‘ I was much too far out all my life – And not waving but drowning’
‘Looking at the moon all col and wite and oansome. Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley there’s something in us it don’t have no name …. It’s looking out thru our eye hoals .. It’s all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and loan and oansome, Tremmering it is and feart.’ (Russell Hoban – ‘Riddley Walker’).
‘Life is just like that sometimes’. (Tom T Hall)
Armoured and fast in our self-absorption it is remarkably easy to walk through our lives in this world not seeing, not hearing, not feeling almost everything that’s happening all around us. We all have our own particular set of philosophical, cultural and emotional blinkers that help keep out or shield us from those elements of life we would rather not have to confront.
I would contend that none of us is immune from the struggle to recognise, accept and face our primal aloneness as we pass through our fears, our pains and our sorrows. Each life is like an iceberg with only a fraction of its totality visible to ourselves and any outsider. And the iceberg floats above the waterline of a consciousness which descends to fathomless deeps.
One of the reasons we tell and read stories, why we write, listen to and sing songs is to experience a sense of fellow feeling – as you read, as you listen you think to yourself: ‘That’s happened to me’, ‘That rings so true’, ‘I believe that one’.
The subject of this post the great songwriter Tom T Hall has brought those expressions to my lips more that any other artist I can think of. Tom T may just be the best observer of life and shaper of the stories it reveals that American songwriting has ever produced.
Throughout his life – in his small town youth, in his army service, in college and as a working musician he seems always to have sat quietly in a corner somewhere with a sharp pencil and a notebook ever alert for the next glimpse of life he can translate into a song. I think glimpse is the key word here – Tom T is an observer with wonderfully acute peripheral vision noticing the small details that give colour, vitality and veracity to the expression of a tale.
Tom T does not place himself at the centre of the stories he records even when he is their subject. One of his greatest gifts and the mark of a rare artist is to present these vignettes of life without intrusive commentary or direction. Instead, using artfully chosen spare colloquial language he opens a door to his life and other lives. He has the courage and talent as a songwriter and performer to let the stories stand alone – in his best songs like the magnificently bleak, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ above there are no easy resolutions to the situations it describes – no chorus that ties everything together and tells you what to think about the subject of the song.
The great virtue of this open ended approach is that as you listen to a song like this you become a kind of co-composer with Tom T – fleshing out the many stories spinning off from this single story; continuing and adding to the tale from your own unique experience and imagination.
In, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’ Tom T paints a word picture that brings before us a chilling snapshot of life and loneliness in the air conditioned bubble of a hotel. Sheltering from the bone deep cold of the city Tom T reveals in six short verses that the emotional temperature inside the hotel may be even colder than that the radio recounts for the streets outside (14 below).
Tom T descends the old elevator with the notion to get something to eat though his head and his eyes said, ‘You should have slept more’. As so often for the weary traveller the restaurant was closed when most needed so Tom T takes refuge in the lounge with the balm of, ‘Two double gins’ and looks round the room, ‘As a tourist would do’. And, there in the signature, ‘Smoky half-dark’ of a late night lounge he sees the girl in the booth. We never learn what she looks like or how old she is or where she comes from (like all of us she’s a traveller) but all of us would recognise, ‘the silent type crying that tears out your heart’ and most of us have had a suitcase that has seen better days.
In a room full of islanded strangers, ‘Nobody asked her what caused her such pain yet no-one complained’. The anonymous woman is left to her tears as each of the patrons of the lounge is presumably left to contemplate their own times of tears before they drain their drinks and ascend the old elevator to their rooms heated to keep out the cold outside.
We never know what happens next or the story behind the girl’s silent sobs. Tom T doesn’t pretend to know but he does sit down in his room and write down the song so that we can share the scenario and become in our own ways part of the ongoing story. Whether we have been to Des Moines or not by the time the record has finished I’m certain that we would all agree that, ‘It Sure Gets Cold In Des Moines’.
Tom T writes and sings this song like so many of his finest works in the matter of fact tone of a well read and well travelled man who has seen many marvels and wonders and learned not to be too surprised at how well and how badly men and women can behave towards each other and themselves.
He doesn’t imply that his stories will initiate you into the meaning of life. No, Tom T is much more ambitious than that. He gives you songs, kaleidoscope reflections, from his observations and imagination which illuminate the essential mystery of life.
In many situations seeing only a fragment of the whole picture, all you can say, all you should say is: Life is just like that sometimes.
Tom T Hall has written scores of superb songs. I would like to point out 5 favourites of mine you might care to seek out if you are not already familiar with them.
‘The Homecoming’ – maybe the best song ever written about the life of travelling musicians and how success in the business can warp the relationships they have with their families and former neighbours. It’s a song about nearness and distance, about loss and longing and about finding and forgetting. The title, ‘Homecoming’ is never used in the body of the song and the last word of the song as the narrator leaves again is, ‘Hello’.
‘Salute To A Switchblade’ – an everyday story of army life overseas including the perils of; striking up conversations with married women not wearing their wedding rings and drinking ten quarts of beer. Good advice is given about the need to always avoid the Military Police and to reflect that death is always closer to you than you think. Also that a near death experience at the hands of a jealous husband shouldn’t blind you to the fact that the country you were based in was full of good soldiers and good people. Oh, and of course not to tell your mother about such an incident.
‘Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On!’ – A wholly credible story of the killing of seven souls on the homefront by a man tormented at being accused of cowardice in the final years of World War Two. Told with grim humour and no condemnation of any of the parties involved. Tom T carefully recounts the relish with which the killer eats his last meal, ‘Fried Chicken, cold beans and baby squash’ and his gleeful last words as the electric chair is about to be started up, ‘Turn it on, Turn it on , Turn it on ‘.
‘Trip To Hayden’ – A virtuoso description of a run down mining town in the aftermath of a disaster:
‘Temporary looking’ houses with bashful kids … Another country hillside with some mud holes and some junk … The mines were deadly silent like a rat hole in the wall.’
Thirty nine out of forty miners perished in an explosion that was like, ‘Being right inside of a shotgun’.
The narrator meets an undertaker who, despite his line of work, ‘seemed refreshed’ and finds his new heavy jacket can’t keep out the cold in the dead town.
An old woman opines that, ‘They worth more now than when they’s living’
Tom T, being Tom T, decides that, ”I’ll leave it there ’cause I suppose she told it pretty well’
Finally, ‘Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken) – A war veteran returns home no longer needing to spend money on shoes with a bottle underneath his blanket to make his time and his loss of the love of his girl more easy to bear.
He observes that a GI gets a lot of laughs and that some people now say the war was just a waste of time. Still he’s coming home at 11.35 on Wednesday night so Mama better bake a pie and Daddy should kill a chicken.
Stevie Smith – the author of, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ quoted in the introduction above is always referred to as a ‘Minor Poet’ in the august encyclopaedias of literature. That’s as maybe but all I know is that she was a distinctive writer who wrote some very powerful true poems which is always a rare feat. Her Selected Poems will give you a lifetime’s pleasure.
‘The novel, ‘Riddley Walker’ written by Russell Hoban is a work of genius. It relates the story of Riddley’s life in a post nuclear holocaust world where language like the material world has been degraded and mutated. It is also about the legend of St Eustace, Punch and Judy shows and the rediscovery of gunpowder. It is a work of tremendous philosophical and spiritual power as well as being a rollicking good thriller.
Do not be put off by the seeming difficulty of the language – you will soon fall into its cadences and be seduced by the linguistic brilliance displayed by Russell Hoban. If you buy one book for yourself this Christmas make it, ‘Riddley Walker’ – it will leave its imaginative fingerprint on your mind for ever.