Sunday, April 15, 2012

Owensboro / Indian Names / The Gulf of Araby

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

Well, I lived in a town
way down south
by the name of Owensboro
and I worked in a mill
with the rest of the “trash”
as we’re often called
as you know

Well, we rise up early
in the morning
and we work all day real hard
to buy our little meat and bread
buy sugar, tea, and lard

Well, our children
grow up unlearned
with no time to go to school
almost before they learn to walk
they learn to spin and spoon

Well, the folks in town
they dress so fine
and spend their money free
but they would hardly look
at a factory hand
who dresses like you or me

Would you let them wear
their watches fine
let them wear their gems
and pearly strings

But when that day
of judgement comes
they’ll have to share
their pretty things


Indian Names (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Lydia Huntley Sigourney)

Ye say they all have passed away,
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave
That 'mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter's shout;
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.

'Tis where Ontario's billow
Like Ocean's surge is curled;
Where strong Niagara's thunders wake
The echo of the world;
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tributes from the west,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia's breast.

Ye say, their cone-like cabins,
That clustered o'er the vale,
Have fled away like withered leaves
Before the autumn gale:
But their memory lives on in your hills,
Their baptism on your shore;
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.

Old Massachusetts wears it
Within her lordly crown,
And broad Ohio bears it
'Mid all her young renown;
Connecticut hath wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And bold Kentucky breathed it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.

Wachuset hides its lingering voice
Within his rocky heart,
And Alleghany graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock on his forehead hoar
Doth seal the sacred trust;
Your mountains build their monument.
Though ye destroy their dust.


The Gulf of Araby (from the album Natalie Merchant Live; written by Katell Keineg)

If you could fill a veil with shells from Killiney's shore
And sweet talk in a tongue that is no more
And if wishful thoughts could bridge The Gulf of Araby
Between what is, what is, what is
And what can never be

If you could hold the frozen flow of New Hope Creek
And hide out from the one they said you might meet
And if you could unlearn all the words
That you never wanted heard
If you could stall the southern wind
That's whistling in your ears
You could take what is, what is, what is
To what can never be

One man of seventy whispers free at last
Two neighbors who are proud of their massacres
Three tyrants torn away in a winter's month
Four prisoners framed by a dirty judge
Five burned with tyres
Six men still inside
And seven more days to shake at the great divide

The Gulf, the Gulf of Araby

Well, we would plough and part the earth to bring you home
And harvest every miracle ever known
And if they laid out all the things
That these ten years were to bring
We would gladly give them up
To bring you back to us
O, there is nothing we would not give
To kiss you and to believe we could take what is, what is, what is
To what can never be

One man of seventy whispers not free yet
Two neighbors who make up knee-deep in their dead
Three tyrants torn away in the summer's heat
Four prisoners lost in the fallacy
Five, on my life
And six, I'm dead inside
And seven more days to shake at the great divide

The Gulf, the Gulf of Araby

Here is how I imagine it: There exists, figuratively speaking, a giant pool of artistic talent and in that pool there is exactly one cupful of talent for every person who has ever and will ever live. At some point in their lives, usually at a relatively young age, the person can dip their figurative cup into the figurative pool and pull out their portion of artistic ability. What they choose to do with that talent is entirely up to them. They may choose to keep it to themselves. They may choose to entertain their family or close friends with it. Or they may, if they are particularly fortunate, find a way to make a living with their talent. It's totally up to each individual. Isn't that a lovely picture?

But, alas, there is a problem with this arrangement. Some people are simply not satisfied with one cupful of artistic talent and therefore greedily dip their cup in the pool more than once. But there is only enough talent for each person to take one cupful! So if you, like me, have wondered why exactly you have absolutely no artistic ability whatsoever - you can't sing, you can't draw or paint, you can't play an instrument, etc., etc., etc. - well, now you know why. Your portion of talent was robbed from you.

On my mantle right now sits a record by a 1950s band called "Firehouse Five Plus Two." The group consisted primarily of men who worked as animators for Walt Disney Studios. So during the day they drew pictures and at night they performed in a dixieland jazz band...just to blow off some steam. Because, you know, helping to create Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, etc., is just not quite enough artistic output for them. Really? Greed!

But enough about those jokers. If you really want to know who are the greediest of talent thieves, I can tell you. They are a breed who care so little about their talent-theft that they proudly show off their dual talents to the world. It's in their job title. And would you like to know what those avaricious monsters call themselves? Singer-songwriters.

Sure, the world extols them. It delights in their abundance. There is no price to pay for their greed. No, quite the opposite I'm afraid. They are praised for stealing my our talent. Praised! They frequently become extremely successful and filthy the talent they stole from me us! It's an outrage!

But who am I to criticize the praisers? Here I am, writing a blog about one of the most talent-greedy people I can think of. Well, today I'm going to knock out one half of Natalie Merchant's singer-songwriter status. Today I'm not going to talk about Natalie's lyrics; all of this week's songs have words written by others. Today I'm going to talk about Natalie's singing. That's different for me. When I write about Natalie's music, I tend to focus primarily on lyrics. There's a reason for that.

