Merle Haggard, Dave Alvin & Emmylou Harris – Kern River

‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By the worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.’

(T. S. Eliot – ‘The Dry Salvages’)

The river is a strong brown god.

In our lives we all have many rivers to cross. And, so often, we can’t seem to find our way over. Over to the land of milk and honey. Over to the land of lost content. Over to the home we are sure is there waiting, waiting.

So filled now with hope, now with faith, now firm in resolve, now lost and abandoned without hope or faith or resolve we stand silent and shivering on the river bank. Wondering will I ever cross over and what will await me when I do?

The river is a strong brown god.

Beside a river man is a paltry thing despite all the majesty of our boats and bridges. The river ran before man ever drew breath and will run and run long after our last breath.

The river is a strong brown god.

And, we are attracted to the power and mystery of rivers even as we fear their mystery and power. And, sometimes the river, in spate and flood, asserts its power and authority and reminds us brutally that beside a river man is a paltry thing.

A river, in flood and spate, can, in a moment, sweep away our idle dreams of the future and leave us chastened, bereft, beached and fearful of rivers for the rest of our lives.

The river is a strong brown god.

Merle Haggard know this. Merle has always seemed to me have the far away look of a man who knows how unfair and brutal life can be. A man who learned hard lessons in youth which he can never dismiss or deny.

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A man who does not flinch to tell uncomfortable truths. A man who honed his craft as a songwriter so that his songs seem like the folk takes or fables we use to illustrate the wisdom of the race.

And, being the great songwriter and performer he is in 1995 he recorded my favourite river song, ‘Kern River’, a song as deep and mysterious as a river. A song filled with flinty, implacable power.

A song which has eddied and swirled through my imagination since the first time I fell under the current of its spell. It still runs through my dreams.

In a few short verses of spare telling detail delivered with a measured, dry-eyed, rueful tone Merle sums up a life stalled and cauterised by sudden trauma. Sudden trauma, when a river’s swiftness swept the love of a man’s life away.

On one side of the river life on the other death. Oblivious the river, Kern River, flows on. And, when your life has been cleft in two; into before and after what can you be sure of now?

Only that a river can be mean, meaner than you ever imagined. All you can be sure of now is that you will never, never, swim Kern River again. Oh, it may be that drowning may still be your fate for a man can’t escape his fate wherever he is, wherever he escapes to.

We all have an appointment in Samarra or Lake Shasta and you can drown in still water just as you can drown in a raging torrent.

Now, he is alone, a shattered survivor, weightless like chaff in the wind to be swept up into the mountains. Now he stares ahead remembering the town he grew up in where the oil flowed though his gusher never came in.

Now, as the hours and days fall like soft sift through the hourglass he remembers his lost love, his best friend, who he must live without for all the hours and days his life has left. All the hours and days he has left.

All around him the mountains remind him that beside nature man is a paltry thing. And that the river is a strong brown god. So he may cross, with care on the highway but he will never swim Kern River again.

Merle Haggard’s, ‘Kern River’ is a masterpiece from an American master. A song whose depths can never be sounded.

It takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A15

Though nothing can match the Homeric authority of Merle’s own take on, ‘Kern River’ the song has attracted fellow songwriters and singers who know that it is a song of rare power.

Listen here to Dave Alvin’s meditative live in the studio version which has a lovely flow.

Dave Alvin, a mighty songwriter in his own right, has always listened closely to the masters of American song and it is clear that he has learned how to allow the power of a true song to flow through his guitar and his voice.

Emmylou Harris has spent decades mining the songbook of American roots music. To each of these treasures she brings the tender beauty of her voice and her unerring knack of finding superb musicians to make the songs come alive in performance.

Below, with The Red Dirt Boys she brings a dreamy, revival meeting by the river, passion to the song. You might believe for an instant that the river would be lulled and stilled.

 

Yet, we know the river can never really be propitiated. It will flow and flow on no matter how lovely the song sung on its banks.

The river is a strong brown god.

Notes:

Kern River was the title track of a CD Merle issued in 1995.

Dave Alvin has recorded the song on a lovely multi artist tribute CD to Merle called, ‘Tulare Dust’ and also on his own wonderful, ‘West of the West’

Emmylou Harris’ version can be found on her, ‘All That I Intended To Be’

The Things I Used to Do – Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy & Albert Collins

Sometimes a song, a blues song, filled with venom, emerges into the world coiled, contained and poised to strike. A song which as the venom circulates round the listener’s bloodstream commands surrender even as they ready themselves for the next strike.

