Thursday, June 30, 2011

Equestrienne / The King of China's Daughter / Sally Ann

Equestrienne (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Rachel Field)

See, they are clearing the sawdust course
For the girl in pink on the milk-white horse.
Her spangles twinkle; his pale flanks shine,
Every hair of his tail is fine
And bright as a comet’s; his mane blows free,
And she points a toe and bends a knee,
And while his hoofbeats fall like rain
Over and over and over again.
And nothing that moves on land or sea
Will seem so beautiful to me
As the girl in pink on the milk-white horse
Cantering over the sawdust course.


The King of China's Daughter (from the album Leave Your Sleep; anonymous)

The king of China’s daughter
So beautiful to see
With her face like yellow water,
Left her nutmeg tree.

Her little rope for skipping
She kissed and gave it me
Made of painted notes of singing-birds
Among the fields of tea.

I skipped across the nutmeg grove
I skipped across the sea;
But neither sun nor moon, my dear,
Has yet caught me.


Sally Ann (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; written by Jeff Claus)

A woman of beauty
a woman of pain
in France or Jakarta
her shadow’s the same
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of kindness
with bracelets of jade
in China, in Japan
choices are made
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of chances
with no family or friends
in Argentina
she knows only men
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of color
with debts to be paid
in Trenton or Detroit
she lives by the blade
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

I love to take walks. I do it as often as possible, which is just about every day. I walk when it's blazing hot (which it currently is in my neck of the woods) and when rain is falling. I may take these walks under the guise that I am merely getting some exercise, just taking care of myself. But alas, this is not my greatest motivation. I love to take walks for two reasons. One is that I always listen to music when I walk. It's not the only time I listen to music, of course. I listen to music when I work, when I drive, when I get things done around the house. But it's only when I'm walking around my neighborhood that I am able to fully immerse myself in what I'm listening to.

The other reason I love to walk has to do with one of my favorite places to walk to - a huge park several blocks away from my home. It spans over 30 acres and has all the usual features of a park that big - swimming pools, community center, tennis courts, playgrounds, a rose garden, and a lake that hosts several large geese that scare the life out of me (they are very menacing and I'm a bit of an ornithophobe.) I never really take advantage of these amenities, though. I stick to the dirt path that surrounds the park. This path affords me the best vantage point for watching the daily goings-on of that park. And that is the feature of the park I'm most interested in.

This park is almost constantly packed with people, especially on the weekends, and oh what a mixed crowd it draws! On a particularly good day, walking the circumference of that park is more entertaining than anything else I can imagine doing. For instance, some days there is a troupe of jugglers that meet in the park. Not content to keep the excitement of their avocation to themselves, they actively recruit would-be jugglers at a sign-up table nearby. One day, just a few feet from the jugglers was a novice unicyclist practicing his new hobby. He seemed so happy, although I couldn't help but think he would have been more successful if he had been able to get over his ever-apparent fear that he was going to suffer major crotch injury if he didn't play his cards just right.

Then there's the weekend drum circle. Contained in that huge circle are people of seemingly every race, ranging in age from small children to the elderly. They sit there for hours, beating their drums. The song always sounds the same, but that never seems to lessen their joy. The ones who don't have drums just dance in that circle, lost in a trance, inspiring the players to keep pounding on.

There are exercise groups who engage in some truly ridiculous-looking routines. There are usually about 20 people in the group - 19 women and 1 man. Sometimes the man makes eye contact with me as I pass, looking at me with an expression that seems to say, "Shut up." And so I do. There's the martial arts group, who are accompanied by all sorts of fancy weapons that they never do anything with. They are all decked out in white and take great pride in posing over and over. I've never seen them engage in one real duel, not one single time. Posing is all they do, but they do it with such pride and reverence, I can't help but be charmed by their zeal.

I love to come up with backstories explaining why all these people I see in the park do what they do. Why must they juggle, drum, pose and do girly exercises? My observations of those strangers gives me an opportunity to paint my own backdrop on their lives, lives that may or may not be as meaningful or interesting as I imagine them.

This week's songs are all about observations. True, they contain no wild assumptions about their protagonists, such as the kind I might be inclined to create. Nonetheless, in each case the author's view of their subject is almost as intriguing as the subject themselves.

Equestrienne and The King of China's Daughter are two of my favorite songs on Leave Your Sleep. This is, first and foremost, because of the quality of the music itself. I love how the rhythm of Equestrienne seems to fall in line with the beating of the horse's hooves. If Natalie's intention in writing this music was to make us feel like we were at the circus, then she certainly achieved her goal. While something described as "circus music" would usually call to mind something fun but not particularly beautiful, this song manages to be both (but mostly beautiful.) I especially love the little coda at the end of the song.

The King of China's Daughter, however, is the song that is the most musically beautiful to me on Leave Your Sleep. It often takes me several times to hear a certain song before I feel able to measure my regard for it, but that was not the case with this song. The King of China's Daughter was love at first listen for me, and the first, but not only, time I felt tears welling up in my eyes while listening to this album. The music is so pretty that I often refuse to listen to this song at times when I cannot give it my full attention. I know very little about Chinese music, but if this is a taste of it, please someone tell me where the well is because I want to hear more.

