Thursday, October 27, 2011

Build a Levee / Soldier Soldier / Cowboy Romance

Build a Levee (from the album Motherland)

When I was just a little girl my mamma said to me,
"beware of the devil my child
in the dark rocky places he'll keep
beware of the devil my child
beware of his charming ways
you'll fall under an evil spell
just looking at his beautiful face
you gotta build yourself a levee deep inside"

"Don't go walking by the riverside
alone in the pale moonlight
he'll come up upon you girl
with no earthly body in sight
come up upon you girl
and he'll whisper something sweet
then take you where the waters rise
so high and run so deep."

"You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
build yourself a levee girl when the waters run high"

Now when I was just a little girl my mamma said to me,
"beware of the devil my child
but if by chance you should meet
beware of his cold dark eyes full of bold and unholy deceit
he'll tempt you with a whirling pool of lies and promises
he'll deny or that he will never keep"

"You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
gotta build yourself a levee deep inside
build yourself a levee girl when the waters run high"


Soldier, Soldier (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; Anonymous)

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no suit to put on?”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little suit in the store,
“come on soldier put this on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no shoes to put on”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little shoes in the store
“come on soldier put these on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such a pretty little girl
when I got no hat to put on?”

Well she went to the dry goods store
hard as she could run
she bought the finest
little hat in the store
“come on soldier put this on”

Said, “soldier, now soldier
would you marry me
before the fight comes on?”

“How can I marry
such an ugly little girl
when I got a pretty wife at home?”


Cowboy Romance (from the album Tigerlily)

It's a Saturday afternoon romance
between a cowboy and a fool...

A drunken meet up
in a crude saloon
a poor rocky mountain town
he's a scoundrel and
she's no pearl
together they are two lovers cruel

Got her balanced on his knee
he knows exactly what to say
"You ain't been born
'til you get out of town
and honey, you might come with me”

If you do-

I'll spare the innocent ones
and take you with me
together we will be drifters free"

Got her tangled in his arms
she's a lusting, trusting fool
"There's no man born that can rule me
and that I've sworn
but stranger if you do,
I'll belong to you”

If you do-

“Would you spare the innocent ones
and take me with you?
can't you love the land
and love me too?"

As he grows sober
sees his love anew
in the morning light so true
and he gets on the move,

On the move-

I was almost a runaway bride. It caught me by surprise to find myself with such an extreme case of cold feet. I've never had much of a problem with commitment of any nature. But in the weeks leading up to my impending wedding, I felt sick with fear. I'm going to stand in front of a group of people and vow to stick with one person for the rest of my life, come what may? Seriously? What in the world did I sign up for?

I started thinking about every story I'd ever read or seen on TV or heard from a friend that involved some naive girl marrying the seemingly perfect guy, a guy who 10 minutes into the honeymoon revealed that he was some sort of psychopath. Things that I used to write off as endearing personality quirks were all of a sudden warning signs of deeper, darker character flaws - major, life-alteringly bad character flaws. Sure, maybe he's just grumpy after a long day at work. Or conversely, I could be marrying the next Hitler.

Love is a very dangerous sport. People always get hurt. Even when the relationship is a success, even when you meet the person who really is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, there is only one thing that is certain - pain will be involved. And if it's not, then you're probably just not doing it right.

In my mind, there are two brands of songs that Natalie Merchant writes on the subject of falling in love. I think they could best be summarized this way:

1) Don't do it!


2) You did it...Totally sucks, doesn't it?

Today I want to discuss a few songs that I feel, in one way or another, fall into that first category. One is a direct warning, one is a parable, and one is a story the application of which is a lot harder to summarize.

One thing I find interesting about Natalie's solo work is that each album has a very distinctive sound. She's not really one of those artists whose music all sounds so similar that one song could easily be pulled from one album and dropped onto another. Build a Levee is distinctively Motherland to me. With Mavis Staples once again appearing on vocals, this song isn't R&B-influenced, it's just R&B. And everything about it, the words and the music, seem like they could've come from another time.