Songs like this from the 1940s and 1950s often had as big, or a bigger, effect on fellow artists as they did on the radio and jukebox audiences. Especially if the song had an arresting instrumental riff that every self respecting guitar player just knew, in their hands, stretched out, would really blow the roof off their hometown honky-tonk.

Played over and over by hundreds of artists such a song becomes part of the DNA of the blues and showcasing a distinctive take on it a rite of passage for the would be guitar slinger out to make a name for themselves.

Featured today on The Immortal Jukebox is just such a song, ‘The Things I Used To Do’, Guitar Slim’s Rhythm & Blues classic from 1953.

Now don’t you feel snake bit? From the opening notes you know this song will bore deep into you and that there will be no escape from its clutches. As the song proceeds at irresistible lava flow pace the stinging, swooping distorted guitar figure seems to slow time while the languorous booze fuelled vocal, stately piano and swirling brasses wreath you in a narcotic mind haze that envelops all your senses so that the end of the record always seems a jolt waking you up from a delicious dream you never wanted to end. So play it again and relive the dream!

Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones in Greenwood Mississippi in late 1926, was inspired, like so many, as a guitar player by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. His own style developed initially in New Orleans saw him learning to use amp distortion to boost the impact of his Les Paul’s sharp trebly sound. He performed and sang with a gospel fervour that quickly won him a loyal audience in the blues clubs.

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In addition he developed a show stopping stage act where the audience were treated to the sight of Slim decked out in a shimmering suit with hair dyed to match blasting out aggressive solos at high volume while sauntering through a club trailing a couple of hundred feet of guitar lead behind him. Once seen Guitar Slim was never forgotten! Listen to the great Buddy Guy explain the effect seeing Guitar Slim had on him!

‘The Things I Used To Do’ benefitted from the piano and arranging skills of a youthful Ray Charles who patiently coaxed Slim, over many takes, to deliver the recorded performance that has such a lovely spontaneous feel. Joining Slim in the J&M studio in New Orleans were Frank Mitchell on Trumpet, Gus Fontenette on Alto Sax, Charles Burbank and Joe Tillman played Tenor Sax with a rhythm section of Oscar Moore on Drums and Lloyd Lambert on Bass completing the lineup.

The record, issued by Art Rupe’s Specialty Records label, became a huge hit spending 14 weeks at No 1 on the R&B chart and easily selling over a million copies. The song became a Jukebox staple and almost an anthem across the South – especially in Texas and Louisiana.

Though Slim was never to have another record with the visceral, nothing can stop this being a hit impact of ‘Things’ his Specialty material features many wonderfully intense performances like, ‘Reap What You Sow’, ‘Story of My Life’ and, ‘Sufferin’ Mind’ demonstrating his brilliant guitar/vocal interplay.

Guitar Slim lived life with the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor seemingly scornful of the effect this would inevitably have on his health and career. Troubled by alcoholism Guitar Slim died in February 1959 aged only 32.

Yet, I’ll bet that in a blues club somewhere this week someone is bound to say, ‘Here’s one you might remember from the 1950s’ and launch into, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ certain that the audience whether or not they are scholars of the blues will fall under its unbreakable spell.

As a bonus treat I’m going to feature two superb versions of, ‘Things’ by two master blues guitarists – Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.

First up an imperious live outing from 1991 by Buddy who had listened closely to Guitar Slim in Louisiana before his arrival in Chicago in 1957. Once there Buddy impressed everybody with the power and intensity of his playing and soon those in the know were confidently proclaiming that the new heavyweight champion of Blues Guitar was none other than Buddy Guy.

Buddy has regularly featured, ‘Things’ in his set so that it often feels like he uses it as a touchstone of his youth and a battery charger to fire him up in performance. And, when Buddy fires we all get gloriously burned!

In conclusion here’s a lyrical, hypnotic version by Houston born Albert ‘Iceman’ Collins. Albert is one of those players who has a tone and touch that’s wholly individual and thus instantly recognisable.

It’s more than 60 years now since Guitar Slim cut, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ but from where I’m listening it still sounds newly minted and surprising every time it’s played. I think you call that a classic.

Notes:

‘Sufferin’ Mind’ on Specialty Records and, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ on UK Ace Records are both fine Guitar Slim compilations well worth your attention.

I have picked out 2 from the hordes of covers of, ‘Things’ above. Something of the reach of the song is indicated by further versions I have enjoyed you might care to look out for:

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Gary Clark and Jimmy Vaughan

Earl King

Little Milton

Freddie King

Chuck Berry

James Brown

Jimmy Hendrix

Muddy Waters

Pee Wee Crayton

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Elvin Bishop

Richie Havens

And during Van Morrison’s epic 70th Birthday Cyprus Avenue concerts what should he segue into from a contemplative, ‘Enlightenment’ but …. The Things I Used To Do!