A quote from Natalie:

"There are so many different instruments that once you introduce them they bring all sorts of connotations (and) transport you to other places and times. The Chinese instruments or the Celtic harp can take you to worlds totally different than electric guitar."*

What I like about the words to both of these songs is how restrained (and thus un-Annie-like) the observations of the authors are. Their thoughts about their subjects are very gentle and unobtrusive. The authors do not leap to dramatic conclusions about the thoughts and motivations of the little girls they are singing about. They are just telling us what they see. Particularly in the case of Equestrienne, the author's simple description of the little girl in pink on the milk-white horse is vivid enough to make her pronouncement of this act as the most beautiful thing she's ever seen seem quite justified. The King of China's Daughter allows for some flights of fancy, like the beautiful description of a jumping rope made of painted notes of singing birds. Still, it's the simplicity of this song that makes it so winning.

On to our last song for this week, Sally Ann. I guess this is the part where I am supposed to make a smooth transition from songs about innocent little girls to a song about prostitutes. Clearly, I'm not at all capable of that. It's a transition that happens, though, in real life and I suppose that's part of the thought that Sally Ann is meant to evoke.

The first time I heard Sally Ann, it was on a 10,000 Maniacs CD single I found in an old record store. I loved the song immediately, so much so that when Natalie's solo version came out, I didn't take to it at first. But eventually I got used to the differences and now I like it so much it's a little hard to listen to the Maniacs version. The song is obviously not telling the story of a specific woman but of women in similar circumstances all over the world. In the liner notes to Natalie's Retrospective album, she wrote about her thoughts on this song in a way (not surprisingly) that is far more eloquent than anything I could say. So I'll let her finish off today's post.

"Everywhere it takes you, the song parts a veil to show you the life of a woman that is being lived in desperation. There are no detailed descriptions of these women, they are 'kind' or 'beautiful,' they are alone and plagued by debts; one wears jade bracelets and another carries a blade. They live in the shadows and in the constant company of men. They are prostitutes or 'comfort women,' call girls, and streetwalkers, part of the 'joy division.' They are all whores. But the song reminds us that they are sisters, daughters, and mothers, that they have beauty and dignity. Their bodies have ended up on the auction block, not their souls."

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Click here to watch the music video for The King of China's Daughter

Download Equestrienne from Itunes - Equestrienne - Leave Your Sleep

Download The King of China's Daughter from Itunes - The King of China's Daughter - Leave Your Sleep

Download Sally Ann from Itunes - Sally Ann - The House Carpenter's Daughter

*, August 2010

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What's the Matter Here / Back O' the Moon / How You've Grown

What's the Matter Here (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

That young boy without a name
anywhere I'd know his face
in this city the kid's my favorite
I've seen him, seen him, I see him every day

I've seen him run outside
looking for a place to hide from his father
the kid half naked
and said to myself,

"O, what's the matter here?"

I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses
he's their kid I stay out of it,
but who gave you the right to do this?

We live on Morgan Street
just ten feet between
and his mother, I never see her
but her screams and cussing
I hear them every day

Threats like, "if you don't mind I will beat on your behind"
"slap you, slap you silly" made me say,

"O, what's the matter here?"

I'm tired of the excuses everybody uses, he's your kid
do as you see fit, but get this through that I know what you do
and what you did to your own flesh and blood

"If you don't sit in your chair straight
I'll take this belt from around my waist
and don't think that I won't use it!"

Answer me and take your time
what could be the awful crime
he could do at such young an age?

If I'm the only witness to your madness
offer me some words to balance out
what I see and what I hear

All these cold and rude things that you do
I suppose you do because he belongs to you
instead of love and the feel of warmth
you've given him these cuts and sores
that won't heal with time or age

I want to say,
"what's the matter here?"
but I don't dare say.


Back O' the Moon (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)


Jenny! you don't know the nights I hide
below a second story room
to whistle you down
the man who's let to divvy up
time is a miser
he's got a silver coin
only lets it shine for hours
while you sleep it away

There's one rare and odd style of living
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
a comical where's the end parade
of the sort people here would think unusual


Tonight upon the mock brine of a Luna Sea
far off we sail on to Back O' The Moon


Jenny! you don't know the days I've tried
telling backyard tales
so to maybe amuse
o, your mood is never giddy
if you smile I'm delighted
but you'd rather pout
such a lazy child
you dare fold your arms
tisk and say that I lie

There's one rare and odd style of thinking
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
the small step and giant leap takers
got the head start in the race toward it


Tonight upon the mock brine of a Luna Sea
far off we sail on to the Back O' The Moon

That was a sigh
but not meant to envy you
when your age was mine
some things were sworn true
morning would come

And calendar pages had
new printed seasons on
their opposite sides


Jenny you don't know the nights I hide
below a second story room
to whistle you down
o the man who's let to divvy up
time is a miser
he's got a silver coin
lets it shine for hours
while you sleep it away

