Daily Archives: December 28, 2007

Random Thoughts on the Songs

Day After Tomorrow. First heard this when Tom Waits was on the Daily Show. It’s probably your typical Tom Waits dirge, which I love, as opposed to the standard issue Tom Waits sort of noisy carnival or disturbed cabaret song that I don’t like. But this song fits in, especially as a counterpoint to the last song, the Patty Griffin Poor Man’s House. Here it’s “Tell me how does God choose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

The Open Road Song. I like how this song’s point of view changes, going from the child’s naive romantic vision of the hobo to the really cynical present-day troubadour. But given how this mix developed, “When I grow up I want to be a bum” fit right in. I also like a lot how his voice goes down low and flat towards the end of the “I seek my fortune in the wide world” line.

Marieke. I may have mentioned elsewhere seeing a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in the basement of the Irish Times with Abby. This was the song that really knocked me out. I did embarrass myself later when I mentioned liking that song that was sung partially in German by the crying girl. After a bit of a pause they, Abby and the producer, both mumbled something about it being (famously) in Dutch. Jacques Brel was Flemish, didn’t you know. It’s otherwise just sort of a simple song about loss, about missing someone who is long gone. I don’t remember narratively where it fit into the show, if there’s anything more specific than that. But it’s grand and sad and the use of a different language just adds to the sadness. Like missing a person and a place and a time and a way of life, all of it gone.

Settin’ the Woods on Fire. I kinda like lightening things up a little with this, when there’s so much else from Hank Williams that could have really helped go further south here. I especially love the line “We’ll order up two bowls of chili.” But then also I’ve always loved how the song puts the good time that will be had in a definite perspective. “Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowing,” he says. It reminds me of, and why I love, Something Else by Eddie Cochran. Or much by Chuck Berry. People having fun, but having to work for it. Like the exact opposite of the privileged fun found in most any Beach Boys song.

The Needle Has Landed. Not really sure what this song’s about. Neko Case is always a bit enigmatic. But that’s part of the enjoyment, of course. In some ways I take the needle to mean a record needle. “Let it play,” she sings. And so it’s sort of an ode to things that are gone now, like those records we used to play. But there’s a darker tale in here somewhere as well. She gets left at the Greyhound station when she moves away, apparently not to return: “And that’s why I never come back here. That’s why they spit out my name.” But also “If I knew then what’s so obvious now, [then] you’d still be here baby” is such a great lovely sad wistful line. The song also somehow makes me think of two Ken Follet novels, The Eagle has Landed and The Eye of the Needle, but I don’t think they have anything to do with this.

Three Days Straight. Clearly about being trapped in a mine, although not otherwise political in a way that, say, Woody Guthrie might have sung about mine accidents. He gets a little wild and makes a speech when the reporter from channel 9 asks him a question, but we don’t ever find out what he has to say. He does tell us that he wouldn’t go back in that hole again, to save his life.

No Bad News. Directed at President Bush, I imagine. A sad little boy. She asks him why doesn’t he burn his own house down and leave the rest of us to live in peace. But, clearly by the title of this whole mix, my favorite lines are “We’ll grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us, till there are no strangers anymore.” I reworked it a little for the title, but it’s an amazing and wonderful Christian idea. And, hey, I love the rocking mariachi horns as well.

Where the Smoke Blows. I have no idea what the Bothy Acoustic Mix means. I haven’t heard any other mixes of this song. But Karine Polwart is amazing nonetheless. I first saw her when she did a lot of singing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2003. I worked only a couple blocks away and made it down a whole lot of days. And she was part of the Scotland part of the events. Battlefield Band was there as well, although she was no longer a member by then, being a member of Mailnky. She’s since moved on from them as well. They had a CD or 2 of Malinky at the store at the festival, but I never bought any. I wanted just her, like she was on stage, not as part of some larger group. Finally now she’s gone solo.

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards. Putting down some poli-tunes would like require some Billy Bragg, by like law or something, wouldn’t it? I’ve always loved this particular song because I like to dance to it, doing a weird kind of jig to it in my kitchen. It apparently has Michelle Shocked singing backup on in, before she was famous, although now she’s not famous anymore. There’s a big message here, even though it seems to flow linearly lyrically from grand (Fidel Castro’s brother) to the really personal (the revolutionary t-shirt). And he yells out, “Beam me up, Scotty” at the end. I saw Billy Bragg once at the 9:30 Club, with a full band, and a then-not-yet-a-superstar-in-Canada Sarah Harmer opened.

James Connolly. Saw Black 47 with my brother and sister at a bar in East Hanover NJ once. Was a great show, except when Larry Kirwan told the crowd that it was great to be in East Brunswick. He winced just after he said it, knowing he’d screwed up. I especially love the monologue in the break in this song. Don’t let them bury me in a field of shamrocks, he pleads. Raise the Starry Plough on high instead.

The Tigers Have Spoken. This one by Neko Case seems pretty straightforward. There’s this tiger that’s been chained up forever. Goes crazy, so they shoot it. This particular version is from a live show at the 9:30 Club. Not that I was there; it was recorded by NPR. Before this song, Neko says, “This is a very sad song about tigers.” It sure is. I gather it’s also about loneliness. But then also there was just the other day an incident at the zoo in San Francisco, where a tiger got out of its cage and killed a guy and mauled two others. Police shot it dead.

Workin’ For The Enemy. I love so many of the rhymes and images in this song. There’s this truck filled with stolen goods that the narrator and Sonny are supposed to drive south, “Down two-lane highways in the foggy woods with a cigar in my mouth.” And rhyming “business being tendered” with “we went on a bender.” I also especially like his description of the ’67 Ford when it stops working: “The Galaxie broke down.” Nicely describes a whole lotta things, seems like. The narrative itself somewhat breaks down at the end. Not sure what finding his rising star means, unless it’s supposed to go with the galaxy image as well.

