Thursday, March 31, 2011

Break Your Heart

Break Your Heart (from the album Ophelia)

People downcast, in despair
see the disillusion everywhere
hoping their bad luck will change
gets a little harder every day

People struggle, people fight
for the simple pleasures in their lives
but trouble comes from everywhere
it's a little more than you can bear

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been
and the way they've always been

People shallow, self-absorbed
see the push and shove for their rewards
I, me, my is on their minds
you can read about it in their eyes

People ruthless, people cruel
see the damage that some people do
full of hatred, full of pride
it's enough to make you lose your mind

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are and the way they've been
Don't spread the discontent
don't spread the lies
don't make the same mistakes
with your own life
you never will let love survive

I know that it will hurt
I know that it will break your heart
the way things are
and the way they've been
Don't spread the discontent
don't spread the lies
don't make the same mistakes with your own life
don't disrespect yourself
don't lose your pride
and don't think that everybody's
gonna choose your side

I was recently traveling in a car with a group of friends, one of whom is of a particularly cheerful disposition. I have no idea what was said that elicited this response from her, but at some point I was jarred out of my backseat daydreaming when I heard her say something along the lines of, "It's not about where you are, it's about where you're going." She put this line forth with such perfect delivery that it was clear she had said it many times before. I must have done a typically poor job of disguising my incredulity because as soon as she saw my face, she felt compelled to spew out another very similar line about direction and purpose and joy or something. My incredulous expression remained. So she just kept going, reeling off one motivational quote after another. It was like she had inspirational Tourette's! I remained silent through it all, until she finally got to this doozy: "We are as happy as we choose to be."

Now she had just plain gone too far. I couldn't hold back a guffaw of disdain. She had made a grave error and her punishment would be a searing Annie rant that she would barely survive. I would like to say that I'm a kind enough soul to spare the readers of this blog the same long-winded dissertation. But I'm not.

So here it is: It's not that I'm against optimism and it's not that I don't enjoy being inspired. I write a Natalie Merchant blog, for Pete's sake! I love to be inspired! But I absolutely loathe, detest and despise (yes, I know those three words mean the same thing, they are used here purely for the sake of emphasis) the use of these supposedly motivational phrases that are uttered with a robot-like repetition by people with painted-on expressions of joy, expressions that scream, "I refuse to acknowledge misery, my own or anyone else's." These phrases are often so far out of the realm of plausibility, it's simply ridiculous.

I have a co-worker who has a business card holder on his desk which is engraved with these words: "If you can dream it, you can do it." Really? That's great news because I dream of riding on the back of the Lochness Monster as we swim our way down to greet King Neptune and establish Atlantis as the world's greatest political power. And to think, I thought that was an impossible fantasy! But now I know, if I can dream it, I can do it!

And what about my friend's quote about our happiness really all in our own control, totally up to our having the right frame of mind? Well, this gets tricky. The truth is, even though this kind of phrase really gets my goat, I can concede that there is a kernel of truth there. Our attitude about life does have a great effect on our happiness.'s just not as simple as that. Not too long ago someone said to me, "People can overcome anything." I replied, "Well, what about some little child in Haiti who has lost his parents in the earthquake, has nowhere to go and no one to take care of him and is forced to live on the streets and beg for food and water?" She replied, "But just think, if he can overcome that, nothing will seem impossible to him!"

But that's just it. How do you overcome that? It is an uncomfortable truth to accept, but the fact is there are many people who do not have as fair a chance as others at "making their own happiness." Yes, I know I'm being overly literal. And yes, I know I'm taking things too seriously. I know what people are trying to say when they say, "We are as happy as we choose to be," but I can't help but think of all the people for whom that little idiom might seem to feel like a slap in the face.

As usual, you are at this point probably wondering if I will ever get around to talking about this week's song. Well, I'm ready now and here's what I want to say: Break Your Heart is my kind of inspirational. Break Your Heart doesn't try to disguise the misery and suffering inherent in living in this world. Instead, it provides the thing that we all, deep down, really need and crave - acknowledgment. The song doesn't simply tell us to ignore our suffering and everyone else's. It's not Don't Worry, Be Happy. Break Your Heart acknowledges suffering and injustice. And because of that, the song's gentle coercion in the right direction feels like genuine comfort.