I think there is great wisdom to the words of warning on this track. I would love to live in a world where I could tell daughters, sisters and friends to be always open-hearted and trusting, but where romance is concerned, that could be some terrible advice. After listening to Motherland tracks like Build a Levee, The Worst Thing, I'm Not Gonna Beg, etc., it's hard not to conclude that Natalie may have been going through the mother of all breakups when she wrote these songs. I found an interesting quote that Natalie made in regards to an earlier record, but I think it applies pretty fittingly to her lyric writing on Motherland as well:

"I use a lot of literary devices to disguise my own experiences or expand on ones I've had, sometimes creating a narrative and using characters. I might be one of the characters, or just someone who observed it happening. But because it's a solo record there is a great amount of myself in there..."*

Given how often I read internet headlines exclaiming the "controversy" of one teenybopper singer writing some scathing lyrics about their breakup with another teenybopper singer...well, I'm quite satisfied knowing very little about the inspiration for Natalie's romantic songs. Oh, if only that were the rule rather than the exception with most current lyricists.

Soldier, Soldier is a song that, depending on your mood at the time of listening, is either a hilarious joke or a cruel you-shoulda-known-better warning tale. I happen to think it's both. It makes you laugh, but in that manner that makes you feel guilty for laughing. It makes perfect sense that the song was used as a children's jump roping song. Excellent kid humor. I really do feel bad for that poor girl, though, spending all her money on that dirtbag soldier. Like more than one song on The House Carpenter's Daughter, the instructional lesson of Soldier, Soldier is abundantly clear without needing any statement of the direct point; in this case - "Don't be a sucker."

I'm a little nervous to write about Cowboy Romance. I understand how much Natalie's fans love this song and I find it difficult to try to write something that can capture that level of emotion. Maybe I should've solicited your comments before I started writing this? Some of you write me with the most eloquent explanations of just what it is about Natalie's music that you love. It makes me marvel at just how ill-equipped I am to be writing this blog in the first place. So it's not too late...write me or leave a comment and tell me why Cowboy Romance is so beloved a song. I'll include your thoughts in my next post.

But okay, okay, I'm not taking myself completely off the hook here. I'll share my thoughts, too. Of the incredible catalogue of sad Natalie Merchant songs, I think Cowboy Romance is one of the saddest. And I love it. I heard a quote on a TV show recently wherein which one character, after remarking that she wanted to go somewhere sad, explained, "Sad is happy for deep people." While I don't particularly relish feeling sad and would far rather feel happy, I don't find it difficult to see beauty in sad things.

For me, what's sad about this story is the female protagonist. It's not just that she was used by the scoundrel cowboy, it's that she honestly believed she wouldn't be, that she wasn't the type of woman to fall easily. "There's no man born that can rule me and that I've sworn, but..." It's the but that does her in. She was on the right track until she made room for that but. (Which sounds funnier than it feels...Which is also an awkward thing to say. Okay, let's just kill this right here.) Her desperation for an escape, to find something to live for, weakened her resolve to be the kind of woman she claimed to be, believed herself to be. I have such empathy for her. Here is one last quote from Natalie about singing Cowboy Romance live:

"It begins so intimately, but by the final choruses I'd be racing across the stage toward the audience singing 'spare the innocent ones and take me with you' like they were the beautiful stranger that promised to deliver me."**

Have I mentioned that you should move heaven and earth to go see Natalie perform live? Consider it mentioned.

In the end, I was able to manage my case of cold feet. That was a long time ago and I can't say I have any regrets. But I don't think the nervousness was unwarranted. I still think love is as risky as it ever was. And sad though they may be, I still think Natalie Merchant can write as beautiful a love song as anyone.

That's all for me this week. This month marks the one year anniversary of Annie's Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog and as of this post, I have less than 40 songs left to write about! Thank you to all of you who've supported me with kind words and especially to those who've been following the blog since the beginning. See you in two weeks!

Click here to see a video that does not actually feature Natalie Merchant but does tie in to this week's post, albeit it in a way that might take you a minute to figure out. Trust's totally sweet. As for all you traditionalists who like to actually see Natalie Merchant in your Natalie Merchant video, click here to watch a live performance of Build a Levee.