Mickey & Sylvia, EBTG : Love, Love, ‘Love Is Strange’

‘Love’s not Time’s fool, through rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom’.

(William Shakespeare)

‘In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’

(Cole Porter)

‘And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make’

(Lennon/MacCartney)

Love, despite the wisdom enshrined in The Beatles, ‘All You Need Is Love’ is not ALL you need – shelter, good health and enough food to feed your family are also necessary components of the life we would all wish to lead. That said nothing is more necessary for life to flourish than the experience of love which acts as a kind of spiritual and emotional battery affording you the resilience to face the daily vicissitudes of life.

The song I have chosen to feature on the Jukebox today is the pop/rhythm and blues classic, ‘Love is Strange’. It was in November 1956 that Mickey (Baker) and Sylvia (Vanderpool) had their incandescent take on the song issued as a 45 on Bob Rolontz’s Groove label. It made an immediate mark on its time ascending to Number 1 in the R&B charts and just missing the national top 10 of the pop charts. The song has been included in the Grammy Hall Of Fame and has featured in numerous films – most famously in, ‘Dirty Dancing’.

What a record! As soon as the stylus hits the vinyl this is a guaranteed massive hit as Mickey Baker’s brilliant guitar intro explodes from the radio or Jukebox speakers brooking no inattention (guitar players all over the globe were instantly sent reeling and bound to a course of finger busting hours attempting to match Mickey here).

Love Is Strange prominently features Mickey’s razor sharp, irresistibly insistent, shining silver blues licks which continue to flash and gleam throughout the duration of the record. Mickey was a technically accomplished player who had no problem melding bolero and calypso rhythms here to make the song glide and flow so beautifully.

The duet vocal is charming and unabashedly erotic with Sylvia’s imploring youthful female tones being matched with Mickey’s masculine forcefulness. Perhaps, as so often happens in life, it is the hunter who gets captured by the game! Neither Mickey nor Sylvia were great singers but that only adds to the allure of their performance. It’s clear that they are in the grip of a force stronger and stranger than themselves.

Love, as they embody in their performance here, is something you never want to lose once you’ve had it. You never want to quit though time may toll that you may have just put yourself in the way of an awful fix. You are in this fix once you realise that love is indeed more important than money in the hand and though it can give you the thrills of a roller-coaster it is far too important to classed merely as a game.

Apart from Mickey’s stellar guitar work the most memorable passage in the record is the flirtatious conversation between Mickey and Sylvia about how you should most effectively call your lover to your side. Sylvia’s vocal here with its witty mixture of urgent command and come-hither mellifluousness would surely have any errant swain frantically scrambling towards her at top speed! As Mickey takes the record on home with his final guitar flourishes you sense that the couple will now deliriously continue their mating dance long into the night.

Mickey and Sylvia’s record has inspired scores of cover version in many musical genres in the decades since it was issued. Today here on the Jukebox I want to draw your attention to a characteristically gorgeous version from 1992 by the English duo of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn known collectively as, ‘Everything But The Girl’.

The flawless marriage of guitar, strings and voices on this track provides the listener with seamless pleasure. I hear this version evoking a drowsy, warm English summer meadow atmosphere. As the trees bend in the light breeze you can almost hear the distant call of the Thrush, the Blackbird and the Nightingale. Somewhere, off to the side, the mayflies harmonise as they too seek to engage in the strange mysteries of love.

Everything But The Girl are distinguished as writers and performers by a rare combination of musical and emotional intelligence. With their take on, ‘Love Is Strange’ they simultaneously suggest an edenic innocence and a reflective, almost rueful, over-the-shoulder look back at that former paradise from the vantage point of a later maturity.

Tracey Thorn has a heart-winning voice that convinces by its modesty of expression. As she sings you feel you have been privileged to eavesdrop as she spins out silken threads of song. She is adept at gently inviting the listener to ponder the stories and range of emotions contained in her songs so that you may be surprised at how deeply they have entered your consciousness. Ben Watt quiet excellence as a musician, songwriter and harmonist gives their work together a longevity and depth of field that will repay close attention.

Poets, Princes, Paupers and regular folks like you and me will always dream about, sing about and gaze wonderingly into the night sky pondering the eternal mystery of love. All I can do in conclusion is to echo Bob Dylan and say:

‘Love is all there is, it makes the world go around
Love and only love it can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it …’

Notes:

Who wrote, ‘Love Is Strange’?