Today, when I was looking for quotes from Natalie to include in this week's post, I came across this:

"I have a theory about music, that it originally arose from an intensely spiritual place in human beings to express what was inexpressible in many other ways. So that's what I try to do with some of my music. I don't look at it as pure entertainment. I look at it as a place for people to find solace, a place for people to find a catharsis, definitely to celebrate all that's good in their lives, but also to acknowledge the things that are tragic."*

Natalie said these words before Break Your Heart was released, and to the best of my knowledge, before it was written. But this quote perfectly illustrates why Break Your Heart is such an effective song. It explains the manner of thinking that inspires a lot of her writing. If someone asked me why I like Natalie Merchant's music so much, it would be difficult to give a concise answer. There are a lot of reasons, of course. But the best answer I could give might be just to refer to the statement above. Her music allows for the agony and the ecstasy to exist together. She is not the first to write music this way, nor will she be the last. But it's her particular approach to expressing these emotions that, more effectively than any other music maker I can think of, speaks to my heart.

The version of Break Your Heart that appears on Ophelia features vocals by N'Dea Davenport. I can't recall ever hearing Natalie sing with someone I didn't think she sounded great with, but I think this might be my favorite vocal collaboration she's done. N'Dea Davenport has a lovely voice and her and Natalie compliment each other well. I'd love to hear them record another song together someday. There is a newer version of this song that Natalie released exclusively on Itunes last year that's performed acoustically (and with backing vocals by Natalie's extremely talented and almost offensively good-looking guitar player, Gabriel Gordon) and I absolutely adore this version. I think I like it even better than the Ophelia version. If you haven't heard it, I definitely recommend checking it out (see link below.)

I wanted to find a perfect quote to end today's blog post, something about music or life or happiness or about how these are all connected. Something to prove that I'm not against inspirational sayings as a general rule. So I opened up my Bartlett's Famous Quotes book. I found some that were thought-provoking. I found some that made me laugh. I found some that were simple and others that were more complex. But I couldn't find one that was perfect enough. Maybe this is my problem. I consistently set my expectations too high. Maybe I want too much out of words, out of shared emotions.

Maybe. Or maybe I just needed to go to my favorite poet in the first place.

"If you're the kind of person who says, 'I don't care for music,' or 'I don't listen to lyrics,' maybe the message doesn't matter. But there are people who do put a lot of expectations onto musicians. When a song touches them, they feel that there is a kindred spirit in the world, and that makes them feel less alone. That's the way I respond to music, and I think it's the way a lot of people respond to my music."**

Yep. There it is.

Thanks for reading, make sure to tune in next week for a celebration (sort of) of the beginning of Spring, on the Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog.

Click here to watch the music video for Break Your Heart. Isn't that old lady playing trumpet cool? And don't you hate when roving bands of swing dancers make you spill your fruit?

Download the acoustic version of Break Your Heart at Itunes - Break Your Heart - Itunes Session

*Baltimore Sun, October 1995
**San Diego Union Tribune, February 1999

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Topsyturvey-World / It Makes A Change / The Sleepy Giant

Topsyturvey-World (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by William Brighty Rands)

If the butterfly courted the bee,
And the owl the porcupine;
If churches were built in the sea,
And three times one was nine;
If the pony rode his master,
If the buttercups ate the cows,
If the cat had the dire disaster
To be worried by the mouse;
If mama sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman was a lady,
The world would be Upside-Down!
If any or all of these wonders
Should ever come about,
I should not consider them blunders,
For I should be Inside-Out!


It Makes A Change (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Mervyn Peake)

There’s nothing makes a Greenland whale
Feel half so high and mighty
As sitting on a mantelpiece
In Aunty Mabel's nighty.

It makes a change from Freezing Seas,
(Of which a whale can tire),
To warm his weary tail at ease
Before an English fire.

For this delight he leaves the seas
(Unknown to Aunty Mabel),
Returning only when the dawn
Lights up the Breakfast Table.


The Sleepy Giant (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Charles Carryl)

My age is three hundred and seventy-two,
And I think, with the deepest regret,
How I used to pick up and voraciously chew
The dear little boys whom I met.

I’ve eaten them raw, in their holiday suits;
I’ve eaten them curried with rice;
I’ve eaten them baked, in their jackets and boots,
And found them exceedingly nice.