There's one rare and odd style of living
part only known to the everybody Jenny!
out of tin ships jump the bubble head boys
to push their flags into powdered soils and cry
no second placers

No smart looking geese in bonnets
dance with pigs in high button trousers
no milk pail for the farmer's daughter
no merry towns of sweet walled houses

Here I've found
Back O' the Moon
not here
I've found
Back O' the Moon


How You've Grown (from the 10,000 Maniacs album Our Time In Eden)

"my, how you've grown"
I remember that phrase
from my childhood days too

"just wait and see"
I remember those words and how they chided me
when patient was the hardest thing to be

because we can't make up
for the time that we've lost
I must let these memories provide
no little girl can stop her world to wait for me

I should have known
at your age, in a string of days the year is gone
but in that space of time it takes so long

because we can't make up
for the time that we've lost
I must let those memories provide
no little girl can stop her world to wait for me

every time we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as the child that you never will be
you never will be again

I'll never be more to you than a stranger could be

every time we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as a child that you never will be
will be again

After a recent move to a new neighborhood, I had the chance to introduce myself to my new next door neighbor. He was very friendly, but within about 15 seconds of meeting me, he said something like the following: "My wife and daughter are in another country, but they will be arriving here soon...So don't fall in love with me, kid."

Okay, that last sentence I just made up. But the first part about his wife and daughter was real. I replied that I would look forward to meeting them upon their arrival. This exchange between my new neighbor and I kept repeating itself. Every time I'd greet him in passing, he'd tell me his wife and daughter were coming soon. I started to wonder if he might be a little delusional, but I humored him nonetheless. "Can't wait to meet them!"

One day my neighbor excitedly informed me, "My wife and daughter have arrived!" I said, "Oh, I would love to meet them!" He looked a little uncomfortable and then said, "Oh, yeah, well, sometime soon." A few days passed and I saw nary a sight of anyone but him. My already easily ignited imagination was creating all kinds of scenarios to explain this strange situation.

But then one day it happened. I was walking to my door when he opened his door wide and said, "Do you want to meet my wife and daughter?" "Yes!" I said, expecting him to bring out some sort of handmade mannequin-like mother and daughter set with painted-on facial features and ill-fitting, tattered clothing on their frames. (I told you, overactive imagination.) But happily, I needn't have worried. His lovely wife stepped outside and walked over to greet me. She was tall, dark and graceful, bringing my short, pale clumsiness into sharp relief. Her husband went inside to look for his daughter while I chatted with his wife. Eventually a strikingly beautiful little girl, ten years old, bounded out of the house and strode up to me confidently to shake my hand. What do you know? My neighbor's family was real after all, and all of a sudden I understood why he spoke about them so often and with such excitement.

In the weeks since, I've grown used to hearing his little girl playing in our common yard. She runs about, laughing with reckless abandon and talking to anyone who will listen. Sometimes she comes over to play with my cats. She speaks with a British-tinged Indian accent that makes every word that comes out of her mouth seem that much more delightful. "You greedy kitty!" she exclaims while picking up my over-stuffed animal. Then she lets loose with peals of laughter. If it hasn't become abundantly clear by now, I'm quite taken with this little child.

Now let's be honest. Even people who claim to love all children don't really love all children. I have met children I adored and children that honestly creeped me out beyond reason. I have met kids that I wished I could adopt and raise as my own and kids that made me wonder if breeding should be outlawed. Children, much like their adult counterparts, are a mixed bag.

But there's something about children, about childhood, that makes us access something very raw in ourselves. Think about the world of fiction. Many of the books and films that are the most beloved, the most seminal to our idea of what makes inspiring fiction, are stories that center around children. Sometimes the stories are designed for children, sometimes not. Obviously, part of our fondness for these stories is the bridge it provides us back to our own childhood. But I think that there is also another reason. Children, childhood, represents the best part of us. Childhood is the purest, most innocent, most unprotected and least apathetic time in a person's life. Stories about childhood seem magical because childhood, by virtue of its freshness in experience and perspective, is magical. Those stories make us feel young again, with all our senses and our whole imagination fully engaged. And so even the most jaded person, even the person who says, "I don't like children at all" can have the ice shaken off them by accessing that forgotten part of themselves through a good story about children...or by meeting a child that brings that part of them to the surface.

This week's songs are all stories about children and childhood. I figured I'd start with the most well-known song of this bunch, the 10,000 Maniacs song What's the Matter Here. I've been sitting here staring blankly at the computer trying to figure out what I could possibly say about this song. When I read old newspaper articles about In My Tribe that mentioned this song, it was frequently spoken of as an almost controversial song. I didn't get that. Wrenching? Yes. Disturbing? Yes, certainly those words apply. But it was hard for me to see why this song was often referred to as being almost shocking. It's not as if child abuse was some sort of secret that Natalie let out by writing the words of this song, was it? No. But also...yes, a little bit.

