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

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