Thursday, May 5, 2011

Saint Judas / Jubilee

Saint Judas (from the album Motherland)

Saddle up the horses and wear your Sunday best
sing your Sacred Harp, you be holier than the rest
fill up the room with a grand and a thunderous song
let it rattle out the windows, let it spill out on the lawn
shout, shout your praises to the man who kissed the Lord
to the back stabbing brother that betrayed all of this world
your Judas!

Yea, though you may walk in the valley in the dark
there's no greater evil than the darkness in your heart
your stun guns, bloodhounds, needle and your razor wire
your nylon shackle whipping post and your high tech burning tire
your Judas!

Whiplash crack across the back, across the arms
although you bound his feet, he running fast he running hard
through them crickets in the corn and them horses in the field
hear the "caw, caw" of the crows
see the devil at the wheel y'all, Judas!

Go on down to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas,
Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee,
Georgia, Carolina, Carolina.


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

He fills the flower vases
trims the candle bases
takes small change from the poor box
Tyler has the key

He takes nail and hammer
to tack up the banner
of felt scraps glued together reading
"Jesus Lives In Me"

Alone in the night he mocks
the words of the preacher
"God is feeling your every pain"

Repair the Christmas stable
restore the plaster angel
her lips begin to crumble
and her robes begin to peel

For Bible study
in the church basement
hear children Gospel citing
Matthew 17:15

Alone in the night he mocks
the arms of the preacher
raised to the ceiling
"tell God your pain."

To him the world's defiled
in Lot, he sees a likeness there
he swears
this Sodom will burn down

Near Sacred Blood there's a dance hall
where Tyler Glen saw
a black girl and a white boy
kissing shamelessly

Black hands on white shoulders white hands on black shoulders dancing...and you know what's more

He's God's mad disciple
a righteous title
for the Word he heard
he so misunderstood

Though simple minded
a crippled man
to know this man is to fear this man
to shake when he comes

Wasn't it God that let Puritans in Salem
do what they did to the unfaithful?

Boys at the Jubilee slowly sink into
brown bag whiskey drinking
and reeling on their feet
girls at the Jubilee
in low-cut dresses
yield to the caresses
and the man-handling

Black hands on white shoulders
white hands on black shoulders
dancing...and you know what's more

Through the tall blades of grass
he heads for the Jubilee
with a bucket in his right hand
full of rags soaked in gasoline

He lifts the shingles in the dark
and slips the rags there underneath
he strikes a matchstick on the box side
and watches the rags ignite

He climbs the bell tower of the Sacred Blood
to watch the flames rising higher toward the trees
sirens wailing now toward the scene

I find any kind of social science to be endlessly intriguing. Human beings are just so fascinating. So many human behaviors and thought patterns are extremely complicated, even when they don't seem to be on the surface. The connection between our brain functions and our behavioral patterns is frequently more subtle than we think.

What makes people behave in a prejudiced way? The answer is not always as obvious as you might think. Have you heard of the Implicit Association Test? It's a computer-based test that is designed to show how your subconscious thoughts affect your attitude towards different races, age groups and genders. For instance, one test shows that the vast majority of people when asked to express their thoughts on the subject, will say that they feel that women are just as capable as men are of achieving professional success. However, when a respondent, male or female, is shown a picture of a woman at the same time they are supposed to click on a word like “career” they have a significantly slower response time than when asked to do the same task while looking at a picture of a man. Interesting, no?

For obvious reasons, the IAT is controversial. Whether or not you buy into the science behind it, there is no denying the connection between the messages we pick up in our subconscious minds and our subsequent view of others. If implicit associations, things we may not even be fully aware are happening, are able to have a potentially powerful effect on our decision making, then what can be said of those who actively nurture, in themselves or others, an intense hatred for another group of people?

Although Natalie Merchant has gotten attention from the very beginning of her career for writing songs on weighty topics, she did not invent the wheel. People have been singing about injustice since the beginning of music/time. But this is not a blog about everybody else's music, it's about Natalie's. So today we will take a look at some of her musical contributions on the subject of hatred and the inevitable violence it produces.

