Thursday, December 8, 2011


Ophelia (from the album...uh...Ophelia)

Ophelia was a bride of god
a novice Carmelite
in sister cells the cloister bells
tolled on her wedding night

Ophelia was a rebel girl
a blue stocking suffragette
who remedied society
between her cigarettes

Ophelia was a sweetheart
to the nation over night
curvaceous thighs
vivacious eyes
love was at first sight...

Ophelia was a demigoddess
in pre war Babylon
so statuesque a silhouette
in black satin evening gowns

Ophelia was the mistress to a
Vegas gambling man
Signora Ophelia Maraschina
Mafia courtesan

Ophelia was a circus queen
the female cannonball
projected through five flaming hoops
to wild and shocked applause...

Ophelia was a cyclone, tempest
a god damned hurricane
your common sense
your best defense
lay wasted and in vain

Ophelia'd know your every woe
and every pain you'd ever had
she'd sympathize
and dry your eyes
and help you to forget...

Ophelia's mind went wandering
you'd wonder where she'd gone
through secret doors
down corridors
she'd wander them alone
all alone

Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Why are were here?

Who is the impossibly moronic woman that wrote the song I Enjoy Being a Girl?

I think about that song from time to time. Usually at moments when my unenjoyment of girlhood is at its apex. I was forced to come to some conclusions about the writer of this obnoxious little ditty. My conclusions were as follows:

1) She has never been 9 months pregnant and/or been in labor.
2) She has never visited a "female doctor."
3) She has never worn a bra.
4) She has never been leered at by creepy men in random localities; namely, anywhere.
5) She has never been touched by creepy men in random localities; namely, anywhere.
6) She has never gotten cat calls from creepy men in random localities; namely, anywhere. And last but certainly not least:
7) She has never menstruated a day in her life.

And you know what? I was right. I was right about every single one of these things because the writer of I Enjoy Being a Girl is, you guessed it, a man. (And, okay, I guess I can't state unequivocally that he never experienced any of the things on my list. Is it possible he wore a bra? Yes. Do I want to talk about it? No.) And I'm assuming that many of you are way ahead of me here and know exactly who the writer of this song is, one Oscar Hammerstein II, one half of that mildly successful songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein. I'll admit it, the fact that I didn't know that I Enjoy Being a Girl came from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (Flower Drum Song) is highly embarrassing to me, a person with Oklahoma, South Pacific and The Sound of Music all occupying space on my ipod.

So has my respect for the great Mr. Hammerstein diminished upon learning this news? Do I now view him in a slightly less reverent light? Has some of the bloom come off the rose? Yes, darn it!

When I hear a complementary whistle
That greets my bikini by the sea
I turn and I glower and I gristle
But I'm happy to know the whistles meant for me

Really, Oscar? My eyes are rolling so hard I lost a contact.

I know I'm being over-serious. I know the song is meant to be cute and simple and from the viewpoint of one particular character. But every single time I go through any of the miseries mentioned in numbers 1-7 above, or any of the other far more challenging aspects of being a female, that song pops in my head and the rage monster follows.

So as a form of therapy, today I'd like to spend some time wrapping my head around a different song about being a girl. Being a lot of different girls, in fact. Shall we begin?

Ophelia was a bride of god
a novice Carmelite
in sister cells the cloister bells
tolled on her wedding night

The Ophelia of sacrifice. The Carmelites are a Catholic religious order and in the short film Natalie made to accompany the song, this version of Ophelia is depicted as a nun. Perhaps because I have no personal experience with the Catholic religion, I cannot fully relate to the fascination that some people feel about nuns. I listened to an interview with a woman once who had turned her back on the Catholic church, on religion in general, but enthusiastically retained her profound admiration for nuns. Although I hardly believe one has to become a nun to do so, there is something comforting in the fact that people still have so profound an appreciation for those who live a life of self-sacrifice. There is no decent mother alive who could not tell you countless tales of self-sacrifice, of suffering for the sake of someone you love and want to protect. Maybe sacrifice is not necessarily intrinsic to being a woman, but it is intrinsic to being a parent.

Ophelia was a rebel girl
a blue stocking suffragette
who remedied society
between her cigarettes

The Ophelia of revolt. Of all the characters Natalie portrays in the Ophelia film, this is the one that I enjoyed the most. She is the caricature of first-wave feminism, a far harsher version than the first person I think of when I hear the word "suffragette" - the mom from Mary Poppins. (Sorry, feminists.) While all of the Ophelias carry their own brand of intelligence, I suppose this is the one I would be most intimidated to match wits with. I would undoubtedly lose and undoubtedly be inspired.

Ophelia was a sweetheart
to the nation over night
curvaceous thighs
vivacious eyes
love was at first sight...

The Ophelia of charm. And weird fitness technique, apparently. There has always been a treasured place in our hearts for the girl-next-door. She is pretty, but not a vamp. Wholesome, but not a bore. Opinionated, but not pushy. She is Doris Day. Men and women are united in their adoration for this version of Ophelia. And she knows it. But don't won't go to her head.

Ophelia was a demigoddess
in pre war Babylon
so statuesque a silhouette
in black satin evening gowns

The Ophelia of desire. An object of desire, to be sure. But what does she desire? Surely it can't only be to be admired, can it? Some might say she is the most mysterious of the Ophelias, the most alluring. I suppose some would also be inclined to say she is the most feminine of all the Ophelias, but I'm not sure. Maybe a lot of us are still stuck with a narrow definition of femininity, one that praises the woman wrapped in disguises and merely tolerates the woman who hides nothing. I don't know what to conclude about this Ophelia. She's a mystery to me too.

Ophelia was the mistress to a
Vegas gambling man
Signora Ophelia Maraschina
Mafia courtesan

The Ophelia broad. Truthfully, there is more to gain about this Ophelia from watching the short film than in this brief lyric. Despite the big hair and lingerie, Natalie portrays this Ophelia with something deeper than the artifice. She is a passionate woman, one with dreams and ambitions. I wonder how things turned out for her.

Ophelia was a circus queen
the female cannonball
projected through five flaming hoops
to wild and shocked applause...

The Ophelia of derring-do. There's a certain stereotype of women that depicts them as cowering and fearful of danger. I get as annoyed as everyone else at the girl in the movie who stands by helplessly while her lover is attacked by the enemy. I always think that if I were in her position, I would do something, anything. But at the same time, if there is a spider in my house and there is a man nearby, there is pretty much a zero percent chance I will dispose of that spider myself. So...I guess the admiration for fearless women is understandable. I certainly aspire to be a courageous woman someday. Just as soon as the world is rid of spiders.

Ophelia was a cyclone, tempest
a god damned hurricane
your common sense
your best defense
lay wasted and in vain

The Ophelia of pain. This Ophelia is depicted in the film as being an unstable, even insane woman, a storm that leaves wreckage in its wake. I would guess that most of us, male or female, have been subject to this kind of damage at some point or another. Whether it's our mothers, sisters, wives or friends, there is something special about the kind of hurt a woman can do to you. Unfortunately she doesn't have to be clinically insane to inflict it. And yet...

Ophelia'd know your every woe
and every pain you'd ever had
she'd sympathize
and dry your eyes
and help you to forget...

The Ophelia of comfort. This is the Ophelia that characterizes this song for me. I think this Ophelia lives inside all of the others, discovered only at deeper depths in some of them. We are inextricably drawn to her, we need her. This lyric defines Natalie's music. It perfectly describes the role her music plays in people's lives.

Ophelia's mind went wandering
you'd wonder where she'd gone
through secret doors
down corridors
she'd wander them alone
all alone

Beautiful closing lines. Not even Oscar Hammerstein could do better. Or could he?

I'm strictly a female female

And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
who'll enjoy being a guy, having a girl like me


Thank for reading this week. Please send me your thoughts and comments about Ophelia; I would love to hear your take and have a chance to include your thoughts in future posts. Also, I have a favor to ask. I'm considering changing the publishing schedule of this blog once again. I would like to change it to either once-a-month or just whenever I feel like it - some months there could be 2 or 3 posts, some months nothing. I've tried to be consistent up until now, but I'm struggling to maintain the pace. So please tell me if you have an opinion on which of those options you'd prefer. If you think you'll have to kill yourself if I publish less often than every other week, you can tell me that too. If no one gives me any feedback, then I will feel free to do whatever I want. Do you really want to give me that kind of power?

Click here to watch - what else? - the video for Ophelia. If you haven't seen the Ophelia film in full, it's all available on Natalie's official site. Watch it!

Download Ophelia from Itunes - Ophelia - Ophelia

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Verdi Cries

Verdi Cries (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

The man in 119 takes his tea all alone.
Mornings we all rise to wireless Verdi cries.
I'm hearing opera through the door.
The souls of men and women, impassioned all.
Their voices climb and fall; battle trumpets call.
I fill the bath and climb inside, singing.

