The New American Way – Song by Song

My Heart Aches

I wrote the first line of this song a few years ago. Maybe after the Ferguson Missouri riots, or maybe it was the Charleston church shooting. With each shooting, hate crime, or other news story, it became more and more evident to me that we had not made nearly the progress with thought we had in the last 50+ years in regards to civil rights. And so, came the first line, “We marched 50 years and 500 miles” as Ferguson MO, is approximately 500 miles from where Emmett Till was lynched.
That was 1955, so about 60 years from when I wrote the first line of the song, but thinking of the civil rights act of 1964, and using a little poetic license, I settled for convenient alliteration.

Over the course of a couple of years I picked away at it and completed the first three verses (essentially as they are still) by incorporating lines from archetypal protest/folk songs of the 60s, thinking, maybe we need to do more than sing. And also completed the second half of the song–though that portion has been largely re-written. Yes, I get the irony of then writing a song.

The song sat dormant for a couple of years, finished, but not really “finished.” Then, last summer I played this song at the Casa de Musica Songwriting workshop run by Eliza Gilkyson and John Gorka. It was a profoundly moving experience. By the time I finished playing the song through (after some coaching from the pros) the entire group was singing along to “My heart aches.” It tapped into, and was a release for the various angst, grief, pain, and concern we all had been feeling while observing our collective descent into racial, class, and ideological division. I take no credit for this. It just was. When the song finished, I heard Eliza from behind me exclaim “Oh my God.”

At the end of the weekend, I confirmed with her what I had overheard her say to Cisco, her son and producer of her upcoming album, that she wanted to record it. I took it home, did some work based on the feedback and sent a recording to her in August. After some exchanges back and forth, here we are with a finished, considerably improved song, due to Eliza’s expert touch. Lyrically it is a heart-wrenching song, but is set to a fairly uptempo beat and melody. While there can be a necessary cathartic value to a sad song, it is the hope of mine and Eliza’s that this song is also a call to action.

Give Me Shelter

I originally wrote and recorded this song a number of years ago. I decided to record it again, after some changes to the lyrics and so I could have the benefit of Linnea’s hamronies and Bruce Jensen’s stand up bass. It seems like a good song for the current times. Don’t confuse it with the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. Not that you would. It actually began with a Steve Earle groove that has since evolved out of the song. Plus, some homage paid to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan with a couple of phrases. I think this song is about finding your place, finding safety, and even one’s faith within a community.

The New American Way

The third song, and title track is a tough one. I wrote it, essentially in one sitting on February 14, 2018. That’s the day of the Parkland school shooting. I remember hearing about it on my way home from campus at the end of the day. I was past being angry and just plain sad. Got home, sat down with my guitar and just started playing and the first verse and chorus came out without even really thinking about it.

This Time Around

A simple, bluesy break-up song. So how and why does a guy who’s been married almost 28 years write a break-up song? It’s fiction. It’s actually based off of a dream. Ever have dreams about a first kiss or a new love? Occaisionally I do. It’s always an entirely fictional person in my dream. That was the case with this dream. Dreamt of being in college and falling for someone who kinda strung me along. Thinking about the dream in the morning, the first line of the song came to me, “I can’t let you back into my heart this time around.” Would’ve been nice in my dream for the woman to have fallen head over heels in love with me–but maybe I’d need more experience like that in real life to have it embedded enough in my sub-conscious to dream it.

The Dark Before The Dawn

When I was a kid, I often had difficulty falling asleep. I’m a thinker and worrier. I can recall many times sitting up in my bed in the wee hours of the night and looking out at the street, lit up by a streetlight, and feeling as if I was the only person alive at that moment. Now as an adult I don’t have trouble falling asleep (if my wife is safely tucked in next to me), but I have trouble staying asleep, and still find myself awake in the wee hours when troubled by something. I was thinking of those times when I built a song around the phrase “The dark before the dawn”. I have found that though I feel all alone at those times, I am blessed with family and friends that provide a much different reality than those feelings of loneliness. So, that’s what this song is about–recognizing where one’s strength comes from during the “dark before the dawn.”

