Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Don't sing love songs...

You'll wake my mother,
she's sleeping here right by my side,
and in her right hand
a silver dagger.
she says that I can't be your bride..."

That old tune's been looping plaintively through my quirky mind for weeks... the occasional line escapes, sung aloud, winged into space.

In my experience, Tuneloop Syndrome usually means something's up, it's portentious, as Mr. Kirschner would unfailingly remind us in Junior English class. I wonder if the constant mental replay of old songs well learned, like Silver Dagger above from Joan Baez , tunes I practiced for hours on my guitar and learned by heart in luxurious, lonesome hours of repetition – a young girl often perched, trembling, on the precipice of love's chasm – has some significance at this particular moment in my existence. Is it just the cavalcade of changes unsettling me? I haven't heard these tunes in decades. Yet here they are, fresh in my mind as though I'd just lowered the needle to the disc. It's quite haunting the way a few of them, like a posse come to get me, has lassoed my mind. Especially these by Joan, with an ominous, pleading tone to them. Like there's a shoe about to drop; a wound from which the singer would be spared. Tunes that tell of impending heartache, dread, of naivete, or fulsome deliverance. ... Maybe it's just Oldtimer's. Let's hear the rest of the tune...

"All men are false, says my mother.
they tell you wicked lovin lies,
and the very next evening they'll court another,
leave you alone to pine and sigh.

My daddy is a handsome devil.
He's got a chain five miles long
and on every link a heart does dangle
of another maid he's loved and wronged.

Go court another tender maiden
and hope that she will be your wife,
for i've been warned and i've decided
to sleep alone all of my life..."

I mean, wow, ya know?? and all in a minor creepy key!

The old appalachian tunes, their repetitive, haunting melodies in minor keys, the plainspokeness, the desolation of them. There's something there, trying to get my attention. A swelling of insight. Some lesson, or message, rooted in the past about to resurface. Like a gathering storm over parched land. What could it be? I dunno know but let's take a minute and hie over to iTunes and see if they've got the real McCoy fer sale so I can stop listening to it in my head..... hang on.

YES! The album is simply called Joan Baez ( faded lavender cover now, [original cover above], released 1960), in case you're interested. I'm pretty sure it was her first. If you're reading this and you don't know who she was, well, it was pretty much her and Dylan the leaders of the folksinging pack for the better part of the sixties. I worshipped her long hair and soprano range, learned every song. Played them at every venue I could find, including my own back step on starry nights out in the Junction, me, my guitar, plenty of ironing, and all that longing sent right out there to the infinite... Longing that had nothing really to do with a guy. It went deeper than that, but you couldn't have told me that.

Listening now... this is a really great album. She was so admired. Tremendous artistic honesty. Doubt I still have the LP; glad iTunes had it, not some redone version. This is the original album, just a different cover. Here's East Virginia:

Well in my heart you are my darlin...
If your love I could only win...

When I recall how intensely I pined for love back then, I'm grateful for the major thing college taught me: How to put your mind to a task and keep it there til done, despite whatever psychic pain is threatening to twist your spirit shapeless. You learn then that before you know it, the pain subsides, slips 'into perspective', i.e., its resolution not so deathly important. A troublesome ache, but manageable over time until it's gone for good.

"Oh, fare thee well, I must be gone
And leave you for awhile.
Wherever I go I shall return
If i go Ten Thousand Miles."

House of the Rising Sun way before Eric Burton got his hands on it. Henry Martin, El Preso Numero Nueve. This is Baez at her best, settling, sure of herself. Songs that always sound like they're being sung for the first time – that 's something, isn't it? I listened to some later versions of these tunes by her, and the earnest, pure voice just wasn't there. This is a jewel of an album for anyone curious about the feel, the roots of the new american music in the sixties. She and Dylan turned our heads, along with a host of other folkies. But they were the anointed king and queen, and of course we loved it that they were an "item" as well.

The message always the same, told a hundred different ways and always new: Love will break your heart. Only the brave and honest survive it and manage to feel blessed in the bargain.

"How the winds are laughing,
they laugh with all their might.
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
and half the summer's night.."

(Donna, Donna)

I have no doubt a sixteen year old me sang the following in a heartfelt manner with little clue as to the depth to which the words could ring true...

"I am a Girl of Constant Sorrow,
I've seen trouble all my days.
I'm goin back to California
place where i was born and raised...."

What's amazing is that one finds so much comfort in these tunes. In the same way that the blues are a comfort. They're so human, the stories they tell. Their simplicity touches our tender self, still there beneath the scarred surface. And for me they soothe rather than contort. That's the mystery of age. Love feels more about depth than sharp pain or outward longing. Maybe it's the relief I feel when I listen to these tunes, that I'm not 16 anymore, that I know whatever agony or disappointment visits me, I will not only survive it, but there is likely to be a joy hidden just beyond the sorrow.

Our stories never really change. Lately I'm not convinced we ever learn our lessons either. We simply learn to understand them better, to put them in perspective some. Perhaps to make use of them. To write stories...
stories about stories about stories... til the end of time.

Que penses-tu?


  1. Hi there, Cat!

    I'm not the only one out there having fun in this world! I think you're ahead of me on that scale! :) How 'bout we keep it going...

  2. Absolutely LOVE reading this blog. It makes me feel like family (wait, we are!) and it makes my day. Thank's Cuz for this most special one about Joan Baez. I didn't listen to Baez back in the 60's but I did hear that she and Dylan performed in unison physically but not emotionally. That is, it was my understanding that Dylan could care less about social or political positions of the day..or women's longings which is kind of funny because we associate Dylan as such powerful social force. I believe Baez herself in an interview not long ago said he just came along for the ride but wasn't really into this stuff.
    By the way, my mother would NEVER sleep with a silver dagger in her hand to protect me from an ill-suited beau even though "the rest of the song" most adequately describes her husband! I always say my parents divorced because they had a communication problem. My father refused to tell my mother who he was dating.