He will not touch their pastry
But every day they bring him more.
Gold from the breakfast tray, i steal them all away
And then go and eat them on the shore.

I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand,
Sing of a lover's fate sealed by jealous hate
Then wash my hand in the sea.
With just three days more I'd have just
about learned the entire score to Aida.

Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

A few years ago on a trip to the San Francisco Zoo, I noticed a particular phrase written on the napkin and paper towel dispensers throughout the property.

"Paper comes from trees."

That was all that was written, nothing more to it. I loved the simplicity of this message and wondered if it might actually inspire people to more conservative usage. I have a feeling it did. People are bombarded with directions, requests, and prohibitions everywhere they go and even though these things are generally for their benefit, the knee-jerk reaction most people have to those things is to be annoyed. So had the San Francisco Zoo's napkin dispenser said, "Please use only as many napkins as you actually need because we are trying to save the planet by using less paper," I think some people would be inclined to turn their brain off somewhere around "Please only use."

But with the four simple words "Paper comes from trees," they actually made people engage their brains for a moment. No implicit direction or request was needed. They gave their visitors a simple fact and trusted that they would respond accordingly. I know this is a simple thing, but I loved it. Give us the opportunity to use our brains and we might just do it every once in a while.

For this same reason, I hate the pledge drives on my local public radio station. It's not because I resent being asked. I quite appreciate the reminder. But, at least where I live, the way the radio personalities try to persuade people to give is less than inspiring. For instance, after listening to several minutes of This American Life, the local program host will chime in with, "Wow...isn't This American Life just so...fascinating? It really is just so...interesting. It really makes you in a way that really makes you think. It's just really...special. And it's one more reason you should donate to..."

If you really believe in the power of your programming, let it speak for itself. Yes, This American Life is fascinating, interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking. But give us listeners a little credit for figuring that out ourselves. Leave us some room to draw our own conclusions. Play the clip and then just simply say, "If you want to continue to be able to listen to programs like this one, please donate." I know I'm being impossibly hard on these program hosts, who are simply doing their best for an extraordinarily worthy cause. I just wish there was a way pledge drives could be a little more "Paper comes from trees."

I don't think song lyrics need to be subtle. Straightforward stories, messages, or expressions are fine by me. But there is a special appeal for me in a song that doesn't really tell you what it's about or what it's trying to say or what it's trying to make you feel or understand. I've written before on this blog about the way some of Natalie Merchant's song lyrics tend towards giving the listener a chance to make up their own mind about meanings. As much as I would love to hear Natalie dissect every song lyric she's ever written (an idea that I suspect would make her gag), I appreciate being given the chance to fill in the gaps with my own conclusions, my own experiences.

Aside from its other virtues, Verdi Cries is a song that allows listeners to make their own connections. If you asked five people who listened to the song to tell you what it means to them, it's likely that five completely different responses would be elicited. Here is what Natalie has said about the inspiration for Verdi Cries:

"When I was 20, I went to Europe on vacation and stayed at a hotel in Spain, sort of a small, family-run hotel on the Mediterranean. It was pretty amazing. I hadn't spent a lot of time traveling at that point, especially not in Europe. I was very impressionable. So I wrote that song about being there."*

"Life has poetic qualities to it. A day can be completely mundane, unless you observe it from a perspective that is a little bit more creative. It was just a journal entry. But I loved paralleling the opera about the Ethiopian slave girl being entombed alive with her lover, and this old man in the hotel room listening to it alone while I was taking my bath."**

Maybe the greatest kinship I have with Natalie's music is its intense focus on people, usually strangers. If I were staying next door to room 119, I think I would've thought a lot about the man listening to Aida because he was lonely. Maybe this story of loving someone so much you would choose to die with them rather than live without them comforted him with its union of devotion and defeat.

Verdi Cries is also a rare instance of a song that Natalie has admitted is about (or at least features) herself. I like to imagine a youthful Natalie stealing tea and pastries and drawing pictures in the sand and writing pages upon pages of daydreams and flights of fancy and observations and reflections in her journal while experiencing a new part of the world. There is something terribly romantic about this song. Not romantic in the boy-girl way. Romantic in the idealistic openness that can be felt so often when you are standing at the precipice of something undiscovered.

Musically, Verdi Cries really foreshadowed the shape Natalie's music would take as time went by, especially with her solo material. I think there are a lot of echoes of Verdi Cries in many of the songs on Ophelia and even Leave Your Sleep. She always sounded natural with an orchestra behind her voice. Maybe she was only just toying with this pop music business all along.

My favorite lyrics in Verdi Cries are the final ones:

Holidays must end as you know.
All is memory taken home with me:
The opera, the stolen tea, the sand drawing, the verging sea, all years ago.

When something good is ending, I frequently find myself thinking about this line: "Holidays must end as you know." These are simple words, I know. But they leave a little room for me. Sometimes I just want to draw my own pictures in the sand.

Thank you for reading this week's post. I want to say a special thank you to Glen and Jeff for sending me their thoughts on recent Natalie concerts they attended. I eat my heart out every time there is a Natalie concert that I can't attend (which is, um, always), so I love these little reviews and insights. Keep 'em coming!

Click here to see a video of Natalie performing Verdi Cries on VH1 Storytellers. I couldn't find a version of this video that includes Natalie's introduction to this song, which is really great. If anyone can find it, please send me a link!

Download Verdi Cries from Itunes - Verdi Cries - In My Tribe

*The Performing Songwriter - May/June 1996
**Baltimore Sun - December 1987

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eden / Maddox Table

Eden (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time in Eden)

We are the roses in the garden
beauty with thorns among our leaves
to pick a rose you ask your hands to bleed

But what is the reason for having roses
when your blood is shed carelessly?
it must be for something more than vanity

Believe me, the truth is we're not honest
not the people that we dream
we're not as close as we could be

Willing to grow but rains are shallow
barren and wind-scattered seed
on stone and dry land, we will be
waiting for the light arisen to flood inside the prison

And in that time
kind words alone will teach us
no bitterness will reach us
reason will be guided in another way

All in time...
but the clock is another demon
that devours our time in Eden
in our paradise

Will our eyes see well beneath us
flowers all divine?
Is there still time?

If we wake and discover
in life a precious love
will that waking become more heavenly?


Maddox Table (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

The legs of Maddox kitchen tables
my whole life twisted on a lathe
in a foreman's torrent
my first English was
"faster boy if you want your pay"
barking commands
loud and simple
we could all obey

Then I was forever pulling silvers
rubbed the sawdust always
deeper in my eye
varnish vapor that could linger
on my skin
it held tight
the whine of spinning blades
still echoes to bother my sleep at night

See that ox
stamped dead center
on the letter head of the company mail
four decades a spitting image
of the animal I portrayed
at Maddox Table a yoke was carved
for my neck

Sun through the window oil spattered
and in mason jars
tricked plenty seeds thrive
the standing joke
around the shop was
with my green thumb
anything'd grow
my part was to laugh
show and ornery jig had
cut it at the knuckle bone

See that oxen
trade mark burned
into every stick of furniture
from horn to tail
four decades a spitting image
of the animal I portrayed
at Maddox Table a yoke was carved
for my neck
was tailor made

Oh, my Dolly was a weak
not a burdened girl
treat her to a piece of vaudeville
a Wintergarden moving picture show
Bemus Point on July Sundays
by trolley we'd go

To your benefit we'll strike a bargain
with the waving fist of a union man
not just for
candy and cologne
but for
automobile keys
cash in the bank
and the deed
on a place called home

A few weeks ago I went to visit a friend in a nursing home. As I was leaving, I passed through a room where several residents were gathered around in their wheelchairs. I surveyed the faces. For the most part, their expressions were painfully similar - the vacant stares of people who no longer know where they are or perhaps even who they are. But from the back of the room was a sound, the only noise in that room that was louder than the small radio blaring You Don't Bring Me Flowers by Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, louder than the TV's game show contestant cheers. It was the sound of an old woman sobbing.

There was only one person in that room conveying any emotion and the emotion she was conveying felt so...right. It made me sick to my stomach. And it also made me feel oddly comforted. I felt like there was another person in that room who understood how awful this all was, how cruel and unjust that people should spend their final years in such a miserable condition. I hoped that if I was ever in her situation someday, I would have the presence of mind to know I should be crying.

Eden, I suppose, is a song about imperfection - the imperfection of humans, of our surroundings and of life itself, perfectly symbolized by that thorn-filled rose. Pain and beauty are intertwined in this life and no one gets away with only joy and no sorrow. But the lyric that defines the song for me is this one:

but the clock is another demon
that devours our time in Eden
in our paradise

I live eternally in the future. I have no concept of this "be in the moment" business. I'm trying to learn. I can't tell you how frustrating it is when in the middle of a beautiful, joyful moment in my life, I start thinking about when the moment will be over, about how I'll feel if I can't have this joy anymore. I start feeling depressed halfway through a vacation because I'm already anticipating having to go home. Instead of fulling immersing myself in a great concert, I end up thinking during every song, "I hope this isn't the last song, I'm not ready for this to be over." It's infuriating to be inside my own time-traveling mind. So this lyric in Eden about the demon clock that steals away those perfect moments in life, it resonates with me very deeply. I don't know many people my age who think about how they'll feel when the are in a nursing home. I wish I was like them. But I'm ever aware of that clock. I may not live in the moment very well, but I don't take things for granted either.