I've had to remind myself that What's the Matter Here came out when I was barely out of diapers. People didn't talk about child abuse with the same openness then that they do now. They certainly didn't sing about it. But songs like What's the Matter Here, and some other notable songs that were released around that time, started broaching the subject and not in a subtle way. Thank goodness. I don't think this song was necessarily trying to teach a lesson, but instead just tell a story, one that would inspire some thoughtfulness about the subject. It affected people quite profoundly. Here are some notable quotes from Natalie about this song:

"I got a letter from a woman who said that after hearing What's The Matter Here she thinks twice before spilling her rage onto her children."*

"I was once doing a live radio interview in San Francisco and a man called in and said he'd been riding home from work on the freeway and What's The Matter Here came on the radio. It was the first time he'd heard us, or it, and he said the lyrics struck him because he'd been abused by his alcoholic father when he was growing up. He'd repressed it for years and never cried about it as an adult, and when he heard the song he started crying so much that he had to pull the car over. If just one person has a response like that, it makes it worthwhile.”**

A song about such a grave topic could have easily been trivialized with a lesser writer behind it. But instead, the song is moving and powerful and, as noted in the above quotes, profound enough to make a personal impact on many people.

What's the Matter Here was, as the lyrics suggest, inspired by Natalie's observations of a particular child. Back O' the Moon has a similar inspiration, but a less dramatic one.

"I wrote that song for a little girl in my neighborhood. I was trying to interest her in these wonderful books with gorgeous illustrations that were printed in the twenties. She just wanted to watch Dukes Of Hazard. I'd say, 'Let's jump rope, let's play hopscotch. She'd say no. I'd get so frustrated. I started out the song trying to say, 'Oh, Jenny and I have so much fun together.' But I realized we don't have fun. One time we were looking at the moon, and I was telling her about the sandman, the man in the moon, and she said, 'Are they going to put guns on the moon and point them down at us? I heard that on the radio.' Sort of takes the fun out of it."***

Just a little. In one old article I read, it was mentioned that after this song came out, little Jenny was a bit of a celebrity in her town. Apparently her parents had a t-shirt made for her that proclaimed, "I'm Jenny." Interesting. Their excitement over having their child mentioned in a song apparently overshadowed any reservations they may have had about the fact that the song was basically calling their child a bit imaginationless and lazy-minded. Win some, lose some, I guess. Wonder where Jenny is now...

Of the three songs I'm covering this week, my favorite by far is How You've Grown. Of all the songs Natalie performed with 10,000 Maniacs, this is the song most likely to melt me into a sniveling ball of tears. And I don't even have any children. Those of you who do...I don't know how you can even listen to this song. Natalie has a gift for using metaphors in her music, but I still think that one of her greatest strengths as a lyricist is her ability to lay bare a universal truth in a simple, direct way. There are few lyrics I can think of that are more moving to me than this one: "No little girl can stop the world and wait for me."

While the inevitable brevity of childhood from the adult perspective can be painful, I don't think of this song as being sad. If anything, it serves as a reminder to be engaged in the lives of the children who mean something to us while we have the chance. I suppose memories can only provide you comfort if you are around enough to form some meaningful ones.

I can't help but worry about my neighbor's little girl. I hope she makes friends when she starts school in a couple of months. I hope she doesn't get teased for her accent. I hope she can get used to life in a place that is very different than what she has been used to. One way or another, I hope she will keep coming over to play with my cats. I hope she keeps skipping through the yard every day and making so much noise her parents have to regularly quiet her down. I like being in close proximity to childhood. I think it's the best shot I have at staying young.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to share your thoughts via e-mail or the comments section below.

Click here to see the music video for What's the Matter Here

Download What's the Matter Here from Itunes - What's the Matter Here - In My Tribe

Download Back O' the Moon from Itunes - Back O' the Moon - The Wishing Chair

Download How You've Grown from Itunes - How You've Grown - Our Time In Eden

*BAM, August 1989
**Select, February 1991
***Musician, January 1986

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Where I Go / maggie and milly and molly and may

Where I Go (from the album Tigerlily)

Climbing under
a barbed wire fence
by the railroad ties

Climbing over
the old stone wall
I'm bound for the riverside

Well, I go over to the river
to soothe my mind
to ponder over
the crazy days of my life
just sit and watch the river flow

Find a place
on the riverbank
where the green rushes grow
see the wind
in the willow tree
in the branches hanging low

Well, I go to the river
to soothe my mind
to ponder over
the crazy days of my life
watch the river flow
ease my mind and soul
where I go

Well I will go to the river
from time to time
wander over
these crazy days in my mind
watch the river flow
where the willow branches grow
by the cool rolling waters
moving gracefully and slow

O, child it's lovely
let the river take it all away
the mad pace and the hurry
the troubles and the worries
just let the river take them all away
flow away


maggie and milly and molly and may (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by E.E. Cummings)

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

I think it's possible that the human desire to hide is inborn. After all, we start our life in incredibly cramped quarters. It's dark, quiet and, apparently, pretty comfortable. While we may have no conscious memory of being in the womb, it seems that there is some part of us that continues to seek out that comfort, in one way or another.

