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.


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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

7 comments:

  1. "Where a man could drift, in legendary myth, by roaming over spaces" - one of my favourite Natalie lines. Makes me think of Cowboy Romance too.

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  2. Anonymous -

    Great line indeed. Yes, there does seem to be a stylistic thread that connects Gold Rush Brides and Cowboy Romance. Two great songs. Thanks for your comment!

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  3. i have just come across this blog entry, and find it quite interesting that you dismiss Among the Americans so much in comparison to Gold Rush Brides. I find it an incredibly well structured and beautifully well written song that rises and falls multiple times towards "a pretty melody". I would definitely not say it nowhere near the the brilliance of...perhaps on a par...but that is just my opinion...which will perhaps be different particularly coming from a male viewpoint

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    1. Hmm...wonder if you'll ever see this reply because of my unforgivable tardiness. Sorry, Andrew. I really like Among the Americans. If NM played it at a concert now, I don't think it would sound out of place with the rest of her material. But I do think Gold Rush Brides is a masterpiece, so it's hard for any other song to hold up as well when compared to it. The entire structure of my blog is totally unfair!

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  4. I think, although haven't tracked it down for certain, that the mural mentioned in Gold Rush Brides is this one: http://www.state.sd.us/boa/CapitolTour/CapitolMural.jpg

    It's Spirit of the West by Blashfield, at the South Dakota State Capitol.

    Any ideas? Am I right or wrong?

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    1. Your guess is as good as mine. Beautiful mural, one way or another.

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  5. Thank you for this! Just rediscovering this done after many years. Love it.

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