turned into what amounts to a pre-programmed tune on an 80s-era Casio keyboard is kind of sad.  (It is a pretty sexist song: She basically admits that she’s nothing but a nasty whore, and he really should’ve known better.)

This kind of pop music continues to be produced with ever-greater frequency.  Solution?  Just send everything to Richard Thompson to cover.  He’ll reveal at least the competence of the songs, if not their true greatness.

“The Commander Thinks Aloud”

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One of the podcasts I listen to is 99% Invisible, which is about design and how it affects and influences our lives (it’s way more interesting than the summary makes it sound).  I am still making my way through a LARGE backlog of episodes, so I’m still years behind in my listening.  Every so often, podmaster Roman Mars will include an episode from one of Radiotopia’s other podcasts and it’s always fun to get a sample.  Song Exploder is one of the most frequent add-ons.  I like this one because it panders to the music geek in me.  An 99PI from a couple of years ago included a Song Exploder about a song by an artist called The Long Winters that was already a couple of years old when it originally aired.

Yeah, I could’ve been way more concise with how I worded that.  One of my creative writing teachers called it “shielding your nouns,” a phenomenon that stems from trying to write about something that is profoundly uncomfortable or emotional.  That’s what this song is.

“The Commander Thinks Aloud” is about the Columbia disaster.  It is almost as devastating as the explosion that destroyed the shuttle.  I downloaded the song today, but not after some soul-searching.  I don’t know that I ever want to hear this song again, but I cannot forget it.  It is a stunning piece of work, in the sense that you will feel a little bit like you got hit over the head with a two by four.  It is also a very good piece of art.  Do not listen to it if you are depressed.  Do not listen to it if you have not braced yourself sufficiently.  This is not an experience for the faint of heart.  But it is an experience worth having at least once.