But now that my jaws are too weak for such fare,
I think it exceedingly rude
To do such a thing, when I’m quite well aware
Little boys do not like to be chewed.

And so I contentedly live upon eels,
And try to do nothing amiss,
And I pass all the time I can spare from my meals
In innocent slumber—like this.

Having a kid changes things.

I had a friend many years ago who was one of the most proper people I knew. She always displayed appropriate manners. Her diction was impeccable. She tolerated no impropriety on the part of others. (And, no, I have no idea why she liked me.) One day, in a fog of dismay, she told me that she had become, quite unexpectedly, pregnant.

I was thrilled. Not just for selfish reasons, i.e., that I soon would get a cute baby to play with that I would have absolutely no real responsibility toward. No, what I instead thought of was what transformative powers this child would soon have over its mother's life. Kids are not respecters of manners or propriety. They come into the world completely innocent of these cumbersome concepts. I immediately imagined my uptight friend in a variety of public settings with an adorable little baby who would be burping, farting, puking, screaming, drooling, picking its nose and pooping its pants, sometimes several of those things simultaneously. And that was before it even learned to speak! I figured this baby might just be the best thing that ever happened to her.

I've never had the notion that Natalie Merchant is the dour and humorless person that the media sometimes makes her out to be. This is probably because my first real exposure to her was in a live setting, where I found her to be quite funny and relaxed. Nonetheless, I don't think songs like the ones I am covering in this week's post would be likely to have entered Natalie's repertoire had she not become a parent. These songs, along with quite a few others on Leave Your Sleep, are alternately silly, absurd, gross and ridiculous. I love it.

I can see why a poem like Topsyturvey-World would easily appeal to a child. When we are children, we spend a good deal of time trying to figuring out what "normal" is. Anything that flies in the face of our youthful understanding is something to be delighted in. Not to mention the fact that this poem includes lots of preposterous imagery, like a pony riding his master and a cat afraid of a mouse. And, you know, that hilarious part about mama selling her baby to a gypsy. What the heck is with these Victorian poets and their baby-discarding?

Topsyturvey-World also well establishes the fact that Natalie Merchant is capable of sounding natural in pretty much any musical setting you put her in. She's flirted with reggae music in the past, but this song represents full-immersion in the genre. She commits to the style wholeheartedly and I find her pronunciation of "three" as "tree" to be particularly charming. Here's a quote from Natalie about the music for Topsyturvey-World:

“Sometimes I made references to the time period...But sometimes I contradicted the time period as in the case of Topsyturvey-World, which is Victorian. But to me the lyrics felt playful. They reminded me of '60s reggae music or ska or even calypso lyrics that are kind of nonsensical and lighthearted, so I took the poet out of his historical context and threw him somewhere else.”*

Natalie's musical trip around the world, and through time, continues on the song It Makes a Change, which has bit of a Beatles vibe to it. The first couple times I listened to the song, I kept trying to figure out what in the world this song was about. When I pulled out the Leave Your Sleep booklet and read the words to this poem again, and especially Natalie's biography of the poet who wrote it, it became much more clear. There is no point to this poem, it's just fun. And I, for one, am not far enough removed from my childhood to be prevented from enjoying the absurd gaiety of a whale wearing a nighty.

By far, though, the song on Leave Your Sleep that most exemplifies and embraces childlike silliness is The Sleepy Giant. The first time I heard this song, I had to hit the reverse button on my CD player. "Did she just say...Why, yes. Yes, she did." This poem/song is the funniest one on the album. It's so wonderfully dark. I especially appreciate the contrast between the music and the words. The music is subtly playful but also quite somber, which makes the humor of the words stand out even more. Natalie describes her musical choice for The Sleepy Giant this way:

“The first line of the poem is, ‘My age is three hundred and seventy-two,' so that became a period piece with 17th-century music: there was harpsichord, lute, recorder.”*

I can imagine this song in a lot of different styles, but I think the way Natalie chose to record it is just perfect.

Obviously, not all of the songs on Leave Your Sleep are as lighthearted as the ones we've covered on this week's post. But I will forever be able to point to these songs as proof that Natalie Merchant indeed has a sense of humor. After all, if a person can't laugh at baby-selling mothers, cross-dressing whales and cannibalistic, child-eating giants, what can they laugh at?

Thanks for reading!