Think about Hide-and-Go-Seek for a moment. Do you remember someone teaching you how to play Hide-and-Go-Seek? I've been asking my friends this question and the answer is pretty unanimous. You don't have to be taught a game like that and I would argue that the reason for that is not just that the game is simple but that it comes so naturally to us. While there was a certain thrill in being the chosen Seeker, everyone knows hiding was where the real fun was.

As we grow up, we continue to seek hiding places (pun!), but they take on many different forms. Some of us simply hide inside ourselves, needing no outside influences at all to aid us. But most of us will also, at some point or another, search out a physical location that allows us to hide, sometimes in plain sight.

When I was around 10 years old, I briefly moved away from the city and into the country. Just beyond my backyard was miles and miles of...nothing. Just tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes and dirt. I had mixed feelings about this wilderness. I had been accustomed to pavement and buildings and noise (and, you know, the occasional prostitute and drug dealer) in the neighborhoods I'd lived in during my first decade of life. Being confronted with so much empty space made me feel both excited and terrified.

For awhile, I was friends with the boy next door and he often led me into these hinterlands armed with nothing but his overalls and a BB gun. We climbed trees, shot at random targets and engaged in battles with imaginary enemies. But for the most part, my adventures were solo. Because of some drastic changes in my family life, I was spending a lot of time by myself for the first time in my life. In my first few weeks in this new place, I taught myself to ride a bike and soon I was exploring my new surroundings every day. (Yes, I know it's sad that I didn't know how to ride a bike until I was 10 years old and that I had to teach myself. What can I say? It was a sad time.) When I left the countryside for good, I did so with little sorrow. I'm just not a country girl at heart. But I look back on those days of unaccompanied exploration with fondness because it was during that time that I began the difficult but necessary process of figuring life, and myself, out.

The thread that this week's songs seem to have in common is the idea that losing ourselves in the natural world, even temporarily, can help us find ourselves again. I generally avoid using what I perceive to be overly new age-y expressions in my speech and the phrase "finding yourself" comes pretty darn close to initiating my gag reflex, but I have to admit it fits here. Our lives tend to fluctuate between extreme stress and necessary but sometimes painful mundanity. Escape may only be available at brief intervals, but those intervals can save our sanity.

When I recently listened to Where I Go, I was struck by how young Natalie sounded to me. I've been listening to her newer material more lately and for some reason when I listened to this song the contrast really stood out. Do you realize that this month will mark 16 years since Tigerlily came out? Tigerlily is officially old enough to drive! How did that happen so fast? Anyways, while I am of the opinion that Natalie's voice has become more beautiful with time, I feel like the youthful sweetness in the way she sings Where I Go lends itself to the innocence of the song. Natalie sums up the inspiration for this song very simply:

“I live on the Hudson River and I go down to the banks often. That's my river.”*

I love the musical simplicity of Where I Go. It brings out some of the subtleties of Natalie's voice that might at times be lost with a bigger, more amplified band. I would love to have a whole album that featured just Natalie and a couple of acoustic guitars.

When I saw Natalie in concert last year, she preceded performing maggie and milly and molly and may by saying simply that it was a poem about four little girls who go to the beach and what they find there. What they find are simple objects that one would expect to find at a beach - seashells, stones, starfish. Their childish imaginations make these physical objects into items far more interesting, and meaningful, than the sum of their parts. I love this poem (by E.E. Cummings) and I love Natalie's musical interpretation of it. Those little girls, unshackled by the burdens peculiar to adulthood, playing with each other and inside their own imaginations, figuring themselves out - these ideas create such a vivid and beautiful picture.

There is a wonderful quote I read from Natalie, not about this song specifically, but about Leave Your Sleep as a whole, that I thought really lends itself to this week's post. When asked what she wanted her listeners to get out of listening to the album, she said this:

"To feel things and feel more human. That's what poetry and music both do for me. They make me feel connected to other people; they make me feel more in tune with what I'm feeling. Because sometimes there's so much noise around, and chaos; but I feel like I focus when I listen to music. It gives me a space to slow down and reflect. And I feel like this record has a lot of slow, reflective moments and it has a lot of moments for celebration."**

Indeed. While it's true that we often find a refuge in nature, I have a feeling that if you are reading this blog right now, you are a person who finds sanctuary in music too. Music helps us cope, helps us rejoice, and provides us a little shelter to hide ourselves away in at those times we need to learn something new, or remember something we may have forgotten.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea.

Or in the song.

Thanks for reading. A special thanks to those of you who have written me very thoughtful messages via e-mail recently. Your kindness always touches my heart. See you next week!

Click here to see a live performance of maggie and milly and molly and may

Download Where I Go at Itunes - Where I Go - Tigerlily

Download maggie and milly and molly and may at Itunes - Maggie and Milly and Molly and May - Leave Your Sleep

*KAXE Radio, July 2005
**Music OMH, April 2010

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Henry Darger

Henry Darger (from the album Motherland)

Who'll save the poor little girl?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll save the poor little girl?
o, Henry...

