Golden Age of the Radio
April 2, 2014
Songs on Storytelling
The Lighthouse’s Tale- Nickel Creek
The Curse- Josh Ritter
2002- Bob Schneider
The Gardener- The Tallest Man on Earth
Elephant- Jason Isbell
Casimir Pulaski Day- Sufjan Stevens
Another New World (Josh Ritter cover)- Punch Brothers
Options- David Bazan
The Ballad of Bitter Honey- Eef Barzelay
Brick- Ben Folds Five
Samson- Regina Spektor
Eli, the Barrow Boy- The Decemberists
Extended playlist (I wish I could have one of these every week):
The Temptation of Adam- Josh Ritter
The Crane Wife 3- The Decemberists
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.- Sufjan Stevens
Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan cover)- Jeff Tweedy
O Valencia!- The Decemberists
A Boy Named Sue- Johnny Cash
Sukie in the Graveyard- Belle & Sebastian
Folk Bloodbath- Josh Ritter
Forest Whitaker- Bad Books
It’s not hard to figure out from talking to me very long about music that I have a special affinity for songs and songwriters that focus on storytelling. Arguably, most or a least a lot of songs are written to tell a story or to capture a moment or thought in someone’s life, which is a way of storytelling, but this week I’m focusing on songs that tell straight out narrative stories. I write this in some way to define for myself the type of music that I am drawn to… Something I find myself wondering pretty regularly is the way in which we genre music. I don’t know that I’m very good at it. I don’t know that I’m that great identifying this genre from that, or telling anyone what genre of music I listen to. Maybe this is why people have the tendency (that kind of gets under my skin, moment of honesty) to say they listen to all sorts of music: because genring music is hard. I think I have maybe gotten better at it over the years, but only because I’m acutely aware of what a problem genring is for me.
Anyway, all that’s to say that I often qualify my taste in music as “folk.” Which actually puts off kind of a misleading idea. On one hand, I do listen to a usually more acoustic centered genre, but that’s a pretty narrow picture of my tastes especially as it’s grown over the years. On another hand, “folk” is such a broad term that it kind of means something different from generation to generation. “Folk” could mean Woody Guthrie to some, Bob Dylan and the like to another, or maybe hitting closer to home for me, the Decemberists and Josh Ritter. To be fair, I should probably peg myself as an “alternative folk” listener to clear up the distinction, but really alternative is just as vague. Lately I’ve been prone to tack alternative on to any genre I’m describing to get me off the hook of sticking too tightly to the protocols of a specific genre. I’m telling you, I think genring is so strange and convoluted.
But I feel that I actually use folk or alt. folk to say something more about a lyrical genre than an instrumental genre. I think the lyrical genre I’m drawn towards has a tendency towards narrative storytelling and allusions. I think this is an “of course” about folk, but sometimes we forget and dismiss this, oftentimes thinking only of old fashioned acoustic guitars accompanied by a varying assortment of other acoustic stringed instruments. So this is me reclaiming the folk narrative (read: alt. folk), and you can take it or leave it.
This playlist is all distinctive examples of some of the best songs on storytelling I could think of. I think there is something really powerful and liberating about telling a story. For one, anytime a story is told it is also interpreted—both by the storyteller and the listener. So the telling of a story is open to so many different paths and opportunities for what it will become. We extract different stories from the stories that are actually told to fit the stories we want to hear, and I, for one, love that. I love the way interpretations of stories are as essential to the story as the “truth” of it. That’s what folk music, in actuality, is really about: the telling and re-telling of stories. For process philosophers and theologians, I think this is something that they would latch on to—stories keep going, changing over time to fit to the narrative of the current here-and-now.
Another important component of storytelling is its allusions. Regularly, songwriters draw from stories that have been told over and over again. I think first of biblical stories that other storytellers reuse over and over again to supplement their narratives. Regina Spektor stands out in this week’s playlist with her interpretation of “Samson,” referencing the Hebrew Bible’s Samson and Delilah. I’m currently reading Beloved by Toni Morrison, and she talks about something she calls the “rememory.” She describes a rememory like this, “You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not [gone]. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there in the world.” And I’m like, yeah! Hell yeah! It’s these rememories we keep stumbling back upon and continuing to draw meaning from. It’s a collective memory. That’s what folk narratives are often about. It’s a way to contextualize ourselves in the history of humanity. Allusions and retelling of stories are a way to identify with people via a collective memory so that they can understand more accurately what we already feel. I find the history of that all very soothing.
To continue I’ll tell a folk story passed on to me by Johnny Gall late one night sitting around a campfire. This tells some version of the story that the Decemberists recount in their songs “Crane Wife 1 & 2” (why they didn’t make this song two different songs is a mystery to me. Fifteen minutes is a long song, and that’s coming from someone notorious for writing incredibly long songs herself) and “Crane Wife 3.” There are a thousand versions of this story, and it’s pretty definitive of the phenomena I’ve been describing through out this entry.
The Crane Wife:
There once was a man, honest and true, that loved to wander out in the fields on walks. One day he wandered upon a great white crane. The crane cried out, and the man saw that its wing was broken. Being the good man that he was, he gathered the bird up in his arms and took her home to his house, patched her wing, allowed her to return to full health, and released her again.
Later the man met a woman in town of great beauty and after courting her, they both fell passionately in love and he made her his wife. Together they started a business making ships and sailboats for the water they lived on. The man would take care of building the vessels, and the woman would sew these powerful and beautiful sails for them. At the beginning of their business, the woman conceded to this deal telling her husband, “I will make these sails for you; I only ask that never come into the room that I am making the sails when I work.” The husband agreed, and their business flourished, known across the land for their expertise and fine vessels.
They made more and more boats, and faster and faster came in the orders. Over time, the man became more and more invested in their success, and he pushed his wife to hurry to match the number of boats he and his men could make. He pushed her harder and harder, but naturally, the more he pushed her, the more and more tired and fatigued she became. She grew sickly and tired, producing sails slower and slower.
Until one day, the man could take it no longer; his patience broke. In efforts to hurry his wife on, he burst into the room she made the sails in. There, he found his wife, a crane pulling the feathers from her wing and weaving them into the beautiful, strong sail. Upon his entry, the crane wife turned to see his entrance, and in that moment, she got up and flew away, never to return.
Of course, one assumes that crane was the one he once mended the wing of. I really love that story. “Crane Wife #3” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and it’s the part of the story of the crane flying away after the husband bursts into her room. This story serves as the perfect example of why I find storytelling so interesting and powerful.
So, thanks for listening and reading this week, guys. Later this week I’ll post a reflection on Seattle and last week’s playlist. I’m waiting for the guest reflectioner, Grant Zurcher, to get back to me with his contribution, so be on the look out for that.
Josh Ritter got the chorus of “Folk Bloodbath” from a traditional song by Mississippi John Hurt. Hey, rememory!
“Crane Wife 3” is based on a Japanese folk tale.
“Another New World” references the Annabelle Lee by Edgar Alan Poe. I love the literature references, mmm.
“Samson,” as previously mentioned, is about Samson and Delilah of the Old Testament with Regina Spektor’s twist.
“A Boy Named Sue” is actually written by Shel Silverstein! Talkin’ about a good storyteller.
-Golden Age of the Radio