Download an acoustic version of Build a Levee from Itunes - Build a Levee (iTunes Session) - iTunes Session

Download Soldier, Soldier from Itunes - Soldier, Soldier - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download a full band version of Cowboy Romance from Itunes - Cowboy Romance (Previously Unreleased) - Retrospective 1990-2005

*Time Out - June 1995
**Retrospective liner notes

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Peppery Man / Griselda / The Janitor's Boy

The Peppery Man (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Arthur Macy)

The Peppery Man was cross and thin;
He scolded out and scolded in;
He shook his fist, his hair he tore;
He stamped his feet and slammed the door.

Heigh ho, the Peppery Man,
The rabid, crabbed Peppery Man!
Oh, never since the world began
Was any one like the Peppery Man.

His ugly temper was so sour
He often scolded for an hour;
He gnashed his teeth and stormed and scowled,
He snapped and snarled and yelled and howled.

He wore a fierce and savage frown;
He scolded up and scolded down;
He scolded over field and glen,
And then he scolded back again.

His neighbors, when they heard his roars,
Closed their blinds and locked their doors,
Shut their windows, sought their beds,
Stopped their ears and covered their heads.

He fretted, chafed, and boiled and fumed;
With fiery rage he was consumed,
And no one knew, when he was vexed,
What in the world would happen next.

Heigh ho, the Peppery Man,
The rabid, crabbed Peppery Man!
Oh, never since the world began
Was any one like the Peppery Man.


Griselda (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Eleanor Farjeon)

Griselda is greedy, I'm sorry to say.
She isn't contented with four meals a day,
Like breakfast and dinner and supper and tea
(I've had to put tea after supper—you see
Why, don't you?)
Griselda is greedy as greedy can be.

She snoops about the larder
For sundry small supplies,
She breaks the little crusty bits
Off rims of apple pies,
She pokes the roast-potato-dish
When Sunday dinner's done,
And if there are two left in it
Griselda snitches one;
Cold chicken and cold cauliflower
She pulls in little chunks
And when Cook calls:
"What are you doing there?"
Griselda bunks.

Griselda is greedy. Well, that's how she feels,
She simply can't help eating in-between meals,
And always forgets what it's leading to, though
The Doctor has frequently told her: “You know
Why, don't you?”
When the stomach-ache starts and Griselda says:

She slips down to the dining-room
When everyone's in bed,
For cheese-rind on the supper-tray,
And buttered crusts of bread,
A biscuit from the biscuit-box,
Lump sugar from the bowl,
A gherkin from the pickle-jar,
Are all Griselda's toll;
She tastes the salted almonds,
And she tries the candied fruits
And when Dad shouts:
"Who is it down below?"
Griselda scoots.

Griselda is greedy. Her relatives scold,
And tell her how sorry she'll be when she's old,
She will lose her complexion, she's sure to grow fat,
She will spoil her inside—does she know what she's at?
(Why do they?)
Some people are greedy. Leave it at that.


The Janitor's Boy (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Nathalia Crane)

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy,
And the janitor's boy loves me;
He's going to hunt for a desert isle
In our geography.

A desert isle with spicy trees
Somewhere near Sheepshead Bay;
A right nice place, just fit for two
Where we can live alway.

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy,
He's busy as he can be;
And down in the cellar he's making a raft
Out of an old settee.

He'll carry me off, I know that he will,
For his hair is exceedingly red;
And the only thing that occurs to me
Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

The day that we sail, I shall leave this brief note,
For my parents I hate to annoy:
"I have flown away to an isle in the bay
With the janitor's red-haired boy."

On my last post I talked about musical storytelling, an art form that is exemplified on Natalie's album The House Carpenter's Daughter. At the heart of most great stories are great characters and, oh boy, does Natalie's most recent album Leave Your Sleep abound with wonderfully odd and endearing characters. Isabel, Ebenezer Bleezer, Maggie, Milly, Molly, May, Griselda, Margaret, and those are just the characters that are given proper names! Add to that characters like The Janitor's Boy, The King of China's Daughter, The Sleepy Giant, The Peppery Man...well, the list just goes on and on. On this week's post I thought we could take a look at a few of these great character-centric songs.