Who'll tell the story of her?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll tell it all to the world?
o, Henry...

Who'll buy the carbon paper now?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who'll trace the lines of her mouth?
o, Henry...

Who will conquer foreign worlds
searching for the stolen girls?

Princesses you'll never fear
the patron saint of girls is here!

Who will draw the calvary in
risk his very own precious skin
to make our Angelinia a free and peaceful land again?


Who'll love a poor orphan child?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Lost, growing savage and wild?
o, Henry
o, Henry
o, Henry

On a recent visit to Southern California, I made arrangements to visit a museum I had never been to before, the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art. I was supposed to go with someone to tour the museum, but at the last minute they had to cancel. I wasn't deterred, though. I'm an introvert of the highest order, one of those people who constantly bemoans my lack of alone time...with myself. I had never visited a museum completely alone before and I thought it seemed like an ideal activity to do solo. So off I went.

The first time I ever visited an art museum it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (I know, way to start at the bottom and work your way up, right?) I was still a teenager and I was dragged there kicking and screaming. I wasn't interested too much in art back then. I anticipated a dreadfully boring afternoon, so I took along my portable CD player and headphones so that I would at least have something to keep my mind engaged. As you may have guessed, once I actually got to the museum, my attitude changed rather quickly, although the earphones stayed on my head all day. I can't really remember any specific painting or sculpture or anything else I saw that day. But I do remember being transfixed.

I cringe when I think of how little appreciation I had for that experience at the time. Even so, after that day, I began viewing art and houses of art with a little more reverence. Never since that visit to the Met have I gone into a museum with any electronic devices plugged into my ears. It seemed somehow...unholy. But when I went on my solo journey to the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, I decided it might be fun to try taking in my art with a soundtrack once again. And what artist would I turn to in providing this soundtrack? I guess you already know.

It might surprise you to learn this, but I don't actually listen to Natalie Merchant's music all the time. I treat her music like some sort of aural dessert. Yes, it is the most delicious of all meals. But you have to earn it. And, hard though it is to believe, if you eat it all the time, it might start to lose its specialness. So I take my Natalie in measured doses. I earn it. And I take in her music when it can truly be appreciated, not at every sampler table in the grocery store of life.

But when I got to the museum and looked down at my ipod, I didn't hesitate before selecting my Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs playlist. It just seemed right.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out as perfectly as I had anticipated. I've come to look at visiting museums as a sort of artistic form of speed dating. I dutifully go around to each presentation, spend a few minutes trying to establish what they are all about and how they make me feel, and ultimately I hope to leave with a feeling that I made a few meaningful connections. But it doesn't always work out that way. I enjoyed my trip to the museum and I did see some beautiful things...but there were no love connections. I took a few phone numbers, sure, but I have no intention of calling any of them. I was just being polite.

There were other problems too. I think the trouble started when I decided to use the "shuffle" option on my ipod. I hoped it would magically select songs that perfectly fit the mood of what I was looking at in a given moment. Somewhere around the time Scorpio Rising came on while I was looking at one artist's representation of the Last Supper, I came to the realization that I may have had made a terrible mistake.

I've been trying to decide ever since whether or not the whole idea of combining music with museum art was such a good idea. Maybe they are art forms that just shouldn't mingle. Eventually, it got me thinking about this week's song.

First off, a little background. Henry Darger was a writer and illustrator who was born in the late 1800s in Chicago, USA. He was not a celebrated artist during his lifetime. He worked the same job most of his life, as a hospital janitor. It wasn't until after he died that his prodigious collection began to be fully discovered.

Between 1910 and 1921 Darger wrote a novel that is generally referred to as In the Realms of the Unreal, although the full title is close to 40 words long. A fitting title, in fact, for a book that was over 15,000 pages in length. (And I get stressed about a weekly updated blog!) After he wrote the text, he spent the remaining years of his life illustrating his novel.

Henry appears to have been a somewhat troubled man. As a teenager, he spent time in an asylum for mentally ill children. He was apparently something of an obsessive-compulsive person, hoarding all manner of items, including newspaper clippings. He was also a very sensitive man, who was particularly passionate about the protection of abused children. His complex nature and wild vision are clearly evidenced in the works he created. The lyrics to Henry Darger reference his frequent portrayal of little girls, angelic in nature, placed in dangerous, often brutal backdrops.