Click here to watch a video of Natalie singing, and talking about, The Sleepy Giant

Download Topsyturvey-World on Itunes - Topsyturvey-World - Leave Your Sleep

Download It Makes a Change on Itunes - It Makes a Change - Leave Your Sleep

Download The Sleepy Giant on Itunes - The Sleepy Giant - Leave Your Sleep

*Press Democrat - August 2010

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I'm sure the rains have ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Is a cactus blooming there
in every roadside stand
where the big deal is cowboy gear
sewn in Japan?

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I'm sure the rains have ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Is a cactus blooming there
upon the northern rim
or in the ruins of the Hopi mesa dens?

You met a new friend in the canyon
(or so you wrote)
on a blanket in the cooling sand
you and your friend agreed that
the stars were so many there
they seemed to overlap

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I am sure the rain has ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Was a cactus blooming there
as you watched the Native boy?
in Flagstaff trailer court, you wrote the line
"he kicked a tumbleweed
and his mother called him home
where the Arizona moon
met the Arizona sun"

I wanted to be there by May at the latest time
isn't that the plan we had or have you changed your mind?
I haven't read a word from you since Phoenix or Tucson
April is over, will you tell me how long
before I can be there?

It's funny how seeing something in writing feels so different than hearing the same words spoken out loud. I've been corresponding with a friend via e-mail for several months, ever since she had to leave the States and go back to her home in Japan. Our writing exchanges always follow the same routine: She writes to me in English and I write to her in Japanese. Although neither of us have an exceptional grasp of the other's language, we always manage to understand each other.

When I wrote her early Friday morning to inquire about her safety after the earthquake and tsunami that just laid waste to her homeland, instead of her usual English, she replied in Japanese. I could understand why. She wanted to write quickly, without having to measure every word. Her reply was reassuring. Too reassuring. She kept emphasizing how she was fine, that I shouldn't worry, that I should tell our mutual friends that they shouldn't worry either. That evening, she wrote me again, this time in English. But now the tone in her words was completely different. She let her guard down and told me how she was really feeling.

I could completely understand this emotional shift that accompanied switching to her second language. When you are trying to express yourself in a language that you are not completely fluent in, you have to distill your thoughts down to their simplest form. You don't have the luxury of expressing nuances and complex feelings. So when my friend wrote to me in English, she wrote with short, straightforward expressions. So instead of saying, "I can't believe what has happened, this is so terrible" she simply said things like, "I'm sad" and "I'm so scared" and this simple, imperfectly expressed statement: "A heart aches."

It was this last expression that broke me. The truth is, a native English speaker would rarely use an expression like this. Hearts ache in love songs or in poems, in narratives of someone else's feelings. But rarely does one person say to another, "My heart aches." I read those words over and over again and I've been thinking about them every day since she wrote them.

It seems like it's so much easier to express deep emotions when you write them down. Truthfully, I've rarely been able to express those kind of emotions in any other way. Perhaps this is why, I don't know...I write a blog? Perhaps this is why a lot of us do.

I'm not sure exactly what The Painted Desert is about, but it has always seemed to me to be a letter spoken out loud. For this reason, more than for just the quality of the words themselves, this song has always felt so intimate to me, like I'm eavesdropping on someone's private conversation. I wonder what conversations preceded this letter. The only thing that is obvious is that the writer of the letter and the intended recipient had been planning to see each other for some time. I love the quiet dejection behind lines like: "We've played this game of just imagine long enough...wait till summer?" and the lines that end the song, lines so perfect that they bear repeating: "I wanted to be there by May at the latest time, isn't that the plan we had or have you changed your mind? I haven't read a word from you since Phoenix or Tucson, April is over, will you tell me how long before I can be there?"

As tempting as written communication is for introverts in love, it is a tricky road to navigate. The tendency to read something deeper, for better or worse, into every word written to you is too strong a temptation for most of us to withstand. Every positive statement, no matter how modest, is turned into a grandiose confession of their undying love. On the other hand, even the most innocuous remark can send us reeling down the path of insecurity. I have a feeling that letters have caused more imaginary conflict than any other form of communication throughout history.