Monuments and Tombstones

During the last four years I’ve been frustrated and baffled by groups of individuals that have seemingly voted against their own interests. This was most evident when listening to Donald Trump talk about bringing coal back. We all knew as he was saying it that it wasn’t going to happen, because the reason coal is a shrinking industry is primarily because of supply and demand and automation, which isn’t something a president can fix.

As I got frustrated and thought of all of these people as ignorant, foolish, or dumb, I realized that I was occupying a very negative space and it was not helpful. I was displaying a lack of empathy that was unhealthy. During that same time I heard a report on NPR that was the result of a joint NPR/Frontline investigation.

The finding of their investigation was that coal miners were dying from black lung disease much younger than in the past for two reasons. First, the coal was deeper down and required cutting through considerable amounts of igneous rock such as granite. In so doing, silica was released into the air. Silica particles are smaller and “sharper” than coal dust and essentially shred a person’s lungs when breathed in. Second, coal industry lobbyists have been successful in getting regulations protecting miners on the job loosened to bring down operation costs.

Despite this, individuals still fight to get one of the last coal mining jobs in these areas of our country. Wanting to understand this, I did more reading to build up some empathy for populations living in these communities. From that I came away with these characters and their stories. I was particularly struck by one of the individuals (I can’t recall in which story) said that if you die in the mine, you end up on a monument, but if you die of black lung after working in the mine, you end up on a tombstone. We need more empathy.

Threads

In the fall of 2019 I was fortunate enough to go to Norway and look at some schools as part of my sabbatical research. While there, I toured an exhibit of Norway’s Edvard Munch paintings (“The Scream”). The painting, “Separation,” caught my eye. It depicted a woman standing on a sea shore, looking out at the sea and as her hair flowed down her back and away from her body it turned into the “threads” connecting her to the past. From that came the character in my song.

A Dream of Life
(Julia Le Duc/AP)

I wrote the first version of this song a number of years ago. It was based on a sermon given by a friend of mine. He told the story of getting prompted by calls from a friend of his who would tell him, “If they are real, you have to do something” (or something to that effect). That stuck with me. I revisited this song after reading about Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter drowning in the Rio Grande trying to cross the river (Washington post article). As in Monuments and Tombstones, I wanted to build some empathy for these two and others so desparate for a better life, they will risk everything, and sometimes lose everything for just a dream of a better life. If they are real, we have to see them. This story made them real and so I reworked the song to tell that story.

So Sweet Baby I Could Cry

I wrote this song on a cruise. The first and only cruise I’ll ever take. I was sitting on the upper deck in the sun and wind, surrounded by gobs of other vacationers and the title line came to me. I heard it as a blues song and essentially wrote it out the way it is now, hearing a blues rhythm and chord progression in my head. That’s it. Simple blues love song.

Ghosts of Rock Creek

This is third song of this album that was a re-write of previously recorded songs. I originally wrote this song without the bridge in the middle to be just a character sketch of a a preacher character I saw in a TV show or movie set in the old west. He was a tortured soul grappling with his own failures as a preacher and in his faith, and needing and getting grace (whether he “deserved” it or not). The song builds to the line “No one deserves forgiveness brother / That is the beauty of grace.” The middle bridge part that gives the song its title came later, after hearing a story on NPR (again) about a army doctor’s diary describing the behind the scenes experience in the field hospital and burial site for the casualties on the other side of Rock Creek from the battle. After hearing that, it felt like that was what this song was really about–that story. Then, in the summer of 2019, I got some coaching on the melody and lyrics of the bridge from John Gorka at the Casa de Musica camp. With those changes, I wanted to revisit the song and add in Linnea’s harmonies and Bruce’s bass.

Hard Times Come Again No More

This song was originally written by Stephen Foster and published in New York by Firth, Pond & Co. in 1854 as Foster’s Melodies No. 28. I changed a few lines to bring in some modern characters that I think fit the plight of the less fortunate that Foster was writing about almost 170 years ago. Many in our world, by simple conincidence of where they are born, either have a distinct advantage and doorway to a comfortable life (such as me), but for the majority of the people this planet, sthat simply is not the case. A better life is just something to dream about. The older I get, the more my heart aches over that inequity that seems built into the world we have made for ourselves.

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