Natalie clearly has a profound appreciation for Henry's work. Here are some of her thoughts on Henry Darger, the man:

"I saw my first Henry Darger collage/paintings in the early 1980's when the tale of Henry's life was an oral tradition new born. Taken out of context the seven little horrified girls pursued by a purple and orange winged cat was so odd. I was instantly curious to see more. The search for evidence of Henry Darger was difficult, brief mentions in surveys of outsider artists. A retrospective of his work appeared years later at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Henry's manual typewriter was on display along with large-scale painted scrolls of the Vivian Girls, the objects seemed like holy relics to me."*

"He would go to church sometimes four times a day. And he collected twine, that was his guilty passion - there were about 500 balls of twine in his house. He wrote a diary, and the entries would go, `Worked on ball of twine. Twine tangled, threatened to throw at holy image but did not, I am a sorry saint. Attended mass. Found more twine. Worked on book.' And that was his day, every day of his life."**

Her thoughts on Henry Darger, the song:

"Henry Darger is definitely one of those songs that transports you. I was trying to transport people to the world that I've visited through being a fan of Henry Darger's paintings. I wanted to try to find a way to represent that musically."***

"Transportive" is a good word to describe Henry Darger. It's very unique, both from the rest of the music on Motherland, and from Natalie's music in general, especially up to the point in time this song was released. She sings in a high octave, something she does seldomly but to great effect in this song (and more recently on The King of China's Daughter.)

While Henry Darger, with its lush orchestration and soothing melody, might sound like a more natural fit on an album like Ophelia, I like its placement on Motherland. I've always thought of Motherland as Natalie's most intense, most aggressive album. The gentleness of Henry Darger seems all the more poignant when placed in the middle of an album that features some of Natalie's most remonstrative songs.

I'm still thinking about whether or not museums and music are a good match. I haven't really come to a conclusion yet. I guess some more experimenting will be necessary. But I can promise you this much: If I ever get to visit a museum that features Henry Darger's works, and I surely hope I'll be able to someday, I will definitely do it with my headphones on. But instead of "shuffle", I think I'll just find Henry's name and press "repeat."

Thanks for reading this week's post. Some homework for you: Can you name any songs written about famous (or not-so-famous) artists? Send responses to or submit them in the comments section below. See you next week!

Download Henry Darger at Itunes - The Ballad of Henry Darger - Motherland

*Elektra Website, 2002
**The Independent, 2002
***Borders Magazine, 2002

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Gold Rush Brides / Among the Americans

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

Follow the typical signs, the hand-painted lines, down prairie roads.
Pass the lone church spire.
Pass the talking wire from where to who knows?
There's no way to divide the beauty of the sky from the wild western plains.
Where a man could drift, in legendary myth, by roaming over spaces.
The land was free and the price was right.

Dakota on the wall is a white-robed woman, broad yet maidenly.
Such power in her hand as she hails the wagon man's family.
I see Indians that crawl through this mural that recalls our history.

Who were the homestead wives?
Who were the gold rush brides?
Does anybody know?
Do their works survive their yellow fever lives in the pages they wrote?
The land was free, yet it cost their lives.

In miner's lust for gold, a family's house was bought and sold, piece by piece.
A widow staked her claim on a dollar and his name, so painfully.
In letters mailed back home her eastern sisters they would moan
As they would read accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief.


Among the Americans (from the 10,000 Maniacs album The Wishing Chair)

Dance to the sun
a kiss to the earth
embrace a stone

Come the small black book
come the brandy cask
one strange disease
the well-worded paper
signed by the drunken
hands of thieves

Suddenly, they were told to leave-

As the snake uncoiled on a road
the length was eighty miles
wagons' weary horses
lead the feverish exiles
barefoot in the early snow
on a ridge
where they beheld their home
coarse and barren
not the haven
promised by the Father

Jaksa Chula Harjo

The Red Sticks first and
the Dancing Ghosts were
pierced with arms of fire
and the weeping widows
left could not avenge
so the Western Star manifest its will
drove them clear into the Pacific O

Gone the way of flesh
turned pale and died

By your god's decree-
for he hated me

Guilt-free self-pity is a difficult art to master. It's much easier when we are young and relatively unburdened with knowledge of the miseries of our fellowman. I believe our inclination to feel sorry for ourselves begins at that crucial moment in our childhood when we are faced with the realization that our parents will not always be on our side. It doesn't matter that the issue in question could be our not wanting to wear pants to school that day or our desire to eat ice cream for breakfast. When one parent puts their foot down about something that matters to us, if we have a second parent we will go to them for support. If our parents are united in their stand against us, who can we possibly go to for consolation? Likely, we will learn to provide it for ourselves. This pattern persists as we age, and for some of us, gets even stronger.

Recently, I was faced with an event that caused me no small amount of self-pity: I had to move to a new home. Like all normal, emotionally healthy people, I hate moving with a passion. But when moving day came, I woke up with my game face on. I psyched myself up before I even got out of bed. "I can do this. There will no emotional breakdowns today. I will not be grumpy to the point of unreasonableness. I will be a grown-up about this." And you know what? It worked. For awhile.

In typical fashion, the day I chose to move was a day where the weather failed to cooperate. It rained, poured in fact, all day. I generally love rainy weather, and getting a little wet while moving boxes back and forth between car and house didn't really bother me. But over the course of the day, something disturbing started happening. A small moat was forming in the pathway leading up to my new home - a pathway which there was no alternative to crossing. So as the day progressed, the moat kept getting deeper and deeper. By late afternoon, every time I carried my weary body, loaded down with boxes, from the car to the house, I had no choice but to wade through the moat, which now went halfway up my calves.