Natalie explains the inspiration for Saint Judas this way:

“I wrote Saint Judas in response to an exhibition at the New York Historical Society that contained the most difficult images I had ever seen. It was the history of lynching in photography.”*

Saint Judas has always been one of my favorite songs on Motherland and I think it's one of Natalie's most powerful songs period. The music alone, with it's fierce rhythm section and banjo-pickin' badness, would be enough for me to enjoy the song thoroughly. When it comes to the lyrics, it's not just the words themselves but the way they are sung that makes this song so good.

“Getting people like Mavis Staples to sing on songs like Saint Judas made it even more authentic to me because she lived it. She grew up in Alabama, and she told me a story of her whole family being pulled over at gunpoint in Mississippi in '64. She asked me, 'What voice do you want for this song?' And I said, 'Just imagine you could talk to that man who was holding a gun to your sister's head, that cop down in Mississippi.' And she said, 'Okay, give me the microphone.' That's what you're listening to. That's the power of experience that comes through music.”**

That quote perfectly illustrates the reason why I always try to include interview excerpts from Natalie when I write these blog posts. Those little details add so much to my appreciation of the music and hopefully you feel the same way.

As a short aside, I must confess that I had a brief falling out with this song. Saint Judas was the song that was playing on my stereo when I got in the one and only serious car accident I've ever been in. My car was destroyed; fluids pouring out everywhere, tires knocked off wheels, a total mess. But my Motherland CD survived. Before my car was towed away to its final resting place, I grabbed my personal items, including the CD and distinctly remember the irony, relief and irritation I felt about the fact that my car was completely destroyed, but my CD didn't even have a scratch. I didn't listen to it for a while after that. Eventually I got over it, but then someone broke into my new car and stole that CD. Go figure. (By the way, if you are reading this post, Motherland thief, please contact me at and I will give you an address where you can return my CD along with a heartfelt apology note. Thanks.)

Jubilee, like Verdi Cries on In My Tribe, served as a great indicator of the musical direction Natalie was heading in. While she left her stamp on every Maniacs song, songs like Jubilee are particularly her own. (Quite literally, in fact. Jubilee was recorded with just Natalie and an orchestra. No other Maniacs were harmed in the making of the song.)

Jubilee is a story-song. It doesn't make its point directly. Instead, it allows you to draw your own conclusions. To me, the lyrics of Jubilee highlight our natural human tendency to want to join ourselves to people with similar interests, ideas and hopes as we have. Hateful people are no exception to this. One of the most powerful tools we have as human beings is our ability to persuade others. Religious leaders in particular have an extremely powerful role in influencing people's thoughts and actions. Sadly, in many cases they have used that influence to foster hate and fear in their followers, instead of love and hope.

Here is what Natalie has said about the lyrics to this song:

"It all happens on a symbolic level. Tyler is the innocent lamb - he has a mental handicap. The preacher seems to me to be a very disturbed man. His powerful sermons, concentrating on vengeance and righteousness, are manipulating Tyler to the point where he believes that the only way that he can serve God is by destroying what's evil, what's carnal. And to him, that's a dance hall where there are interracial couples, because he's been taught that there should be no mixing of the races, and no mixing of the sexes except in marriage. So he burns it down."***

Don't you find it interesting that Natalie says the preacher “seems to me” to be a disturbed man? It is as if the characters in this song wrote themselves and exist separately from her authorship. I wonder what it would be like to be so talented as a writer that I could write characters who seemed so real, even to me, that I could look at them as their own people, not just as my creations.

In closing today's post, it must be said that I am simply not a good enough writer to do justice to these topics. I'm not even a good enough writer to do justice to the songs. And yet, week after week, you keep reading. Maybe your subconscious is tricking you into faithfully following this blog? Well, one way or another, thank you. I struggled to write this post more than usual and then after I finally finished, everything but the first two paragraphs disappeared permanently. (Thanks,!) The prospect of re-writing this post filled me with such despair that I briefly entertained the notion of just giving up on this blog forever. (I'm dramatic.) But I can't help myself. I'm still having a good time. Thanks for reading and see you next week.

Click here to watch a live performance of Saint Judas

Download Saint Judas from Itunes - Saint Judas - Motherland

Download Jubilee from Itunes - Jubilee - Blind Man's Zoo

*Elektra Press Release, 2002
**Borders Magazine, 2002
***Melody Maker, May 1989


  1. Keep writing. I just found this one...

  2. Thank you for this. Your blog is great! It's good to know there are others with a deep love of these brilliant songs.