I'm not saying that I necessarily think that The Painted Desert is about a romantic relationship. But I wouldn't rule it out either. One way or the other, it leaves me wishing I could read (and hear) more. Here are a couple of quotes from Natalie, one about the song and one about writing in general:

"I like a quiet life. That song The Painted Desert...the reason I want to see the desert is because I think it must be the quietest place on earth."*

"I think it's really therapeutic to write. People used to write letters, but most people now, if they write a telephone message down, a few checks a week, that's all the writing they do. It's rare to get a birthday card or a Christmas card with anything more written on it than 'love.' Maybe writing all those letters was practice for writing songs."**

Well, certainly for writing this song anyway. I love The Painted Desert. I love that it makes me feel lonely and less alone at the same time. This song makes me want to write. It makes me want to pull out my box of old letters and go mining for memories. I want to hear Natalie sing it now, with all the richness that her voice has acquired in the nearly 25 years since this song was written. I know it's not likely I ever will, but if I can play the game of just imagine long enough...well, you never know.

Before I sign off, I want to acknowledge my readers from Japan. I know there are only a few of you, but I want you to know - わたしの心も痛みます. My heart aches too.

Download The Painted Desert from Itunes - The Painted Desert - In My Tribe

E-mail me at

*Folk Roots, December 1987
**Musician, August 1989

Thursday, March 10, 2011


River (from the album Tigerlily)

Young & strong Hollywood son
in the early morning light
this star fell down
on Sunset Boulevard

Young & strong beautiful one
one that we embraced so close
is gone
was torn away

Let the youth of America mourn
include him in their prayers
let his image linger on
repeat it everywhere

With candles with flowers
he was one of ours
one of ours

Why don't you let him be?
he's gone
we know
give his mother & father peace
your vulture's candor
your casual slander
will murder his memory
he's gone
we know
and it's nothing but a tragedy

Lay to rest your soul and body
lay beside your name
lay to rest your rage
your hunger and amazing grace

With candles, with flowers
you were one of ours
one of ours

I saw cameras expose your life
I heard rumors explode with lies
I saw children with tears
cry and crowd around the sight
of where you had collapsed that day
where your last breath & word
had been sighed
where your heart had burst
where you had died

I saw how they were lost in grieving
all half-believing you were gone
the loss and pain of it
crime and the shame of it
you were gone
it was such a nightmare raving,
"how could we save him
from himself?"

I loved sixth grade for a lot of reasons. It wasn't just because of the power trip that came with finally being one of the "big kids." It wasn't just because I had finally achieved a measure of acceptance from my schoolmates for, of all things, being my weird self. More than these things, the best thing about sixth grade was my teacher, Mr. Clark. In addition to the fact that he was a bit of a loose cannon (occasionally even using mild profanity in class, which was thrilling), he spoke to the students like we were adults, being both respectful and demanding of us. He also encouraged self-expression through any and all creative outlets. One day he announced a new class project - once a week a different student would be assigned to bring a song on cassette that Mr. Clark would play on his boombox for the whole class. Before he played the song the student would have to give a brief explanation for why that particular song was important to them. I couldn't wait!

Many of my classmates were picked before me for this project and given that this was the early 90s, the musical choices were firmly divided between the genders. The boys brought Metallica and the girls brought Mariah Carey. Occasionally, for variety, there was a little AC/DC or Whitney Houston thrown into the mix. I agonized for weeks over which song I would bring, scouring my little music collection over and over again looking for the perfect song. When the day finally came, I was ready. I was brimming with confidence. I knew that without a shadow of a doubt, when my classmates heard the opening strains of Lost in the Supermarket, I would immediately be crowned the coolest kid in school. I was so confident that The Clash would rock their world that I envisioned stacks of whimpering pop music albums littering the playground, like so much discarded trash.

It did not quite work out the way I planned.

No, quite the contrary in fact. I knew within 20 seconds that I had made a terrible mistake. I looked at a sea of expressionless faces, searching for a kindred spirit, but there were none to be found. It was at that moment that I realized I was never going to be able to talk to my peers about music. I was just born too darn late.

As I grew up, of course, I did start to meet some people who had similar tastes, people who loved music of the past so much more than the present. I believe that there will always be people like this and I think sometimes about the kids who will discover Natalie Merchant's music a decade or two (or more) from now. I wonder what they will know about the political scandals that were behind so many of the songs on Blind Man's Zoo. I wonder what they will know about Jack Kerouac. And I wonder what they'll know about River Phoenix.