Somewhere near five o'clock, after enduring hours of the misery of wet socks, I had the meltdown I had sworn off that morning. I cursed my fate. I bemoaned my wretched existence. I vowed to live on the streets before I ever moved again. I wallowed in self-pity, swam in it, drank down its waters. For a few days after moving, I continued whining, mostly inwardly, but also to pretty much anyone in my life who was willing to listen (and I always managed to highlight the insult of the wet socks.) Why stick with self-pity when you can get others to join the party? They all showed me sufficient sympathy, which made me feel even more justified in my bitterness.

I should add that what made the situation particularly frustrating for me was that moving was not something I was doing voluntarily. Factors beyond my control (and too boring to recount in detail) forced me to leave a home I was quite content living in. I accepted that I had to move, but I just didn't want to go.

During all of this madness, I listened to my ipod constantly, shuffling through songs, finding relief through music as usual. And then Gold Rush Brides came on. This song might be my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song, or if not my favorite, then very close to it. But as I listened to the song, there was no escaping the creeping self-awareness that was rising in my consciousness. By the end of the song, I felt appropriately chastened by history. What in the world had I been complaining about?

When 10,000 Maniacs performed Gold Rush Brides during their MTV Unplugged performance, the song was preceded by Natalie reading an excerpt of the book "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" by Lillian Schlissel. The excerpt read:

"While the young folks were having their good times, some of the mothers were giving birth to their babies. Three babies were born in our company that summer. My cousin Emily gave birth to a son in Utah, forty miles north of the Great Salt Lake one morning. But the next morning she traveled on 'til noon, when a stop was made and another child was born, this time Susan Mollmeyer, and we gave the baby the name Alice Nevada."

Here is what Natalie has said about what inspired the lyrics to Gold Rush Brides:

"Diaries of frontier women. There were entries where they would just casually mention that they'd given birth that morning and a few months later mention that the baby had died."*

"I was reading a book about the women who were brought out West during the Gold Rush. They were incredibly brave and strong, but a lot of them just didn't want to go."**

Had this song come on my ipod in the midst of the most miserable moments of my moving day, I might have been inclined to try to compare my plight with that of the frontier women, in much the same way as every politician who ever "takes a stand" against anything likes to compare themselves to Rosa Parks, i.e., completely insanely. (See The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell.) Thankfully, I listened to it when I was in a calmer, more reflective state of mind.

There's a beautiful duality in the lyrics to Gold Rush Brides. The words reflect on both the misery those women felt with the truth of Natalie's statement above about how brave and strong they were. Lyrics like, "In miner's lust for gold, a family's house was bought and sold, piece by piece" and "A widow staked her claim on a dollar and his name, so painfully" can make you ache with sorrow for those women. But lest we begin to see them as merely people to pity, we are reminded that "Dakota on the wall is a white-robed woman, broad yet maidenly" with "Such power in her hand as she hails the wagon man's family." These were women both to be pitied and to be admired and respected.

I've talked before about my love for songs that build to a crescendo. On Gold Rush Brides, I love the way Natalie's voice becomes louder, more urgent, and more pained as the song reaches its climax. This is a song that can quite literally give me goosebumps. It's also one of the songs I've had the most requests to write about since I started this blog, so clearly I'm not alone in my feelings.

I generally like to review songs from The Wishing Chair separately from songs on other albums. I think that The Wishing Chair is a good album in its own right, but it's tough for it to stand up next to later Maniacs' works. I chose to include Among the Americans with this week's post because of a certain similarity of theme. Among the Americans is another song about being forced to leave your home against your will. And there is no example in history of this type of injustice that is more poignant than the history of Native Americans. The inspiration for the song is pretty simple:

"I was doing a lot of research about the genocide against the native American Indians, and we (Natalie and Michael Stipe) made a pact that we'd both write songs about their plight. Michael wrote Green Grow The Rushes and I wrote Among The Americans."***

While relatively few would argue that Among the Americans is a song anywhere approaching the brilliance of Gold Rush Brides, the song does have a very pretty melody, one that sticks in my head all day after I've listened to it. It's a nice song that, like many songs on The Wishing Chair, perhaps served primarily as a stepping stone for songs that Natalie was yet to write.

As for me and my moving day misery, I think the jury has come to a verdict: I am guilty of unjustified self-pity in the first degree. My sentence should be to live in wet socks for the remainder of my days. But I'm letting myself off easy, with only a vow to work harder to keep some perspective next time I am faced with a challenge that is, all things considered, really no big deal.

Feel free to share your own thoughts about these songs via email or the comments section below. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

Watch the MTV Unplugged performance of Gold Rush Brides here

Download the MTV Unplugged version of Gold Rush Brides from Itunes - Gold Rush Brides (Live) - MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs

Download Among the Americans from Itunes - Among the Americans - The Wishing Chair

*Musician - November 1992 
**Rock Compact Disc - 1992
***Independent - November 1998