As the saying goes, ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ!’ Most authorities agree that the glistening guitar riff threaded through the song owes a lot to the work of the flamboyantly talented blues guitarist Jody Williams especially on the record, ‘Billy’s Blues’ by Billy Stewart. Jody was a protege of the great Bo Diddley who is generally credited with authorship of, ‘Love Is Strange’ (though under the name of his wife Ethel Smith for tangled business reasons!). Bo did in fact record the song first – some 5 months before Mickey&Sylvia though they claim to be responsible for the lyrics! Also Bo’s version was not released until the 21st century. So record label students may see everybody (except poor Jody) credited at one time or another. Since the record has sold millions of copies this matters!

Other Versions:

I listened to too many versions of this song before writing this post! Only two would enter my personal pantheon of greatness. The first is the magnificently sung version by the Everly Brothers which shows them yet again to be untouchably the greatest duet singers of all time. The second is a an unutterably poignant, fragmentary solo version lasting less than two minutes, sung by Buddy Holly in his New York City apartment in the last months before his untimely death in early 1959. It would take a stony heart not to be moved to tears by this performance.

Mickey Baker (McHouston Baker):

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Mickey was certainly one of the most gifted and adaptable guitarists of his era. To take just two examples of his enduring musical impact consider his timeless work on the Coasters, ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’ and Big Joe Turner’s, ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’. Mickey spent many years in France where his fluent musicianship was much appreciated. In addition to his impressive track record as a guitarist for hire, often with the Atlantic and Savoy labels, he also produced intriguing LP’s with fellow European residents Champion Jack Dupree and Memphis Slim. Mickey Baker was a class act.

Sylvia Robinson (nee Vanderpool)

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Sylvia (1936-2011) was a very sharp woman who had success as a writer, performer, producer and label boss in over half a century of involvement in the music business. In addition to fostering the careers of The Moments (Sexy Mama, Look At Me I’m In Love’) and Shirley and Company (the wondrous dance floor filler, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’) she had a great fat hit of her own with, ‘Pillow Talk’ which won worldwide sales in 1972/73. As if that was not enough she founded and was the early driving force behind the Sugar Hill label which can fairly claim to have introduced the rap genre to the world with the records of The Sugar Hill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and Grandmaster Flash with the still potent, ‘The Message’.

Everything But The Girl:

EBTG functioned as a band between 1982 and the end of the century after which both Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn have pursued intriguing solo projects (though remaining together as a couple in their private life) The EBGT catalogue, reissued by Demon/Edsel in the UK, contains many treasures I urge you to explore. Equally their solo work has yielded impressive results. I am especially taken with Tracey’s CDs, the deeply felt, ‘Love and It’s Opposite’ and her idiosyncratic Christmas record, ‘Tinsel and Lights’. Ben’s solo record, ‘Hendra’ the first he has issued for three decades has a corpus of affecting and beautifully crafted songs which linger long in the mind.

Both Ben and Tracey are accomplished writers of memoir. Tracey’s, ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ is wonderfully alive, witty and keenly intelligent. Ben’s, ‘Patient’ is a clear eyed, thoughtful and moving examinations of his own period of serious ill-health (which he is now happily recovered from). His latest book, ‘Romany and Tom’ is a moving,emotionally searching, history of the lives of his parents which does them great honour.

Christmas Cornucopia – Eleventh Day

We are nearing the end of our journey now with our Sleigh still moving forward following a star. As you approach the end of any journey there is space for reflection on the path already travelled and anticipation of the welcome to be found at the destination.

The Holy Family, weary and anxious about the straitened circumstances surrounding the impending birth of Jesus had to hold on and have faith that somehow all would be well and they would be a family. Above all Mary had to have faith that her encounter with the heavenly realm at the annunciation and the event foretold by the Angel Gabriel was miraculously true and that she would indeed be a mother to a saviour (though one she would have to nurse and nurture like any other human child).

There would have been no Christmas birth without Mary’s assent at the Annunciation. From that leap of faith heaven and earth became joined and history eternally altered. Mary was in a very real sense the first disciple: accepting God’s call and following it never knowing the joys and sorrows it would entail as her son too accepted his destiny.

I was an altar server from the age of seven and I can still recite the responses to the Latin mass if I close my eyes. I can also recall the way certain prayers had a profound impact on me that was probably based more on their literary and musical cadences than any theological understanding given my youth.

The prayer that always moved me the most was the Loreto Litany Of Mary, the reciting of which even in an almost empty church seemed to set up a palpable spiritual vibration in my being.