Long Walk Home. Another one seemingly aimed right at George W. Bush. At the end he sings about how his father tells him what a community means, how it doesn’t crowd you but it doesn’t let you go it alone either. And that the flag flying over the courthouse means certain things. Tells us what we’ll do, and what we won’t do. I like to think that one of the things that what we won’t do is torture people. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or what, but in the video for the song, right after that line, there’s a cut to a shot of a young man. He’s seen behind a fence, maybe like he’s locked up, like those poor forgotten souls down in Guantanamo.

No More Buffalo. Really the song that made me want to make this mix. I explained before how dazzled I was by the third verse, with the dust of the herds. I love the advice about still chasing after what used to be there. “Top that rise and face the pain,” he says.

Johnny Appleseed. (Do you ever think of the real Johnny Appleseed as a sort of environmental terrorist, deliberately effecting an invasive non-native species? No, I suppose not. Was apparently an immensely loving gentle soul.) In the song here, Joe sings about poor workers locked in the factory. It always make me think of the horrible fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet NC in 1991, where twenty-five workers died because they were locked in, like in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. This is progress? “If you’re after getting the honey,” Joe says, “then you don’t go killing all the bees.”

The Unwelcome Guest. Also saw Billy Bragg once, doing a solo show, at the auditorium in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Sadly, I couldn’t tell you if he sang this song or not. I don’t think he did. There were a lot of other songs on Mermaid Avenue that bowled me over right away. This one really snuck up on me, maybe a couple years later, and now it’s definitely my favorite on the record. Okay, this or California Stars still. This is some sort of Robin Hood tale, of course, although I can’t quite place it in time. Does it take place in medieval times, or like in the old west, or in modern times? Doesn’t quite fit perfectly anywhere. Maybe that makes it fit everywhere then.

Poor Man’s House. Nothing enigmatic or ambiguous here. Devastating.

Daddy’s been working for days and days and doesn’t eat.
He doesn’t say much but his time I think it’s got him beat.
It isn’t that he isn’t smart or kind or clever.
Your daddy’s poor today and he will be poor forever.

Until There Are No Strangers Among Us Anymore (Various Tunes December 2007)


I make, and give copies to Joe and Helena today, a CD of stuff I’ve been listening to lately. I haven’t made a various tunes tape (I still think of them as mix tapes) since the wedding CD, I think. Have I? Before that it was The Blues of Throwing It All Away in early 2002.

The big, big difference this time is the iPod, what gadget I won in that contest at TAUG in April. Making a playlist in iTunes and listening to that is the easiest thing in the world. Can add, delete, rearrange with the fewest of mouse clicks.

James McMurtry No More Buffalo really started the whole project, wanting to put that on a mix tape. There’s this really strangely moving and complicated idea in the third verse, where he talks about looking out across the plains and seeing “the dust of the [buffalo] herds still hovering in the air.” But somebody else points out that “those are combines kicking up that dust.” It’s just sad and cool all at the same time. “Man, they were here. They were here, I swear,” he sings.

So added to that were the basic songs I have in fact been listening to lately. Tom Waits Day After Tomorrow. Peter Case Ain’t Gonna Worry No More, Underneath the Stars, and Palookaville. Neko Case, oh a whole lotta songs from her. Bruce Springsteen Long Walk Home. Patty Griffin No Bad News and Poor Man’s House. Billy Bragg and Wilco from the Mermaid Avenue album, a song that took me a while to appreciate, but then really blossomed into a real favorite, The Unwelcome Guest.

So then I started looking for songs that fit with those, and I started looking for a title. I worked with a bunch of lyrics from No More Buffalo, from The Dust of the Herds to Those Are Combines Kicking Up That Dust. Never really found anything that would encompass what the whole mix seemed to be adding up to. But that was probably because the whole mix wasn’t adding up to much.

And one other problem was that, thinking about this with Joe and Helena in mind, the Peter Case and Neko Case songs were getting to be a problem. I had made them both single discs of each artist with a lot of my favorites on them. So I didn’t want to then give them any of the same songs again on this. So then I scrapped those songs. But then I still wanted to put lots of Peter Case and Neko Case on, so I had to go scrounging for more songs.

The Peter Case was a bit easier, in that he had a rather larger body of work. And it was after I added The Open Road Song to replace Underneath the Stars that I realized that a theme was in fact emerging from the rubble. Something rather political. Nothing grandly political, but small humanist personal political maybe. So looking for more political songs got me to add Billy Bragg Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards and Black 47 James Connolly. (Although those are more macro than micro, politics-wise.)

And then that started to work to rearrange the songs as well. No More Buffalo, which had been bouncing between being first and being last, moved more to the middle. And Poor Man’s House became the ending song. And with that the cover changed. I’d been playing with a great old picture of Buster Keaton. But I started thinking about the politics of poverty, and figured Walker Evans, something from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, would do the trick. Thus the picture of Allie Mae Burroughs. I’m not sure if in fact it’s in the book, but I found it online at the Met’s great website. Knew as soon as I saw it that it was the one.

Talking to Joe later, seems like I did maybe give him some of the same Peter Case and/or Neko Case. I had changed the playlists by the time I made CDs for Helena. I knew that I was giving him another copy of Joe Strummer Johnny Appleseed. But, what the hell. It’s Joe Strummer, and it’s political (if a bit obtusely so). And it’s skiffle. What more could you want in one song?

In the end, the whole message of the mix and of this season and of this life is in Poor Man’s House.

Mama says God tends to every little skinny sheep
So count your ribs and say your prayers and get to sleep
Nothing is louder to God’s ears than a poor man’s sorrow