While I don't dwell on my own past much, as I get older I find myself more and more nostalgic for things that are no more, for things that have been no more since well before I was born. It's this sense of longing for forgotten things that has fueled my recent obsession with record-collecting (as I type this, I'm listening to 1951's The Provocative Erroll Garner and wondering when the word "provocative" started being used primarily in reference to naughty things.) This nostalgia caused my recent willingness to get rid of almost all of my possessions so I could afford to live in a neighborhood established around the turn of the century and soak up its feeling of history. It is perhaps this same nostalgia that makes me love the song Maddox Table so much.

Maddox Table was founded by William Maddox in 1898 in Jamestown, New York and operated into the early 1980s. Furniture manufacturing was at the core of Jamestown's livelihood and when that all started going overseas, it must have felt like the city went with it. A quote from Natalie:

"It was probably a great place to live in 1920. There's still two or three factories operating, but it's really bad, veneer-coated stereo components, those kind of things. That's what they're reduced to making. It's incredible. You can go to the second-hand shops and antique stores and find specimens of this beautiful woodworking that used to be done there. When someone was first married and they bought a bedroom suite it was like for royalty it seemed, but it was something everyone could have."*

I think Maddox Table is far and away the best song on The Wishing Chair. This song really foreshadowed the lyrical style Natalie Merchant would make her own as she progressed in her career. She slips so easily into the skin of this factory worker, describing the things he sees, hears and smells as he slaves away. I love the level of detail she includes, like the description of the Maddox Table logo, which you can see a poor image of in the picture below:

Here are two more quotes from Natalie:

"I met an old man who used to work at Maddox Table. I told him I'd written a song about the company, and I gave him a copy of the record. I never thought I'd meet someone like the person in the song."**

"I have a ridiculous level of nostalgia for something that maybe never even existed. But growing up around my grandparents and spending a lot of time sitting around the front porch with their friends, everyone was always saying it used to be so much better."*

I really love this quote. Maybe Natalie hit upon what this form of nostalgia really is - not just a longing for the past but a longing for the idealized version of the past. While there are obvious dangers in idealizing the past, it seems like we have such a deep-rooted need to do so.

I can acknowledge the fact that the woman I saw crying in the nursing home may have been just as mentally lost as everyone else in that room. She may have had no idea at all why she was crying. But in my idealized version of that moment, she was crying because she was mourning her better days, mourning the memory of what she used to have, real or imagined. There is beauty in that, no matter how sad it is.

Click here to watch the music video for Maddox Table

Download Eden from Itunes - Eden - Our Time In Eden

Download Maddox Table from Itunes - Maddox Table - The Wishing Chair

*Los Angeles Times - August 1989
**Vegetarian Times - March 1989
Bottom photo source

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Build a Levee / Soldier Soldier / Cowboy Romance

Build a Levee (from the album Motherland)

When I was just a little girl my mamma said to me,
"beware of the devil my child
in the dark rocky places he'll keep
beware of the devil my child
beware of his charming ways
you'll fall under an evil spell
just looking at his beautiful face
you gotta build yourself a levee deep inside"

"Don't go walking by the riverside
alone in the pale moonlight
he'll come up upon you girl
with no earthly body in sight
come up upon you girl
and he'll whisper something sweet
then take you where the waters rise
so high and run so deep."

"You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
build yourself a levee girl when the waters run high"

Now when I was just a little girl my mamma said to me,
"beware of the devil my child
but if by chance you should meet
beware of his cold dark eyes full of bold and unholy deceit
he'll tempt you with a whirling pool of lies and promises
he'll deny or that he will never keep"

"You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
build yourself a levee girl when the waters run high"


Soldier, Soldier (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; Anonymous)

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no suit to put on?”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little suit in the store,
“come on soldier put this on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no shoes to put on”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little shoes in the store
“come on soldier put these on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no hat to put on?”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little hat in the store
“come on soldier put this on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such an ugly little girl
when I got a pretty wife at home?”


Cowboy Romance (from the album Tigerlily)

It's a Saturday afternoon romance
between a cowboy and a fool...

A drunken meet up
in a crude saloon
a poor rocky mountain town
he's a scoundrel and
she's no pearl
together they are two lovers cruel

Got her balanced on his knee
he knows exactly what to say
"You ain't been born
'til you get out of town
and honey, you might come with me”

If you do-

I'll spare the innocent ones
and take you with me
together we will be drifters free"

Got her tangled in his arms
she's a lusting, trusting fool
"There's no man born that can rule me
and that I've sworn
but stranger if you do,
I'll belong to you”

If you do-

“Would you spare the innocent ones
and take me with you?
can't you love the land
and love me too?"

As he grows sober
sees his love anew
in the morning light so true
and he gets on the move,

On the move-

I was almost a runaway bride. It caught me by surprise to find myself with such an extreme case of cold feet. I've never had much of a problem with commitment of any nature. But in the weeks leading up to my impending wedding, I felt sick with fear. I'm going to stand in front of a group of people and vow to stick with one person for the rest of my life, come what may? Seriously? What in the world did I sign up for?

I started thinking about every story I'd ever read or seen on TV or heard from a friend that involved some naive girl marrying the seemingly perfect guy, a guy who 10 minutes into the honeymoon revealed that he was some sort of psychopath. Things that I used to write off as endearing personality quirks were all of a sudden warning signs of deeper, darker character flaws - major, life-alteringly bad character flaws. Sure, maybe he's just grumpy after a long day at work. Or conversely, I could be marrying the next Hitler.

Love is a very dangerous sport. People always get hurt. Even when the relationship is a success, even when you meet the person who really is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, there is only one thing that is certain - pain will be involved. And if it's not, then you're probably just not doing it right.

In my mind, there are two brands of songs that Natalie Merchant writes on the subject of falling in love. I think they could best be summarized this way:

1) Don't do it!


2) You did it...Totally sucks, doesn't it?

Today I want to discuss a few songs that I feel, in one way or another, fall into that first category. One is a direct warning, one is a parable, and one is a story the application of which is a lot harder to summarize.

One thing I find interesting about Natalie's solo work is that each album has a very distinctive sound. She's not really one of those artists whose music all sounds so similar that one song could easily be pulled from one album and dropped onto another. Build a Levee is distinctively Motherland to me. With Mavis Staples once again appearing on vocals, this song isn't R&B-influenced, it's just R&B. And everything about it, the words and the music, seem like they could've come from another time.

I think there is great wisdom to the words of warning on this track. I would love to live in a world where I could tell daughters, sisters and friends to be always open-hearted and trusting, but where romance is concerned, that could be some terrible advice. After listening to Motherland tracks like Build a Levee, The Worst Thing, I'm Not Gonna Beg, etc., it's hard not to conclude that Natalie may have been going through the mother of all breakups when she wrote these songs. I found an interesting quote that Natalie made in regards to an earlier record, but I think it applies pretty fittingly to her lyric writing on Motherland as well:

"I use a lot of literary devices to disguise my own experiences or expand on ones I've had, sometimes creating a narrative and using characters. I might be one of the characters, or just someone who observed it happening. But because it's a solo record there is a great amount of myself in there..."*

Given how often I read internet headlines exclaiming the "controversy" of one teenybopper singer writing some scathing lyrics about their breakup with another teenybopper singer...well, I'm quite satisfied knowing very little about the inspiration for Natalie's romantic songs. Oh, if only that were the rule rather than the exception with most current lyricists.

Soldier, Soldier is a song that, depending on your mood at the time of listening, is either a hilarious joke or a cruel you-shoulda-known-better warning tale. I happen to think it's both. It makes you laugh, but in that manner that makes you feel guilty for laughing. It makes perfect sense that the song was used as a children's jump roping song. Excellent kid humor. I really do feel bad for that poor girl, though, spending all her money on that dirtbag soldier. Like more than one song on The House Carpenter's Daughter, the instructional lesson of Soldier, Soldier is abundantly clear without needing any statement of the direct point; in this case - "Don't be a sucker."

I'm a little nervous to write about Cowboy Romance. I understand how much Natalie's fans love this song and I find it difficult to try to write something that can capture that level of emotion. Maybe I should've solicited your comments before I started writing this? Some of you write me with the most eloquent explanations of just what it is about Natalie's music that you love. It makes me marvel at just how ill-equipped I am to be writing this blog in the first place. So it's not too late...write me or leave a comment and tell me why Cowboy Romance is so beloved a song. I'll include your thoughts in my next post.