There are some flawed characters featured in other songs on Leave Your Sleep - former child-eaters, gluttons, and creepy wilderness riddlers, but The Peppery Man takes the cake. He's a guy who seems quite comfortable embracing his role as an intolerable curmudgeon. For this reason, I find this character to be irresistible. I've always had a strong attraction to grumpy people; a mix of fear and admiration, I suppose. Or maybe a childish notion that I can win over even the most difficult of persons. If I had the chance, I'm pretty sure I could win over The Peppery Man. Not that he'd admit it or anything. I think I might find quite a thrill in setting him off on a tangent, though.

The music for this song couldn't be more perfect. I really love the dudes who sing backing vocals on this track, The Fairfield Four. (Hopefully it is not considered incredibly rude to refer to extremely talented people who are in their 80s and 90s as dudes, but it somehow feels appropriate in this context.) I love their chatter at the beginning and end of the song. Natalie seems like she's having a great time singing; this is another one of those songs where I feel like I can hear a smile in her voice. It never ceases to amaze me how good she can sound paired with such a wide variety of performers. Here is a quote from Natalie about how she chose the musical style for The Peppery Man:

"The poems came first. Some of them I wrote with several different styles of music. For example The Peppery Man was actually an Irish jig before it became a blues song. The jig just wasn't badass enough. I was like 'that's not The Peppery Man.' He's kind of jaunty, and the jig wasn't jaunty. The Peppery Man - he's one badass dude and if I needed to make the theme of a badass dude it would be the blues."*

I feel a bit of a kinship with the naughty little girl featured in the song Griselda. As a child of the early 80s, I was for a time subject to my mother's earnest attempts at making our family ultra-healthy eaters. I don't think I ate a hamburger until I was a teenager and for most of my childhood I thought chocolate and carob were one and the same. *shivers* So anytime junk food made its way into our house, my radar went off. I found incredibly efficient ways to eat as much of it as possible while I had the chance. I mastered the art of making a package of cookies look full when in fact it was nearing half empty. (The trick? Whenever you take a cookie from the opened front end of the package, you replace it with one from the back of the package. Yeah...I was good.)

Thankfully, this was a just a passing phase for me, but one can't help but wonder if the same can be said for poor little Griselda. She was dedicated to the art form of sneak-eating, getting up at all hours of the night to indulge her appetite. While I think this song is really amusing, I definitely think I would leave it off the Overeaters Anonymous hotline's hold button music.

Lastly, we get to my favorite song of this bunch and one of my favorite songs on all of Leave Your Sleep, The Janitor's Boy. While the janitor's red-haired boy might be the character most talked about in the words, the little girl who wrote the poem, Nathalia Crane, is the heart of the song. Nathalia was apparently 10 years old when she wrote these words. Quite the saucy little gal, I'd say. To be honest with you, if I had a little girl who wrote lines like "He'll carry me off, I know that he will, for his hair is exceedingly red; and the only thing that occurs to me is to dutifully shiver in bed" I think the only emotion that could outshine my pride would be a fervent desire to invest in a chastity belt.

A few years before Leave Your Sleep came out, I bought an album by Wynton Marsalis called Unforgivable Blackness. I played it obsessively for months. If you took the singing out of The Janitor's Boy, the song could have come right off of that album. I didn't know before I first listened to The Janitor's Boy that Wynton did the musical arrangement for the song, but I could tell from the very first trumpet note. I love this kind of music and I love when my musical worlds combine, as they did with Wynton and Natalie on this song. I don't know about you, but I would be in heaven if Natalie did a whole album of songs like this.

Before I leave you this week, I'd like to share one last tantalizing quote from Natalie about the characters from Leave Your Sleep:

"There’s also a script for a musical based on all of the poems. The characters in the poems become characters in the narrative."**

Excuse me while I stifle my squeals of anticipatory delight.

Thanks for reading and see you in two weeks!

Click here to watch a really cute video from Natalie's official site of the rehearsal and recording of vocals for The Janitor's Boy. Watching things like this makes my day job seems unbearably boring. Why don't I have this much fun at my...desk? Ugh.

Bonus video! Click here to watch a live performance of The Peppery Man

Download The Peppery Man from Itunes - The Peppery Man - Leave Your Sleep

Download Griselda from Itunes - Griselda - Leave Your Sleep

Download The Janitor's Boy from Itunes - The Janitor's Boy - Leave Your Sleep

*Music OMH - April 2010
*Chicago Pride - July 2010