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.