But okay, okay, I'm not taking myself completely off the hook here. I'll share my thoughts, too. Of the incredible catalogue of sad Natalie Merchant songs, I think Cowboy Romance is one of the saddest. And I love it. I heard a quote on a TV show recently wherein which one character, after remarking that she wanted to go somewhere sad, explained, "Sad is happy for deep people." While I don't particularly relish feeling sad and would far rather feel happy, I don't find it difficult to see beauty in sad things.

For me, what's sad about this story is the female protagonist. It's not just that she was used by the scoundrel cowboy, it's that she honestly believed she wouldn't be, that she wasn't the type of woman to fall easily. "There's no man born that can rule me and that I've sworn, but..." It's the but that does her in. She was on the right track until she made room for that but. (Which sounds funnier than it feels...Which is also an awkward thing to say. Okay, let's just kill this right here.) Her desperation for an escape, to find something to live for, weakened her resolve to be the kind of woman she claimed to be, believed herself to be. I have such empathy for her. Here is one last quote from Natalie about singing Cowboy Romance live:

"It begins so intimately, but by the final choruses I'd be racing across the stage toward the audience singing 'spare the innocent ones and take me with you' like they were the beautiful stranger that promised to deliver me."**

Have I mentioned that you should move heaven and earth to go see Natalie perform live? Consider it mentioned.

In the end, I was able to manage my case of cold feet. That was a long time ago and I can't say I have any regrets. But I don't think the nervousness was unwarranted. I still think love is as risky as it ever was. And sad though they may be, I still think Natalie Merchant can write as beautiful a love song as anyone.

That's all for me this week. This month marks the one year anniversary of Annie's Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog and as of this post, I have less than 40 songs left to write about! Thank you to all of you who've supported me with kind words and especially to those who've been following the blog since the beginning. See you in two weeks!

Click here to see a video that does not actually feature Natalie Merchant but does tie in to this week's post, albeit it in a way that might take you a minute to figure out. Trust's totally sweet. As for all you traditionalists who like to actually see Natalie Merchant in your Natalie Merchant video, click here to watch a live performance of Build a Levee.

Download an acoustic version of Build a Levee from Itunes - Build a Levee (iTunes Session) - iTunes Session

Download Soldier, Soldier from Itunes - Soldier, Soldier - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download a full band version of Cowboy Romance from Itunes - Cowboy Romance (Previously Unreleased) - Retrospective 1990-2005

*Time Out - June 1995
**Retrospective liner notes

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Peppery Man / Griselda / The Janitor's Boy

The Peppery Man (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Arthur Macy)

The Peppery Man was cross and thin;
He scolded out and scolded in;
He shook his fist, his hair he tore;
He stamped his feet and slammed the door.

Heigh ho, the Peppery Man,
The rabid, crabbed Peppery Man!
Oh, never since the world began
Was any one like the Peppery Man.

His ugly temper was so sour
He often scolded for an hour;
He gnashed his teeth and stormed and scowled,
He snapped and snarled and yelled and howled.

He wore a fierce and savage frown;
He scolded up and scolded down;
He scolded over field and glen,
And then he scolded back again.

His neighbors, when they heard his roars,
Closed their blinds and locked their doors,
Shut their windows, sought their beds,
Stopped their ears and covered their heads.

He fretted, chafed, and boiled and fumed;
With fiery rage he was consumed,
And no one knew, when he was vexed,
What in the world would happen next.

Heigh ho, the Peppery Man,
The rabid, crabbed Peppery Man!
Oh, never since the world began
Was any one like the Peppery Man.


Griselda (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Eleanor Farjeon)

Griselda is greedy, I'm sorry to say.
She isn't contented with four meals a day,
Like breakfast and dinner and supper and tea
(I've had to put tea after supper—you see
Why, don't you?)
Griselda is greedy as greedy can be.

She snoops about the larder
For sundry small supplies,
She breaks the little crusty bits
Off rims of apple pies,
She pokes the roast-potato-dish
When Sunday dinner's done,
And if there are two left in it
Griselda snitches one;
Cold chicken and cold cauliflower
She pulls in little chunks
And when Cook calls:
"What are you doing there?"
Griselda bunks.

Griselda is greedy. Well, that's how she feels,
She simply can't help eating in-between meals,
And always forgets what it's leading to, though
The Doctor has frequently told her: “You know
Why, don't you?”
When the stomach-ache starts and Griselda says:

She slips down to the dining-room
When everyone's in bed,
For cheese-rind on the supper-tray,
And buttered crusts of bread,
A biscuit from the biscuit-box,
Lump sugar from the bowl,
A gherkin from the pickle-jar,
Are all Griselda's toll;
She tastes the salted almonds,
And she tries the candied fruits
And when Dad shouts:
"Who is it down below?"
Griselda scoots.

Griselda is greedy. Her relatives scold,
And tell her how sorry she'll be when she's old,
She will lose her complexion, she's sure to grow fat,
She will spoil her inside—does she know what she's at?
(Why do they?)
Some people are greedy. Leave it at that.


The Janitor's Boy (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Nathalia Crane)

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy,
And the janitor's boy loves me;
He's going to hunt for a desert isle
In our geography.

A desert isle with spicy trees
Somewhere near Sheepshead Bay;
A right nice place, just fit for two
Where we can live alway.

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy,
He's busy as he can be;
And down in the cellar he's making a raft
Out of an old settee.

He'll carry me off, I know that he will,
For his hair is exceedingly red;
And the only thing that occurs to me
Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

The day that we sail, I shall leave this brief note,
For my parents I hate to annoy:
"I have flown away to an isle in the bay
With the janitor's red-haired boy."

On my last post I talked about musical storytelling, an art form that is exemplified on Natalie's album The House Carpenter's Daughter. At the heart of most great stories are great characters and, oh boy, does Natalie's most recent album Leave Your Sleep abound with wonderfully odd and endearing characters. Isabel, Ebenezer Bleezer, Maggie, Milly, Molly, May, Griselda, Margaret, and those are just the characters that are given proper names! Add to that characters like The Janitor's Boy, The King of China's Daughter, The Sleepy Giant, The Peppery Man...well, the list just goes on and on. On this week's post I thought we could take a look at a few of these great character-centric songs.

There are some flawed characters featured in other songs on Leave Your Sleep - former child-eaters, gluttons, and creepy wilderness riddlers, but The Peppery Man takes the cake. He's a guy who seems quite comfortable embracing his role as an intolerable curmudgeon. For this reason, I find this character to be irresistible. I've always had a strong attraction to grumpy people; a mix of fear and admiration, I suppose. Or maybe a childish notion that I can win over even the most difficult of persons. If I had the chance, I'm pretty sure I could win over The Peppery Man. Not that he'd admit it or anything. I think I might find quite a thrill in setting him off on a tangent, though.

The music for this song couldn't be more perfect. I really love the dudes who sing backing vocals on this track, The Fairfield Four. (Hopefully it is not considered incredibly rude to refer to extremely talented people who are in their 80s and 90s as dudes, but it somehow feels appropriate in this context.) I love their chatter at the beginning and end of the song. Natalie seems like she's having a great time singing; this is another one of those songs where I feel like I can hear a smile in her voice. It never ceases to amaze me how good she can sound paired with such a wide variety of performers. Here is a quote from Natalie about how she chose the musical style for The Peppery Man:

"The poems came first. Some of them I wrote with several different styles of music. For example The Peppery Man was actually an Irish jig before it became a blues song. The jig just wasn't badass enough. I was like 'that's not The Peppery Man.' He's kind of jaunty, and the jig wasn't jaunty. The Peppery Man - he's one badass dude and if I needed to make the theme of a badass dude it would be the blues."*

I feel a bit of a kinship with the naughty little girl featured in the song Griselda. As a child of the early 80s, I was for a time subject to my mother's earnest attempts at making our family ultra-healthy eaters. I don't think I ate a hamburger until I was a teenager and for most of my childhood I thought chocolate and carob were one and the same. *shivers* So anytime junk food made its way into our house, my radar went off. I found incredibly efficient ways to eat as much of it as possible while I had the chance. I mastered the art of making a package of cookies look full when in fact it was nearing half empty. (The trick? Whenever you take a cookie from the opened front end of the package, you replace it with one from the back of the package. Yeah...I was good.)

Thankfully, this was a just a passing phase for me, but one can't help but wonder if the same can be said for poor little Griselda. She was dedicated to the art form of sneak-eating, getting up at all hours of the night to indulge her appetite. While I think this song is really amusing, I definitely think I would leave it off the Overeaters Anonymous hotline's hold button music.