‘Mother most admirable, Mother of good Counsel, Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, ….
Mirror of Justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, Spiritual vessel, vessel of honour …..
Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of ivory, House of gold ……. ‘

Those flowing phrases will never leave me.

My first music choice today is a song that shares the Litany’s hypnotic attraction. From Patty Griffin, one of the treasure houses of American song, ‘Mary’.

I spoke earlier about nursing and nurturing and I can think of no more apposite artists to express those qualities than the glorious partnership of Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Emmylou Harris as they invoke in, ‘Golden Cradle’ the mystery of motherhood and the light of the stable which still burns bright today some two thousand years and more since it first shone in Bethlehem.

Kate and Anna infused every song they ever sang with a deep feminine tenderness. Kate was not long for this world when this performance was recorded and in a sense it can stand as an epitaph for a woman who gave so much, as a simple gift, to her art, her family and the world.

The poem today is, ‘Christmas Night’ by a contemporary English poet, Lawrence Sail.

‘On the wind, a drifting echo
Of simple songs. In the city
the streetlamps, haloed innocents,
click into instant sleep.
The darkness at last breathes.

In dreams of wholeness, irony
is a train melting to distance;
and the word, a delighted child
Gazing in safety at
a star solid as flesh.

Christmas Cornucopia – Eighth Day

Today’s music comes from two countries: Russia and Ireland which share a reverence for poets and prophets, visionaries, bards and shamans. Both have produced more than their fair share of saints, scholars and wayward genuises.

In both lands a sense of the numinous pervades the air and prayers ascend unceasingly heavenward – even in the increasingly secular modern age.

Of course, both countries are filled with a hundred times the number of would be writers to actual page blackening writers and both have to deal with the drunken consequences of frustrated spirituality encountering the demon drink.

Still, veil-piercing poetry and song are central to the cultural life and achievements of Ireland and Russia. Both peoples love to carouse until they are stupefied yet both are capable of being stilled to silence and tears by a simple lyric or an exquisite slow air.

My first choice today is, ‘The Wexford Carol’ performed by the veritable custodians of Ireland’s traditional music, The Chieftains (here accompanied by a Texas rose, Nanci Griffith).

The Wexford Carol may well date back to the twelfth century though it’s widespread popularity is due to the work of William Gratton Flood, who was musical director of Enniscorthy Cathedral in the late 19th century.

The Chieftains play with an authority born of thousands of hours of perfecting their craft as traditional musicians – always respectful of the source material while being alert to each other’s role in bringing a tune to shimmering life. The Chieftains, led by Piper Paddy Moloney, who has proved to be a natural born networker, have recorded many inspired collaborations with leading artists in many musical genres (though their greatest collaboration is probably with an artist from their own island – Van Morrison).

Here, Nanci Griffith sings the carol with a beguiling gravity befitting the immensity of the events portrayed. Listening I feel as I were marching in a torchlit devotional procession with the same moon that shone over Bethlehem above the sentinel trees of the forest around me.

Next, from a powerhouse of Otthodox Russian monasticism, ‘The Song Of The Magi’. The choir is from the Trinity Lavra (monastery/hermitage) of St Sergius in Sergiyev Posad some 50 miles from Moscow. This has to be the sound of the breath of the Russian soul. Russian Othodox services provide doorways to contemplate the divine – an opportunity in stillness to be lifted into a different realm of being. Giving ourselves over to such an experience can be profoundly uplifting and over time transformative.

Russian spirituality opens itself to mystery and awe accepting that grace cannot be willed but only gratefully accepted. The Magi travelled long miles in search of a new kind of King and gave their gifts to a babe in a manger. Perhaps, listening to this work we could learn to give the gift of an attentive soul.

The poem today, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is provided by one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish Literature, the sage of Iniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

‘Cassioepeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodian’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

This post dedicated to the deceased members of The Chieftains:
Fiddler Martin Fay, Tin Whistle and Bodhran player Sean Potts and the mystical doyen of the Irish Harp, Derek Bell.

Mary Gauthier, Iris Dement : Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you.

Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have.

A great song can be our pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance while attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed, flinty, observations and heart rending detail.

These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement’s early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future.

Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled. Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied.

At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus.

A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life’.

The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine.

The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though easy’s getting harder every day she carries on.

She carries on.

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity. Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality.

There is an almost brutal matter of factness in many of her songs. She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them. The reader or listener can do do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters.

Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through. It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal details of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier’s words, sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity, move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth.

As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading.

Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see.

I dont know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

Footnote 30 September 2014:

Many thanks to Mary Gauthier for describing this post as, “Beautifully written” and for alerting her fans to the Jukebox through Twitter.