Thursday, August 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dust Bowl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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