In 1993, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose at twenty-three years of age. I have to confess, I was not like the children Natalie mentions in River, grief-stricken and heartbroken over his death. I honestly don't remember what I thought, if anything, about his death. But when I first heard River, around six years after the song came out, I knew immediately who the song was about. I did not have to be told. It was a big event that took place in my lifespan. But I wonder about future generations. Since the lyrics themselves don't address him by name, I wonder: Twenty years from now, if some teenager buys Tigerlily in the discount bin of the local record store, would it even dawn on them that River is not just the name of the song, but the name of the person the song is about?

When I was a kid, I listened to London Calling (the album Lost in the Supermarket came from) over and over again. There was a song on the album that talked about Montgomery Clift. I had never heard of Montgomery Clift, so one day I asked my mom who he was. She told me he was an actor. And I said, "Oh...and he was in a bad car accident?" She seemed surprised I knew this little detail, but she was unaware of the education I was getting from rock 'n' roll.

While that song about Montgomery Clift was irreverent and more than a little mean-spirited, River is a song of affection and gut-wrenching sincerity. Here is what Natalie has said about her connection to River Phoenix and her inspiration for writing the song:

"I didn't know River Phoenix that well, but his death struck me powerfully. I thought, 'There's someone who was a kindred spirit.' Somebody whom I always wanted to spend time with but never got to. The few times we spent together, he inspired me to push out boundaries. He had such a vibrant personality. I felt cheated when he died."*

"I wrote it at the time when I found out he was gone and I was very angry at the time because I felt that the press were dealing with his death as if it were a media event instead of a tragedy in the life of him and his family and friends."**

Before I read this, I assumed Natalie must have been very close to River, based on the intensity of the lyrics to this song. But finding out that they were not much more than acquaintances makes the song even more powerful to me. On one hand, I think, How could she have written words as heartfelt as these for someone she barely knew? On the other hand, I think that maybe that's the reason she could write this song in the first place. Any less emotional distance between them might have made this song too impossibly personal to write.

River is a stunningly beautiful song. The words paint a painfully vivid picture at times, like the lyric: "Where your last breath and word had been sighed, where your heart had burst, where you had died." I have seen Natalie perform River more than once in concert and as moving as the recorded version of this song is, it's that much more moving in person. Natalie pours her heart and soul into this song every time she performs it and I never make it through without a lump in my throat.

I hope that someday some kid will listen to this song and be curious enough to inquire about the identity of the person this song is about. An education through music is not such a bad thing. Maybe, given the opportunity, that kid will have the guts to play this song for all his classmates. You never know where you might find a kindred spirit.

Thanks for reading this week's post. This would be a good time for me to apologize to those of you who requested that I write about River a loooong time ago. I'm sorry it took me so long. What can I say? You can't rush art. Or, you know...talking about someone else's art. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts on the songs, so please broaden my horizons by posting a comment or sending me an e-mail.

Download River on Itunes - River - Tigerlily

*People - July 1995
**The Scotsman - July 1995

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Weeping Pilgrim / Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Weeping Pilgrim (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter)

If you see them father
please tell them
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

Well I weep and I moan
and I move slowly on
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

If you see them sister
please tell them
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

Well I weep and I moan
and I move slowly on
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

If you see them brother
please tell them
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

Well I weep and I moan
and I move slowly on
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

If you see them mother
please tell them
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land

Well I weep and I moan
and I move slowly on
I’m a poor mourning pilgrim
bound for Canaan land


Poor Wayfaring Stranger (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter)

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
traveling through this world of woe
but there’s no sickness, toil or danger
in that bright land to which I go

Well I’m going there
to meet my mother
said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I know dark clouds
will gather ‘round me
I know my way
will be rough and steep
but beautiful fields lie just before me
where God’s redeemed
their vigils keep

Well I’m going there
to meet my loved ones
gone on before me, one by one
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I’ll soon be free of earthy trials
my body rest in the old church yard
I’ll drop this cross of self-denial
and I’ll go singing home to God

Well I’m going there
to meet my Savior
dwell with Him and never roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I'm not a very fashionable person. I've always lacked the innate ability to look at different items of clothing and know which items would look good together and which certainly would not. Even if I feel intuition leading me, I don't trust it. I like clothes, but I hate choosing them.

