I’ve spent some time lately working my way through The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by Davids Graeber and Wengrow. It’s a fascinating book, and a really rewarding read, but it’s also a serious tome, clocking in at over 500 pages of text dense with facts and ideas, so it’s not something I’ve been attempting all at one go.
Anyway, as I was reading the latest chapter last night I came across this surprising observation:
There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else. Many seem to find the prospect of living their entire lives surrounded by close relatives so unpleasant that they will travel very long distances just to get away from them.
This song has been on my mind a lot lately, so I decided to research and write about it.
It’s certainly an outlier in the Neil Young songbook. It closed out Young’s first, self-titled, solo album, with a running time of close to ten minutes. This was an album my friends and I pretty much wore out in our dorm rooms, listening to it when it first came out, so I’ve been familiar with it for a long time.
A live recording of the song was released in 2008 as part of the Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 album, and I actually prefer this version. For one, it includes a couple of lines that add to the song, that were missing from the earlier studio recording; for another, Young’s vocals seem purer and less strained in the intimate coffee house setting.
This song was written by Tom Waits, and his performance of the song on his 1999 album Mule Variations is certainly worth hearing. His delivery sounds like that of a down-at-the-heels preacher delivering the holy message at a revival meeting, or perhaps on a street corner, with a Salvation Army style brass band playing in the background. He delivers his sermon with an unarguable power and authority.
My introduction to the song, however, came during the encore performance by Sarah Jarosz at the Tractor Tavern a couple of years ago. I can still remember the looks on the faces of Sarah and her band as they delivered the song to the standing, swaying crowd, seemingly amazed at the depth of feeling and the bond between performer and audience being wrought within the house that night, as all present returned again and again to the chorus with increasing emotional commitment.
This song was released on John Prine’s first, self-titled, album, when the singer-songwriter was just twenty-five years of age. Prine grew up near Chicago, and studied at that city’s Old Town School of Folk Music (a fine establishment I’ve visited several times, and one that is still delivering concerts and classes today).
Prine was working as a mailman before turning to music as a full-time career. He remembers delivering newspapers to a Baptist old peoples home where he had to go room-to-room, and there developed something of an affinity for our aging population.
These memories and observations led him to write a song called “Hello In There” for that first album. A friend liked that song so much that he suggested Prine write “another song about old people.” And that suggestion led Prine to pen “Angel from Montgomery,” pulling the song’s words and images from some deeper reservoir.
My earliest memory of this song is hearing it on the first album by The Band, Music from Big Pink, back in 1968. I understood then that this was the one song on the album that was written neither by members of The Band nor by Bob Dylan, but didn’t know much else about it at the time.
Then, a few years later, I discovered that it was one of the few songs that my father and I both knew, and could play together on our guitars. Turned out he had probably heard it as recorded by The Country Gentlemen on their 1960 album, Country Songs Old & New, or had simply heard this same group perform the song at one of their many shows at the Crossroads, outside of DC, a venue my dad was known to have frequented.
And then, I found the song included on the Rosanne Cash album The List, the title referring to a list of essential American songs as identified by her father, Johnny Cash.
But then, later, it just started to turn up everywhere.
A couple of things that happened recently got me cogitating on the idea of language as playground.
First, I had a chance to hear Anne Curzan speak. Curzan is the talented and engaging dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan (my alma mater), and is also a linguist who studies the history of the English language. Her bio states that she “aims to promote a culture based in purpose and contributing to the common good, the power of learning, the value of play [emphasis mine], and the importance of well-being.”
Well, I’m here to tell you: any time you stir together the value of play and the study of the English language in the same pitcher, you’re mixing up a cocktail that I will happily imbibe.
As children, our thoughts about death are stuff of dreams and fairy tales. As adults we learn to suppress these thoughts because we are busy getting on with things. But as teenagers, in this transition between nursery rhymes and real life, we tend to approach this topic with a frankness and curiosity that can be somewhat startling.
Laura Nyro wrote her song “And When I Die” at the age of 17, and her refreshing treatment of the subject shows none of the reverence or piety that we learn to adopt as adults.
Let’s look over her lyrics.
And when I die and when I’m dead, dead and gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on.
I’m not scared of dying and I don’t really care.
If it’s peace you find in dying, well, then let the time be near.
The history of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is a fascinating one. Cohen’s songs had never really been embraced by the masses, and his first recording of “Hallelujah” in the early eighties was part of an album so lacking in obvious commercial appeal that the president of CBS Records responded to it by saying: “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”
That recording was released, however, a little later on a small independent label, but few people took note of the album or of this particular song. Even for Cohen’s small set of fans, it did not seem like a particularly memorable recording.
But then a funny series of events began to play out over the next couple of decades. John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, and himself not a household name, recorded a version of the song for a Cohen tribute album in 1991.
I recently came across the Playing for Change Song Around the World video of Robbie Robertson’s composition “The Weight,” and it made me want to think – and write! – more deeply about how this song works, and what it means, and the timeless nature of its appeal.
Let’s just read the lyrics through first (and listen to the music), and then talk about it.
I pulled into Nazareth,
Was feeling about half past dead.
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head.
"Hey, mister, can you tell me
Where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand,
“No” was all he said.
Take a load off Fanny.
Take a load for free.
Take a load off Fanny,
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me.
(You put the load right on me)
I picked up my bag,
I went looking for a place to hide.
When I saw Carmen and the Devil
Walking side by side.
I’d been aware of Paul Thorn for some time, but didn’t really become a fan until I saw him live last summer at The Ark in Ann Arbor. I convinced an old University of Michigan roommate to come with me while I was in town, as an opportunity to catch up, but we were both caught off guard by how much we loved Thorn’s show.
I’ve been listening to Thorn’s recordings regularly since then, and can now bear witness to a great catalog that stands up to deep and repeated listening.
Musically Thorn reminds me of Delbert McClinton and a few other artists who have somewhat belatedly been collected under the Americana banner.
For a complete list of all songs discussed on the site, see the Songs Table.↑ Back to top