Lastly, we get to my favorite song of this bunch and one of my favorite songs on all of Leave Your Sleep, The Janitor's Boy. While the janitor's red-haired boy might be the character most talked about in the words, the little girl who wrote the poem, Nathalia Crane, is the heart of the song. Nathalia was apparently 10 years old when she wrote these words. Quite the saucy little gal, I'd say. To be honest with you, if I had a little girl who wrote lines like "He'll carry me off, I know that he will, for his hair is exceedingly red; and the only thing that occurs to me is to dutifully shiver in bed" I think the only emotion that could outshine my pride would be a fervent desire to invest in a chastity belt.

A few years before Leave Your Sleep came out, I bought an album by Wynton Marsalis called Unforgivable Blackness. I played it obsessively for months. If you took the singing out of The Janitor's Boy, the song could have come right off of that album. I didn't know before I first listened to The Janitor's Boy that Wynton did the musical arrangement for the song, but I could tell from the very first trumpet note. I love this kind of music and I love when my musical worlds combine, as they did with Wynton and Natalie on this song. I don't know about you, but I would be in heaven if Natalie did a whole album of songs like this.

Before I leave you this week, I'd like to share one last tantalizing quote from Natalie about the characters from Leave Your Sleep:

"There’s also a script for a musical based on all of the poems. The characters in the poems become characters in the narrative."**

Excuse me while I stifle my squeals of anticipatory delight.

Thanks for reading and see you in two weeks!

Click here to watch a really cute video from Natalie's official site of the rehearsal and recording of vocals for The Janitor's Boy. Watching things like this makes my day job seems unbearably boring. Why don't I have this much fun at my...desk? Ugh.

Bonus video! Click here to watch a live performance of The Peppery Man

Download The Peppery Man from Itunes - The Peppery Man - Leave Your Sleep

Download Griselda from Itunes - Griselda - Leave Your Sleep

Download The Janitor's Boy from Itunes - The Janitor's Boy - Leave Your Sleep

*Music OMH - April 2010
*Chicago Pride - July 2010

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Diver Boy / Crazy Man Michael

Diver Boy (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; Anonymous)

Young Emily was fair lady bright
she loved her diver boy
who sailed over the ocean
to gather up some gold
seven long years returning,
his money for to show
he’d been sailing over the main
down in the low land, low

“My father runs a big hotel
down by the river side
you go there go for to stay
and I shall be your bride
meet me early morning
don’t let my parents know
you have been the diver boy
down in the low land, low”

Young Henry taking a drink
that night before he went to bed
not thinking of the danger
that crowned all over his head
young Edward said to his father,
“let’s take his money sure
and send his body sinking fast
down in the low land, low”

Young Emily went to be that night
she dreamed an awful dream
she dreamed she saw
her true love’s blood
go flowing down the stream
waking early morning
to parents she did say,
“where could be that stranger boy
who came here for to stay?”

“Oh, father you’re a robber
you robbed me of my wren!
oh brother you have murdered
the one that I loved best!
the trees on yonder mountain
are bending to and fro
they remind me of my diver boy
down in the low land, low"


Crazy Man Michael (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; written by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick)

Within the fire
and out upon the sea
crazy man Michael was walking
he met with a raven
with eyes black as coal
and shortly they were talking

“Your future, your future
I will tell to you
your future
you often have asked me
your true love will die
by your own right hand
and crazy man Michael
will cursed be”

Michael he ranted
and Michael he raved
and he beat at the four winds
with his fists-o
he laughed and he cried
he shouted and he swore
for his mad mind
entrapped him with a fist-hold

“You speak with an evil
you speak with a hate
you speak for the devil
that haunts me
for is she not the fairest
in all the broad land?
your sorcerer’s words
are to taunt me”

He took out his dagger
of fine and broad steel
and he struck down the raven
through the heart-o
the bird fluttered long
and the sky it did spin
and this cold earth did
wander ‘round startled

Oh where is the raven
that I struck down dead
and here did lye
on the ground-o?
I see my true love
with a wound so red
where her lover’s heart
it did pound-o

Crazy man Michael
he wanders I’m told
and he talks through
the night and the day-o
but his eyes they are sane
and his speech is plain
but he longs to be far away-o

Michael he whistles
the simplest of tunes
as he asks of the wild wolves
their pardon
but his true love has flown
into every flower grown
and he must be keeper
of the garden

Anytime you tell someone that you just read a great book or saw a great movie, there are a couple of questions they are likely to ask you. One of those questions will invariably be "What was it about?"

It's a logical question. Regardless of genre, or of whether the work in question is fiction or non-fiction, the basis of all these things is a story. Even in the age where popular films are often heavy on special effects and light on plot, there is always some sort of story to tell someone about.

This rule, though, doesn't really seem to apply when it comes to music. If a friend tells you they just heard a great new song, your reply is probably not going to be, "So what is the song about?" You might ask about the tempo or the general musical style of the band, but the first thing that leaps to your mind is probably not the story the lyrics are telling. Music just isn't held to the same rules as other forms of entertainment. Music can affect you without words and it can move you with words that don't really make much sense. Music does not have to have a story and it doesn't necessarily require analyzation.

For example, let's take that little 90s *ahem* classic I'm Too Sexy...what's the song about? Well, it would seem that the gentleman singing the song is extremely sexy. He's so sexy, in fact, that it makes the normal day-to-day affairs of life hard to manage. He can't work, he can't drive, he even has a poor relationship with his pets, all because of the overabundance of sexiness. Tragic, really. When that song finishes playing no one in the room asks themselves what the deeper meaning is supposed to be. It's pretty clear, right? No deeper meaning. It's just music. Awful, awful music.

Okay, okay, I'm poking fun at something that is obviously bad, but this idea applies to songs that are beloved classics, too. There's no real story to I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Love Me Do by the Beatles, but those songs are still classic pop songs. We love those songs, perhaps primarily because of their sweet simplicity.

But all this aside, there is something to say for a song that makes you think, or that tells a story. That's why, for as much as we might like the words to I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Love Me Do, we could spend a lot more time talking about Norwegian Wood or Eleanor Rigby. It's also the reason why many people will find a symphony far more enjoyable if they have some idea of what thought or story the composer is trying to convey. Even if we don't know, we might try to make something up. Telling and being told stories is so fundamental to our existence, we will look for it even where it doesn't exist.

In 1993, 10 years before she would record the album The House Carpenter's Daughter, Natalie Merchant was asked by an interviewer what she had learned from the time she had spent studying folk music. Here was her reply:

"Storytelling. Those folk songs had a beginning and an end, and they instructed you about yourself, your condition as a female or an American."*

Folk music, much of it deriving from folklore, has storytelling at its very heart. Today's post focuses on two songs from The House Carpenter's Daughter that have particularly strong stories.

The dark and monotonous opening bass lines of Diver Boy, followed by the slow fade in of the drums and fiddle, create an immediate sense of foreboding. The song is effective at telling you where it's going before a single word is even uttered. The opening verses seem to point in the direction of a fairly simple love song, until perhaps the words, "Don't let my parents know..." By the time young Henry is taking a drink before bed, we know exactly where's things are headed.

In the liner notes to The House Carpenter's Daughter, Natalie makes this observation about Diver Boy:

"Diver Boy has all the crucial elements that make up the perfect murder ballad: long parted lovers, familial conspiracy, coveted treasure, a violent ending, haunted dreams, thwarted love and a spectral presence."

These are also elements that can be found in a lot of classic literature. For me, Diver Boy is somehow reminiscent of short stories that I read growing up, stories filled with subjects of a somewhat macabre nature but told in a way that wouldn't be overly disturbing to a young reader.

Speaking of macabre short stories, doesn't it seem like Edgar Allan Poe could've penned the words to Crazy Man Michael (and no, not just because of the raven connection)? This song gives me a serious case of the creepies. The music is beautiful and sad but not especially ominous in itself. The words, though, are enough to make the tone of the whole song seem incredibly eerie.

While the story of Diver Boy sort of takes you from the beginning to the end, Crazy Man Michael doesn't give a whole lot of details about the unfortunate chap in question. It cuts right to the chase of what exactly made Michael so crazy. Or does it?

My personal interpretation is that Michael was already crazy long before he met the raven. I think it was just a figure in his own disturbed mind that helped him understand or justify in some way his heinous act. To me, this is the creepiest line in Crazy Man Michael:

"but his eyes they are sane
and his speech is plain"

There is nothing more scary than an insane person who seems normal. (While conversely, there is nothing more delightful than a normal person who seems insane!) The last lines, though, are my favorite:

"but his true love has flown
into every flower grown
and he must be keeper
of the garden"

I can't think of a more beautiful and disturbing end to the story than that.

That's all from me this week, but after the usual links, I have included some excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader named Dee regarding my post about Frozen Charlotte. She sure did her research! Some pretty interesting stuff. Thanks, Dee! If you would like to share thoughts or theories about this week's post, please feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at See you next time!

As I finish writing this post, I fear I might get my butt kicked into eternity if I fail to mention that Crazy Man Michael was originally performed by the beloved Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention. This week's Youtube link is to a recording of the original.