However, if you were to meet me, you would not find me unfashionable. On particularly good days, when I am out and about, I am sometimes stopped by strangers who compliment my attire and inquire as to where I purchased my shoes, or purse, or blah blah blah. What gives? Well, I'll tell you my secret: I have a fashion advisor.

Some time ago I decided I could no longer continue the futility of shopping on my own, so I recruited a fashion forward friend and asked her to help me. At first, our interactions were quite polite. I would pick up an item and say, "How about this?" and she would say, "Hmmm...maybe we should try that in a different color" or "That's nice, but this would be even better." I appreciated her gentle coaching.

Of course, as time wore on and these shopping trips became more common, her demeanor changed somewhat. Now when we are together, I will pick up an item and before I can say a word, she sees me from across the store and yells, "Put...that...DOWN!" Sometimes she just looks at me with disbelief and says, "Are you serious? You're not serious. Tell me you're not serious." And I say, "No, I was just kidding. I would never wear that! Oh, it's so...gross. Ha ha, just...joking." But we both know I am merely posing.

While I am still not even close to being an expert, my fashion advisor has done her best to help me help myself. Now if I am forced to purchase items on my own, I usually do much better than I did before. It turns out that all I really needed was a guide, someone who I could trust to lead me into uncharted territory and help me pass through safely.

When it was released in 2003, The House Carpenter's Daughter rocked my little world. I had eclectic taste in music ever since childhood, but folk music was never on my radar. I had no opinion of it because I simply had not had any honest experiences with it. I wouldn't have even known where to start in order to get acquainted with the genre. I needed someone to guide me. From my very first listen of The House Carpenter's Daughter, it was clear I had found a trusted teacher who would introduce me to this new musical horizon.

At the time I was a relatively new fan and it felt like Natalie was doing something entirely new even to her. Of course, in the years since, I've discovered all of the evidence that an album like The House Carpenter's Daughter was all but an inevitability for her. When I listen to old 10,000 Maniacs covers of Just As the Tide Was A-Flowing and Wildwood Flower, among others, it becomes apparent that Natalie had a taste for folk music from an early age. Part of what paved the way for The House Carpenter's Daughter was Natalie's efforts to deepen her own knowledge of folk music, including taking courses on its history. Every time I listen to the album, I feel like I am reaping the rewards of her earnest endeavor.

I find the two songs I've chosen to cover on this week's post to be similar in nature, both musically and lyrically. Here is a quote from Natalie that sheds light on why, of the many songs she must have studied about and learned to play, these two made the final cut:

"The thing I find so striking about traditional music is that it may be hundreds of years old, and yet I can connect to it as a modern person, because the things it addresses are eternal themes: loss of love, finding love, closeness of family, fear of damnation, curiosity about the life after, oppression. That's what I look for in contemporary material too, though, authentic emotional content."*

Apparently, Weeping Pilgrim was an all but forgotten song and Natalie's version is one of very few recordings of this song that is available. Undeniably, both of these songs are sorrowful, but its Poor Wayfaring Stranger that I find the most heartbreaking. I suppose if the music were different, more uptempo and rollicking like Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow, it might make the words of the wayfaring stranger sound more hopeful and contented. But the somberness of the music always makes me imagine the protagonist of this song as a person so trodden down by woe that they feel their only escape is death.

I know that not all of Natalie's fans fully embraced The House Carpenter's Daughter when it came out. Maybe they didn't care for folk music, or maybe they just wanted Natalie to stick with the style of music they were used to hearing her perform. I think the people that felt that way were in the minority, though, and I'd like to think that with time they grew to appreciate the album as the gem that many have found it to be.

Had The House Carpenter's Daughter been the only album of traditional folk music I ever purchased, I don't think I could have done better. But the reality is, the album widened the scope of my musical tastes and has led me to discover other folk music (a term the broadness of which we shall discuss another day) that I don't think I ever would have discovered otherwise. I'm grateful that I had a trusted guide to lead me into that uncharted territory. Now if only I could recruit Natalie Merchant as my personal music-shopping advisor. I can hear it now...


Download Weeping Pilgrim at Itunes - Weeping Pilgrim - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download Poor Wayfaring Stranger at Itunes - Poor Wayfaring Stranger - The House Carpenter's Daughter

*Sing Out, Nov 2003