one touch of nature

November 24, 2007 at 4:36 pm (lyrics, music criticism, songwriting) (, , , , , )

They just don’t write songs like “My Mother Was A Lady” anymore. Published in New York City in 1895 by Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern and first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928 as “Mother Was A Lady”, the song tells the story of a waitress, who having been insulted by two drummers in a fine restaurant, turns on her tormentors to let them know just who she is, who her mother is, and who her brother is. Here are the lyrics:

Two drummers sat at dinner in a grand hotel one day,
While dining they were chatting in a jolly sort of way;
And when a pretty waitress brought them a tray of food,
They spoke to her familiarly in a manner rather rude.

At first she did not notice them or make the least reply,
But one remark was passed that brought the teardrops to her eye;
And facing her tormentor, with cheeks now burning red,
She looked a perfect picture as appealingly she said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

She told him and he cried again, “I know your brother, too,
Why, we’ve been friends for many years and he often speaks of you;
He’ll be so glad to see you, and if you’ll only wed,
I’ll take you to him as my wife, for I love you since you said:

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister, who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

In the chorus and the following verse the songwriter does two brilliant things. The waitress confronts the men with the realization that, far from being an object for them to use, she is a daughter, a sister, and a stranger in need of protection.

“My mother was a lady like yours, you will allow,
And you may have a sister who needs protection now;
I’ve come to this great city to find a brother dear,
And you wouldn’t dare insult me, sir, if Jack were only here.”

It’s true, one touch of nature, it makes the whole world kin,
And ev’ry word she uttered seemed to touch their hearts within;
They sat there stunned and silent, until one cried in shame,
“Forgive me, Miss! I meant no harm, pray tell me what’s your name?”

This “touch of nature” that “makes the whole world kin” seems largely alien to today’s songwriting. In our own day and age I wonder whether a hotel waitress would dare revealing such personal information, or whether two men today would even “get” the truth before them.

After this beautiful scene, the drummer who was ashamed immediately turns to wanting to help the young woman—by proposing marriage. Would this really work? Social structures have changed so much today, it’s hard to relate to the characters’ appeal to family and protection. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe persons are not completely autonomous and detached. Maybe it could happen again that a waitress would happen into a new city in search of her brother, and find him through a lewd drummer ashamed of himself, repentant, and helpful at the same time. In any case, the appeal to human community, to an original basis of relation, to respect and dignity in a disarming and enlightening way is refreshing to this listener’s ear.

I was first introduced to it through Johnny Cash’s version in the album “Personal File.” Cash slowed it way down from Jimmie Rodger’s version in 1928, emphasizing each tender moment. I gather from Jimmie Rodger’s recording that the original music had a livelier rhythm through out, that slowed only for the chorus and verse I highlighted.

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. . . while listening again to Lucinda’s “West”

April 11, 2007 at 4:03 pm (songwriting)

Music is meant to fill your senses, to catch you off guard and come to you in dreams. The words should haunt you with feelings, different shades of meaning, ideas, and random thoughts. All of these find expression at different times in your experience. Single phrases stand out.

“Are you alright?”. . . “Unsuffer me”. . . “I’m learning how to live without you in my life”. . .”secrets hold on ’til they finally give in”. . . “tears hand me a shovel”. . . “I love you mama you sweet”

These aren’t just lyrics—they are recalled moments. . . lived again with each sound.

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songs about mother and dying

February 20, 2007 at 5:24 pm (hard living, songwriting)

Chris’s post:

I’m sitting by my mother’s bedside in the hospital today. Mom is in the late stages of cancer and she’s not been responsive much the last few days. My wife sits here with me. So many of the old hard-living country songs about mother and death are close to me now. We just sang the song Far Side Banks of Jordan to mom. Johnny and June Carter Cash sung it as a duet for June’s final album:

Far Side Banks of Jordan

 (Johnny)I believe my steps are growing wearier by day

Got another journey on my mind

Lures of this old world have ceased to make me wanna stay

And my one regret is leaving you behind

 