"It's hard to write about music; it's a lot easier to write about lyrics."*

That Natalie quote pretty much sums up my blog. Here's another:

"When people listen to the songs they're not thinking 'right, that's the second verse, ooh, nice double chorus at the end, that got me very excited…', they're thinking 'I like this song, I like this part, that is the part that makes me feel more excited than the other parts'." **

I've never written about Natalie's music in a technical way because 1) I'm simply not skilled/educated enough to do so and 2) It's boring. Instead, I speak in generalities about the way words and sounds make me feel. I'm going to keep that tradition going today, but without making mention of words at all. Can I do it? Probably not. Let's find out.

I have not ranked Natalie songs in my own mind past my favorite and second favorite (neither of which I've covered on the blog yet.) But I know that Owensboro is near the top of my list of favorite Natalie songs. I do think the words are beautiful, but that's not why I love the song. I think the music is beautiful, but that's not why I love the song either. I love Owensboro because of the way Natalie sings it.

Natalie sings Owensboro in a way that is so subdued and sorrowful that when the moments come in the song that she lets her voice rise in pitch and she holds her note just a little bit longer, it pierces me through, makes my eyes sting. When she sings, "Almost before they learn to walk..." and "when that day of judgement comes..." the way she sings the words "before" and "day" are in my mind as beautiful as anything she has ever sang in her entire catalog. She doesn't milk those notes. It's not show-offy, it's not grandstanding. It's just shamelessly pure. I know this song is very old and I know it's not her song. But I don't want to hear anyone else sing this song ever. I don't care how gifted a singer they are or if they are even more skilled than Natalie is. To my mind, Owensboro is Natalie's song and it always will be.

I don't have nearly the same depth of feeling about the song Indian Names. Truthfully, of all the 26 songs on Leave Your Sleep, Indian Names was the only one that didn't particularly appeal to me initially. If it was a lesser artist's album I was listening to, I wouldn't have given it too much of a chance, it would've just become one of those songs that I skipped. But I'm willing to give more time to a beloved artist's work and I did that in the case of Indian Names. I'm glad I did.

Paying more attention to the lyrics and their intent helped, but even now I'm more partial to the music (oh, those cellos) and to Natalie's voice than even the words. This was an ambitious poem to try to put to music. Reading the poem right now, I can't help but wonder how Natalie could see a song in those words. But she did. I think Natalie's voice has gotten more beautiful with each passing decade and Leave Your Sleep is a testament to that. If I was going to choose one song from the album to play for someone who had never heard Natalie's voice, Indian Names might well be the song I'd choose.

In my very first post on this blog, I said I wasn't going to cover Natalie's B-sides, cover songs (with the exception of songs on The House Carpenter's Daughter), or stuff like that. But I'm making an exception today because it would be an awful shame to leave out The Gulf of Araby when talking about some of Natalie's great vocal performances. Again, this song is beautiful musically and extremely so lyrically. But again, it's the way Natalie sings this song that makes it so dear to me. Undoubtedly, the fact that it was sung live adds to its power. I read a quote from Natalie once (sorry I can't seem to find it to share with you all) where she said that she felt a good live performance should be like cutting yourself open. That's what listening to The Gulf of Araby sounds like to me. Hearing someone cut themselves open to express themselves musically is beautiful and at times, just as it sounds, painful. This song is both. It's a masterpiece.

Thinking about these songs, I can't help but wonder, Shouldn't that divine voice have been enough for her? As she clearly demonstrated on her last two albums, she can sing other people's words quite wonderfully. Was it really necessary for her to sneak her cup in to the giant pool of talent a second time?

It seems so. And yes, I, like you, am glad she did. That's how I console myself over my lack of artistic ability. I just figure, Natalie Merchant took my share. When I think of it that way, my empty cup doesn't seem like much of a loss.


That's all for me this week. A couple notes before I leave you. First of all, I would just like to take another opportunity to rub it in that I am going to see Natalie in concert in just over two months in San Francisco, CA. Natalie is playing all over the country this summer and fall. Find out if she's coming anywhere near your neck of the woods. You won't regret it. Also, guess what? I no longer have the only Natalie Merchant blog on the web. A reader recently mentioned to me that they too have a Natalie blog with some nice videos and lyrics. Take a look -

Thanks for reading, please feel free to write me with your thoughts at or leave a message in the comments section below. Talk to you soon!

Watch Natalie (with Susan McKeown) perform The Gulf of Araby live:

Download Owensboro from Itunes - Owensboro - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download Indian Names from Itunes - Indian Names - Leave Your Sleep

Download The Gulf of Araby from Itunes - The Gulf of Araby (Live) - Live In Concert

*Toronto Star - November 1992
**Hot Press - December 1992