Download Diver Boy from Itunes - Diver Boy - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download Crazy Man Michael from Itunes - Crazy Man Michael - The House Carpenter's Daughter

*Los Angeles Times - November 1993

Frozen Charlotte theory courtesy of Dee:

"Frozen Charlotte was the name of a china doll from approx. 1850-1920, which is named after a folk balled called Fair Charlotte (also Frozen Charlotte or Young Charlotte - there appear to be several versions around). The story is summarized as follows:

'It was New Years Eve and it was very cold outside. Charlotte was waiting in her new dress for her boyfriend, Charles, to take her to the village inn for a New Year’s Eve party. Finally, Charles’ sleigh came. Her mother asked her to put a blanket around her so she wouldn’t be too cold. But Charlotte did not want to crinkle her dress, so she did not take the blanket. The village inn was 15 miles away. They had gone five miles when Charlotte said she was cold. Charles made the horses run faster. Five more miles they rode when Charlotte said she was getting warmer. Finally, the village inn was in sight. Charles jumped out and called her many times. Charlotte did not move or say a word because she was frozen. Then he came over to her and felt her hands. They were very cold. He now knew that Charlotte had frozen to death. He rode Charlotte back to her cottage. Her parents were very sad. Charles was very upset, too. He died of a broken heart.'

The story is based upon a poem by Seba Smith originally published in 1843 under the title 'A corpse going to a ball'...From what I have read, the story is believed to be based upon a true event, although documentation is scarce. One reference I saw stated that the New York Observer reported 'on February 8, 1840, that a girl froze to death on her way to a ball on January 1, 1840.'

I believe this story/ballad/poem is the basis of Natalie's Frozen Charlotte...or perhaps she had one of the dolls as a child. Given this history, Natalie's song makes sense to me as a story, or a message from Young Charlotte back to Charles as he grieves her death."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't Talk

Don't Talk (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

Don't talk, I will listen
don't talk, you keep your distance
I'd rather hear some truth tonight
than entertain your lies
take your poison silently
let me be, let me close my eyes

Don't talk, I'll believe it
don't talk, listen to me instead
I know that if you think of it
both long enough and hard
it's the drink you drown your troubles
in is the trouble you're in now

Talk, talk, talk about it
you talk as if you care
but when your talk is over
tilt that bottle in the air
tossing back more than your share

Don't talk, I can guess it
don't talk, well now you're restless and
you need somewhere to put the blame
for how you feel inside
you'll look for a close and easy mark and
you'll see me as fair game

Talk, talk, talk about it
talk as if you care
but when your talk is over
tilt that bottle in the air
tossing back more than your share
you talk talk talk about it
you talk as if you care.
I'm marking every word and
I can tell this time for sure
your talk is the finest I have heard

Don't talk, let me go on dreaming
how your eyes they glow so fiercely
I can tell you're inspired
by the name you just chose for me
now what was it? o, never mind

We will talk, talk, talk about this
when your head is clear
I'll discuss this in the morning
but until then
you may talk but I won't hear

There are certain things you just accept when you are young. For a lot of us that means we spend our first several years of life assuming our family is pretty much normal. We don't know any different. But as we start getting older and spending more and more time with other people's families, we may start reassessing our previous viewpoint.

I knew there was something that made my family different from my friends' families, but I never tried particularly hard to identify it. I just figured it was because my parents were older than theirs, or had less money, or something mundane and simple like that. But then one day I overheard a conversation in my house that featured one particular word, a word that shot through me like a bolt of lightning.


I don't remember too much of the context surrounding that word and I'm not sure it mattered then or now. That was the only word I needed to hear. All of a sudden everything that had ever been a mystery in my life was made shockingly clear. I felt a little foolish that I had never figured it out before. Perhaps I also should've felt devastated, ashamed, or angry. But at that moment, I didn't feel any of those emotions. In fact, there was only one emotion I remember feeling - relief. Finally, things made sense. So when, many years later, a friend and fellow 10,000 Maniacs fan asked me how I could stand to listen to the song Don't Talk, I found myself surprised at the question. "Doesn't it hit too close to home? Isn't it too painful?" they asked.


Don't Talk, along with so many other Maniacs songs, particularly on In My Tribe, focuses its grip onto something hidden and drags it out into the light. So no, it is has never been too difficult for me to listen to the song. Don't Talk brings out the same emotion in me that I experienced at that pivotal moment in my youth - relief.

I love every word in this song, but there are a few lines that I find especially meaningful.

well now you're restless and
you need somewhere to put the blame
for how you feel inside
you'll look for a close and easy mark and
you'll see me as fair game

I suppose there are various emotions that people associate with a person under the influence, but there is one that stands out above all others - anger. And as everyone knows, anger demands a victim. For the alcoholic the "close and easy mark" becomes the people unfortunate enough to be with them when they're drunk, and that usually includes the people closest to them.

how your eyes they glow so fiercely
I can tell you're inspired
by the name you just chose for me
now what was it? o, never mind

Natalie's lyrics capture so perfectly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that inspired rage. And yet when Natalie was once asked in an interview about the topic of writing love songs, here was her reply:

"I look on Don't Talk as a love song, because if there wasn't caring between those people there'd be no need for the song."*

I have to admit, Don't Talk is not the first song that would come to my mind when asked to name a love song. But this quote from Natalie has made me listen to, and appreciate, the song in a different way.

Here is one more quote from Natalie:

"Several people who heard Don't Talk wrote me letters saying that they came from alcoholic households and that it made them feel less alone to hear a song about it."**

I can relate. Music cannot fix all of the world's problems. It cannot change the fundamental flaws of human nature. But it can and does make people feel less alone. If this is the highest purpose music ever achieves, I think it's a noble one.

Thank you for reading this week. I've gotten some e-mail in recent weeks containing some theories and insights into Natalie's music that I would like to share in future posts. I always love to hear your ideas and thoughts so if you'd like to comment on this week's post, you can do so below or you can e-mail me at

Most of you die-hard Natalie fans probably already know this, but in case you haven't heard, Natalie contributed a song called "Learning the Game" to a Buddy Holly tribute album that came out last week. I've included an Itunes link to the song below. Cheers!

Click here to see the music video for Don't Talk

Download the MTV Unplugged version of Don't Talk at Itunes - Don't Talk (Live) - MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs

Download Natalie's new song Learning the Game at Itunes - Learning the Game - Listen to Me: Buddy Holly

*Melody Maker - May 1989
**BAM - August 1989

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Wonder (from the album Tigerlily)

Doctors have come from distant cities
just to see me
stand over my bed
disbelieving what they're seeing

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

Newspapers ask intimate questions
want confessions
they reach into my head
to steal the glory of my story

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way

People see me
I'm a challenge to your balance
I'm over your heads
how I confound you and astound you
to know I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as you can see you can offer me
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as she came to my mother
know this child will not suffer
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way

Last year, as I was hatching the idea to start this blog, I realized that I would be writing a fair bit about the subject of childhood. After all, Natalie had just released an album, Leave Your Sleep, based on poetry that she described as being by, for, or about children. But I still didn't anticipate just how often these little posts I write would end up centering on the subject of children and childhood. As I started writing my way through Natalie's catalogue, I would come upon the subject time and time again, not just with songs from Leave Your Sleep, but with songs from every epoch of Natalie's career, songs like How You've Grown, What's the Matter Here, Cotton Alley, and Stockton Gala Days, among others.

All of those songs I've just mentioned deal directly with children or childhood, but beyond those songs were songs that ostensibly had nothing to do with childhood but reminded me in some way or another of experiences from my own young life. Before I started this blog, if someone would have asked me what I thought the common theme that unites Natalie Merchant's writing was, I think I might have been inclined to say there wasn't one. But now I can answer unequivocally - I think childhood is the central theme of Natalie's writing.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that I believe it is the only thing that she has written about, but it's impossible to deny how strongly the current of childhood flows through her music. There's several possible reasons for this. Perhaps Natalie is just very in touch with her own inner child, something I find highly likely. Maybe she really likes children; in fact, that seems undeniable. Or maybe she writes the way most every other great artist writes and it's just that she's the only artist whose music I have examined this closely. After all, most of us are somewhat obsessed with our own childhood - the beautiful parts, the terrible parts, all the parts we're still trying to figure out. Maybe all this talk of romantic love being at the root of popular music is just a myth. Maybe all roads lead back to our childhood, in some way or another.