(June)But if it proves to be his will that I am first to cross

And somehow I’ve a feeling it will be

When it comes your time to travel likewise don’t feel lost

For I will be the first one that you’ll see

 

Chorus

And I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan

I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand

And when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout

And come running through the shallow water

Reaching for your hand

 

(Johnny)Through this life we labor hard to earn our meager fair

Its brought us trembling hands and failing eyes

(June) So I’ll just rest here on this shore and turn my eyes away

Until you come and we’ll see paradise

Chorus

Two other songs that mean a lot right now are Roseanne Cash’s September When It Comes and Lucinda Williams song Fancy Funeral from her new album West. Roseanne’s album Black Cadillac and Lucinda’s West are played a lot right now. Both women worked out their feelings regarding a parent’s passing with these albums. Roseanne lost Johnny, June, and Vivian before Black Cadillac. There’s nothing like losing a loved one to make you feel like you’re in a country song. I think what helps the most is that Roseanne and Lucinda write in the first person in very spiritual ways. They’re both amazing songwriters.

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The Top Ten Theological Country Songs, David Fillingim

January 31, 2007 at 8:18 pm (music criticism, songwriting)

A while back, a reporter asked me to compile a list of the top five theological Country Songs of all time to use as a sidebar in an article he was writing about religion and country music. He ended up not using the list, so I thought I’d expand it to a “Top Ten” and post it here.

By “theological” I mean any message about ultimate reality or ultimate meanings, not just specifically theistic or Christian or biblical references—though most of the songs on my list include these.

I’d love to hear from readers what songs you would include that I have omitted.

Here’s my list:

1.  Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”—In  this song, Kitty Wells answers Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” which had the same tune. Thompson’s song had placed the blame for broken relationships on misbehaving women. Wells turns the table and blames men for the disorder in the moral universe. At least they agree that God is not to blame.

2.     Hank Williams, “A Picture from Life’s Other Side”—In this song, Luke the Drifter paints a chilling portrait of some of the more tragic possibilities of the human condition, exposing the darkness at the heart of Hank’s picture of reality.

3.     Garth Brooks, “The Dance”—So called “purists” might object to Garth’s inclusion here, but there’s no questioning his impact on the world of country music. “The Dance” is Garth’s signature theological statement, advising listeners to bless rather than curse the fate that brings lost love: Make the most of life and especially of relationships, and be grateful that it was good while it lasted!

4.     Martina McBride, “Independence Day”—In her breakout hit, for which she credits Garth with opening the door, McBride recounts a tragic tale of liberation from patriarchal oppression, drawing on images from biblical apocalyptic and patriotic myth.

5.     Clay Walker, “A Few Questions”—In a departure from the tone of his other hits, Walker offers a meditative exploration of the age-old question, Why do bad things happen to good people? The lyrics to this poignant song allude to God’s speeches from the whirlwind in the biblical book of Job.

6.     Hank Williams, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”—Hank laughs and moans his way to suicide by baptism; listen to this one right after you read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The River.”

7.     Johnny Cash, “The Man Comes Around”—Among the gems from the Man in Black’s valedictory recording sessions with producer Rick Rubin comes this stirring and bizarre catalog of apocalyptic images; see how many biblical allusions you can identify.

8.     George Strait, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”—There’s a famous Zen parable about a guy who stops to eat a strawberry when he’s about to be devoured by ravenous tigers. This song conveys a similar message, without losing the sense of irony endemic to great country music.

9.     Hank Williams, “Be Careful of Stones that You Throw”—Okay, maybe three Hank Williams songs in the top ten is a bit excessive, but this Luke the Drifter recitation is so biblical! It’s a bitter condemnation of hypocrisy with a mournful chorus that alludes to the New Testament book of James and to Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John.

10.  Sawyer Brown, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand”—Though Paul Thorn’s original version of this tune is much better than the cover, kudos to Sawyer Brown for taking a chance on this off the wall gospel romp and putting it on the country charts.  Once you’ve been to the Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, you won’t want to go to church anywhere else.

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