Mystery Revisited! Iris Dement, The Velvet Underground & Blind Willie Johnson

By some mischance or gremlin one of my posts disappeared from the WordPress system leaving a spectral trace as, ‘Unknown or Deleted’ in my Stats.

It’s taken me a while to work out which post.

Now, I find, perhaps appropriately, it’s the one on the theme of Mystery!

So here it is again (with an additional track).

We are born into a world of blooming and buzzing confusion.

Yet we soon learn to discriminate. Magellans all, instinctive cartographers we test the boundaries of our physical and intellectual environments every hour of every day as we draw and redraw the map of the world we have made for ourselves.

We try, schooled and unschooled, consciously and unconsciously, to make sense of it all. We continuously attempt to construct a free flowing narrative which we hope will contain, order and give meaning to our lives.

Yet, on every mind map, every finely inked delineation of the rivers, the seas, the coasts and continents and the sheer mountains there is always, must always be, a blank space, that used to be called, ‘Terra Incognita’ the unknown world(s) coexistent with the known world.

And, who knows, perhaps that land sustains and shapes everything in the world we think we know.

We all understand that there is much, much, that seems far beyond our understanding. Much that may be beyond any human understanding.

I believe, without getting too catholically theological on you that there is essentially at the heart of every life much that will always remain – probably necessarily – a Mystery.

Each of us will have our own evolving sense of the mystery. A sense that grows not from interrogation but out of fleeting glimpses.

One of the graces my love of music has given me is a conviction that there will never be an end to the making of songs because there will never be an end to our sense of and need for Mystery.

Songs, even the greatest songs do not expain Mystery but they can, sometimes, illuminate Mystery and allow it to settle and perhaps to bloom in our own mysterious centre.

The songs that follow are best listened to in still, patient solitude. These songs are alive and if you open yourself to them they will speak. They may well carry you so far away that you find yourself confronting the most mysterious realm of all – your own inner self.

As one of the songwriters most dear to my heart Iris Dement (featured previously in the ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories’ post which provides her background) put it so much more eloquently than I can – ‘Let The Mystery Be’.

The version at the head of this post is Iris solo.

As a Bonus for this recovered post here’s a lovely version featuring David Byrne and Natalie Merchant with 10,000 maniacs.

Uncharacteritically, I will say little about my selections here. I’ll allow the artists to each evoke Mystery in their own way.

No one knows for certain. I think I’ll just let the Mystery be.

The Velvet Underground’s third album from 1969 could never have equalled the seismic impact on contemporary culture of their debut and sophomore records which seemed to have tilted the axis of music; opening up new thematic territory with a mixture of cool calculation and raging brio.

Maestro John Cale departed taking his unique combination of chapel fervour, conservatoire training and cathartic use of unleashed chaos with him.

There is a feeling of calm after the hurricane infusing the third Velvets album. Lou Reed, now unchallenged as leader, chose to showcase quieter, mor contemplative songs. Two of those ‘What Goes On’ (memorably covered by Bryan Ferry) and, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are among the most luminously beautiful and aching songs in popular music.

To close out the record Lou wrote a seemingly artless song, ‘Afterhours’ which was sung with limpid grace by the self effacing Mo Tucker, the band’s percussionist.

After Hours contains a lovely line that rings through my mind every time I am wending my way home after a late night in London – ‘All the people look well in tne dark’. I find comfort, disquiet and unfathomable Mystery in that line and the song that surrounds it. A song that speaks powerfully in the child like tones and cadences of a nursery rhyme.

My venture into Mystery concludes with a recording, a performance, from December 1927 which Ry Cooder (whom God preserve) has called, ‘The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music’.

Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is rightly featured on the, ‘Golden Record’ sent in 1977 aboard The Voyager space probe to represent the human experiences of the natives of Planet Earth to whomsoever it might encounter!

However far Voyager ventures it will still be catching up with the immensities contained within Blind Willie’s masterpiece. I seems to me to be the most profound keening ever uttered on the essential loneliness of the human condition.

Listening to the songs above I’m reminded that music is the most pure, potent and direct means we have of engaging with the deepest, inescapable mysteries of life.

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.