Well, today I am back with another post and once again, the song I am covering, Wonder (heard of it?), has childhood at its core. I've hesitated to write about this song for a long time, not because I don't love it, because I do love it so much, but because in all of Natalie's catalogue Wonder is the song that has inarguably touched the most people on the most intimately personal level. What can I possibly say that can add to that? The answer is nothing, so for once I'm going to (mostly) keep my ideas to myself and instead focus on things that Natalie has said about Wonder. First, the inspiration:

"It was a song that I wrote after seeing a documentary about a severely physically handicapped girl who had been institutionalized at birth and was adopted by this farmer couple in rural Texas. And she had this remarkable life and she credited her adopted parent's love and support for her overcoming."*

Certain critical nincompoops liked to point out that Wonder served as proof that Natalie was a raging narcissist. (Rant: Why is it that every female celebrity that is self-possessed and doesn't feel the need to constantly distort herself to appeal to the masses gets labeled as an egomaniac? Is it impossible for a female to fall somewhere in between self-loathing and self-obsessed? Bah!) Natalie addressed this criticism in no uncertain terms:

"That's their problem. They'd have to be pretty dense to think I sang it about me. I'm not that crafty to be the first person to sing [about someone else] in the first person."**

Ha! Take that, nincompoops! Now, about the musical inspiration for Wonder:

"Well, the music - I just liked the descending chord progression and I thought it sounded very hopeful, like a gospel song. And I just kept playing it over and over and I came up the melody. But it was gibberish. There were no words yet. I think after two months I came up with the words. I had decided to write the song about - because it seemed like a triumphant melody in a way - that I wanted to make it a testimonial about strength, inner strength."***

What about the effect this song has had on listeners?

"Over the years I've met so many people who have said that the song was really inspirational to them because they had children born with congenital illness or children who became sick with cancer or children who were blind."*

In the same interview the above quote comes from, Natalie spoke about some specific comments she received from fans about Wonder.

"(A fan told her) 'I remember sitting in the dark at three o'clock in the morning nursing my baby who I was I told was blind and would never excel, never be able to achieve the things a sighted child could. And I listened to (Wonder) over and over and over and I told myself that they're wrong.'

"It's been a song that has changed my life because of the contact that I have with people who have been touched by it. I've come to know that this is an anthem for children with special needs."

Now, if I had ever entertained the hope that I might one day have the pleasure of meeting Natalie in person, this interview surely quelled that desire. I can just imagine it now - I'm standing in a long row of people; the person directly in front of me tearfully tells Natalie that just a few years ago they were standing on an overpass, about to jump to their own death, when a car passed by blaring Wonder. It gave them the strength to go on living...and now they are, astronaut or something. They hold each other and weep. Then it's my turn. She looks at me expectantly and I say, "You... It's... I...!" I will blurt out finally. She will raise a disapproving eyebrow, shake my hand weakly and with great effort muster forth a polite "Thank you" before moving on to the next sobbing paralytic who has the lyrics to Wonder tattooed to their face so they will be the first words they read when they look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Sigh. It just wasn't meant to be.

Listen, the truth is, I love this stuff. The fact is that although I have been so deeply moved by Natalie Merchant's music that I have committed myself to writing about pretty much every song she has ever's fully conceivable that I could be the fan least affected by her work. I just love that.

I'm sure that many of you reading this post will have your own story about Wonder and I invite you to share your thoughts via the comment section or via email (the preferred method for most of my very thoughtful readers.)

Tune in next time when I will undoubtedly be talking more about Natalie's music and its connection to childhood - yours, mine, and everyone else's. Thanks for reading!

Click here to watch the music video for Wonder

Bonus video! Click here to see Natalie's performance and explanation of Wonder on VH1's Storytellers

Download Wonder on Itunes - Wonder - Tigerlily

*BBC World Service - August 2010
**Cleveland Plain Dealer - September, 1995
***The Performing Songwriter - May/June 1996

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sweet and a Lullaby / Autumn Lullaby / Crying My Little One

Sweet and A Lullaby (from the album Leave Your Sleep; Anonymous)

There's not a rose where'er I seek
As comely as my baby's cheek.
There's not a comb of honey-bee,
So full of sweets as babe to me.

And it's so sweet,
Sweet and a lullaby.

There's not a star that shines on high,
Is brighter than my baby's eye.
There's not a boat upon the sea,
Can dance as baby does for me.

And it's so sweet,
Sweet and a lullaby.

No silk was ever spun so fine
As is the hair of baby mine.
My baby smells more sweet to me
Than smells in spring the elder tree.

And it's so sweet,
Sweet and a lullaby.


Autumn Lullaby (from the album Leave Your Sleep; Anonymous)

The sun has gone from the shining skies,
The dandelions have closed their eyes,
The stars are lighting their lamps to see
If babes and squirrels and birds and bees
Are sound asleep as they should be.

The squirrel keeps warm in his furs of gray,
‘Neath feathers, birdies are tucked away,
In yellow jackets, the bees sleep tight
And cuddle close through the chilly night,
My baby's snug in her gown of white.

The squirrel nests in a big oak tree,
He finds a hole in the trunk, you see,
The robin's home is a nest overhead,
The bees, they nest in a hive instead,
My baby's nest is her little bed.


Crying, My Little One (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Christina Rossetti)

Crying, my little one, footsore and weary?
Fall asleep, pretty one, warm on my shoulder:
I must tramp on through the winter night dreary,
While the snow falls on me colder and colder.

You are my one, and I have not another;
Sleep soft, my darling, my trouble and treasure;
Sleep warm and soft in the arms of your mother,
Dreaming of pretty things, dreaming of pleasure.

When I was out walking the other day I saw a scenario play out that is familiar to everyone who has ever been a child, or an adult for that matter. A couple of grown men were playing ball in their front yard with some kids. Horseplay was in full effect and all seemed to be having a grand time.

Until, of course, the obligatory accident. It had to happen; it always happens in these scenarios. An adult overestimates the coordination of the child they are playing with and then boom, slam, smack, choose your action word, the kid gets hurt. In the scene I witnessed, the kid hit the concrete with a resounding whack, immediately followed by a collective "Ooooh!" from all nearby parties. The kid was completely silent. It was that particular brand of silence that you know is going to immediately be followed by the kind of impassioned and outraged crying that is the only response that seems reasonable at that age.

Along with the crying were all the other reactions you would expect - the offending adult apologizing profusely and feeling like the biggest jerk in the world, the other kids standing by sheepishly, and most important, the parent coming to the rescue. And by "coming to the rescue" I mean simply holding the kid while he cried. What struck me in this instance, though, was the age of the kid who was hurt. He looked to be around 10 years old, and when I saw him crying into his father's shirt and pointing to where it hurt, I thought about the fact that it wouldn't be very long at all until this little boy was too big to allow himself to cry to his daddy, no matter how badly he might want to.

It's primarily during that first decade of life that your reaction to hurt is to be held and comforted. At some point, we start learning how to suck it up. I can remember so many times as a kid when I got hurt and wanted desperately to cry, but I fought it with all my might because I knew I was too old to be crying. I would make a joke, I would say I was fine, and all the while I'd be willing the tears back into my eyes. It's natural, I suppose, and healthy. After all, if an adult friend fell down and scraped their knee while in my presence and then immediately starting sobbing and clinging to me and saying, "O-o-o-w-w-w"...I'm not gonna lie, I would be pretty uncomfortable.

But I can't help but wonder...are we adults better off this way? There have been times when I've been to the doctor's office and when all was said and done, I think I might've been far better off if the doc had just given me a hug and let me cry it out a little. Maybe this is the key to health insurance reform. It's "hugs, not drugs" all over again.

Well, I don't think the world is ready for so radical a notion just yet. So I'll offer up instead a discussion of three of the lullabies featured on Natalie Merchant's most recent album, Leave Your Sleep. Each of these songs speak of that brand of comfort we allow from our parents only in our most tender years, and for that reason alone I find them to be quite, well...comforting.

Let's start with what is my favorite of this group, Sweet and a Lullaby. I love the lighthearted music that Natalie chose to accompany this poem with. When I listen to this song, I sometimes picture Natalie singing alongside an extremely jolly man with an outrageous mustache playing the concertina. I have no idea if this image in any way approximates the appearance of the concertina player, but it is the vision this song inspires for me.

The words to Sweet and a Lullaby are so precious they might make one's biological clock bust a spring. My favorite line is: "My baby smells more sweet to me than smells in spring the elder tree." Why do babies smell so good? All dirty diaper jokes aside, if it wasn't flagrantly socially unacceptable, I think I would walk up to every baby I ever saw and take a good sniff. is flagrantly socially unacceptable and so I will continue to refrain. But really, if you coupled baby-sniffing with hugs from doctors I honestly think we could change the world.

The first couple of times I listened to Autumn Lullaby, I kept wondering if there was a meaning in the song I was missing. There wasn't. This song and poem are so simple; there's no story really, just vignettes from nature. I'm tempted to confess that I find this song a bit on the boring side, but that feels shortsighted somehow. Autumn Lullaby, more than any other songs on this week's post, seems to best fit the concept of a lullaby as something that is simply meant to lull a child into unconsciousness. Ultimately, then, I suppose lullabies like this one are kind of...practical. And for something practical, Autumn Lullaby is quite pretty. If it makes me yawn more than usual when I listen to it, maybe that's just a compliment to its writers. And if I should ever find myself in possession of a screaming baby in the middle of the night, this song might just become my favorite of all-time.

Did I say earlier that Sweet and a Lullaby is my favorite in this group? I may have spoken too hastily. While Sweet and a Lullaby is a sweet song (I'm having a redundancy problem this week), Crying, My Little One is a song that I find deeply touching. I don't think there is any virtue that is more appealing, important, and overlooked than self-sacrifice. One would think that this quality would be inherent in being a mother, but with the overabundance of news headlines reminding us daily that there are women who beat, sell, discard or in some other ways harm their children, I like to be reminded that the kind of maternal faithfulness that is spoken of in Crying, My Little One still exists.

When I think of the mother in this song tramping through the snow, I wonder what kind of situation she is in. I guess it could be fairly mundane, but when I listen to this song I tend to think of her circumstances as being rather dramatic. Is she fleeing something, or someone, forced to travel by night in the dead of winter? I realize I am likely reading more into the words than I'm meant to, but I guess seeing things that way just heightens my sense of appreciation for this mother.

Crying, My Little One was written by Christina Rossetti, a poet who lived during the 1800s. Apparently, Natalie at one time intended to write an entire lullaby-based album based on Christina Rossetti's poetry. I'm awfully glad that initial idea grew into what would become an album so varied in substance as Leave Your Sleep, but I can't help but be curious what kind of album that original idea would have produced. Maybe one day we'll find out.

I couldn't find any quotes from Natalie that struck my fancy this week, so instead I thought I would leave you with a short poem by Ms. Rossetti. It's called "When I am dead, my dearest" and it was published in 1862. Although I have no knowledge of the inspiration of this poem, I like to imagine it as words written to a child.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

That's all for this week, folks. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Download Sweet and a Lullaby at Itunes - Sweet and a Lullaby - Leave Your Sleep

Download Autumn Lullaby at Itunes - Autumn Lullaby - Leave Your Sleep

Download Crying, My Little One at Itunes - Crying, My Little One - Leave Your Sleep

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo)

I should know to leave them home
they follow me through the store
with these toys I can't afford
"kids, take them back
you know better than that"
dolls that talk, astronauts, t.v. games, airplanes,
they don't understand
and how can I explain?

I try and try but I can't save
pennies, nickels, dollars slip away
I've tried and tried but I can't save

My youngest girl has bad fever, sure
all night with alcohol
to cool and rub her down
Ruby, I'm tired
try and get some sleep
I'm adding doctor's fees to remedies
with the cost of
three day's work lost

I try and try but I can't save
pennies, nickels, dollars slip away
I've tried and tried but I can't save
the hole in my pocketbook is growing

There's a new wind blowing they say
it's gonna be a cold, cold one
so brace yourselves my darlings
it won't bring anything much our way
but more dust bowl days

I played a card
in this week's game
took the first and the last letters
in three of their names
this lottery's been building up for weeks
I could be lucky me
with the five million prize
tears of disbelief spilling out of my eyes

I try and try but I can't save
pennies, nickels, dollars slip away
I've tried and tried but I can't save
the hole in my pocketbook is growing

There's a new wind blowing they say
it's gonna be a cold, cold one
so brace yourselves my darlings
it won't bring anything much our way
but more dust bowl days

A few weeks ago, as I was getting out of my car while running errands, a woman approached me. "Excuse me," she said, so quietly I could hardly make out the words. "My family has been homeless for 3 days now and we are $7 away from being able to afford a motel room for the night. Is there any way you could help us?" In her arms was a baby who couldn't have been more than a few weeks old.

I'm one of those people who never has cash and that day I didn't even have my purse at all. I rummaged through the car for a few minutes and, lo and behold, I found a crumpled up $10 bill behind the seat. I gave it to the woman, she thanked me and walked away, and I went about my business. But immediately court was in session.

Court - that's what I call the judiciary process that goes on in my brain after almost every human encounter I have. While I do believe that there are things in the world that are black-and-white, clearly right and clearly wrong, I am intrigued by the gray areas. I'm always looking for a reason to understand someone's viewpoint, even when that person is a bit of a buffoon. Even when I ultimately disagree with someone's opinion, I'm likely to see at least some truth in it. This is precisely why in my thirty years on this planet I have amassed in my head almost every single argument I've ever heard for or against anything.

So after my encounter with the recently homeless woman I immediately started hashing out what I had just done and what I should've done. The defense came out with a single argument: "She needed money and I had some to give her, simple as that." Oh, the prosecution did not like that pathetic argument one bit! The prosecutor immediately started pointing out details they believed I had ignored: "Why did the woman holding a small baby come up to ask you for money? Didn't you see her husband/boyfriend standing 20 feet away? Why didn't he ask you? Clearly, sending the woman/baby combo was an attempt to play on your weak emotions!"

"Maybe so," the defense concedes, "but even if this family was trying to play on my emotions, it doesn't necessarily change the situation they were in. They played my emotions so they could get money they desperately needed."

And here, of course, was where the prosecution delivered it's overarching argument, the same argument I have heard so many times in my life from people outraged by being asked for money from strangers: "But that man and woman were able-bodied! What prevented them from getting a job and providing for themselves? Where were their family members and friends to help them?" And last but not least this crucial final blow: "Have you even considered that all you are doing by giving them money is encouraging them to be lazy, to continue being the drains on society that they are?"

"I don't know," the defense says, losing confidence. It's the truth. I don't know. How can I?

While I don't think Dust Bowl is my favorite song on Blind Man's Zoo, I do think it's the best song on the album. I think it's one of the best songs 10,000 Maniacs ever released and has some of the best lyrics Natalie Merchant has ever written. The words are simple. There is not a lot to decipher, not many deep metaphors that inspire debate. The melody is not grand, it's actually rather stark. So what is it that keeps this song from being merely ordinary?

Natalie has always been able to express universal emotions in her lyrics. You may not feel like every day is magical and special, but some days are like that, and so when you listen to These Are Days, you know exactly the feeling that Natalie's words invoke. If you've ever been thankful to anyone for anything, then Kind and Generous doesn't take a lot of effort to appreciate. The reason these songs are adopted by so many people as "their song" is that they know intimately the emotion being conveyed.

The reason Dust Bowl is so uniquely powerful, though, is for exactly the opposite reasons. The vast majority of people who have listened or will listen to Dust Bowl have never experienced the kind of crushing poverty the song describes. Glimpses of it, perhaps, but not to the extent the mother in this song is going through. Dust Bowl succeeds in doing something that is no small feat in this world - it creates empathy.

Empathy - what a perfect word. It's not the same as the word often associated with it - sympathy. Being empathetic implies understanding someone's feelings not because of having experienced them yourself, but because you can imagine yourself feeling them. You don't have to experience the desperation the mother in Dust Bowl feels to appreciate the song. The piercing words, sung in the first person, force you to walk in her shoes.

I found an interesting quote from Natalie about her songwriting at the time Blind Man's Zoo was released:

" write music that inspires people to maybe think or feel something about the world around them, that's definitely where my strength is. Everyone has a role, and this is mine. And maybe it won't always be writing lyrics of this content. Maybe it will just be bringing people happiness through music."*

I appreciate the distinction she makes between writing the kind of songs featured on Blind Man's Zoo and songs that 'bring people happiness.' I don't feel happiness when I listen to Dust Bowl, not even a little. But I do feel empathy and I think that is a mighty accomplishment for a three minute "pop" song.

I know that some of the prosecutors in my head would try to find a way to blame the mother in Dust Bowl for her problems. They'd ask questions about every decision she'd ever made and pin her to the wall any time she admitted a mistake. But it won't work. My defense says, "What does it matter? This is the situation she's in and she's struggling and suffering and trying and what else matters?"

As far as my encounter with the woman I mentioned at the outset, ultimately even the defense turned on me. "So you gave her a $10 bill you didn't even know you had, big deal. Why didn't you ask her if she had food for her baby? Why didn't you ask if she needed a ride? Why didn't you talk to her? Why didn't you do more?"

I don't know. But I can guarantee you the jury will be deliberating for a long, long time.

"I don't want to alienate people from the start by making them feel this album is so dismal they won't want to pick it up. As furious as it is, Blind Man's Zoo is about care and concern because if I wasn't concerned and didn't care, I wouldn't write about these things.

"There's a beauty in attempting to see these things."**

Thank you for reading. I really appreciate the kind emails you've been sending. I'm touched that so many of you have embraced this blog and its nutty author. See you in two weeks.

Click here to watch a live performance of Dust Bowl (and for the overly fashion-conscious, I warn you that this video may constitute a very PG-13 rated violation of your standards. Be was the 80s.)

Download the live, Natalie solo version of Dust Bowl at Itunes - Dust Bowl (Live) - Live In Concert

*Los Angeles Times - August 1989
**Now - June 1989