Friday, October 15, 2010

this is the story of how we begin to remember

I really should be doing actual work instead of posting my second entry in two days. (Whoa...)

I'm not a music connoisseur by any means. Nor am I a music snob. If I like something, I listen to it. I listen to a lot of folk, and I've really come to appreciate my parents' music (I grew up on Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor).

In any case, I have this playlist on my iTunes called the "Stranded on a Desert Island" mix. It's basically a set of songs I'd want to listen to if I had to listen to them for the rest of my life. And I thought, since I'm waiting for my next student to come in, that I'd share it.

1. "Heaven When We're Home," The Wailin' Jennys
"There's no such thing as perfect/and if there is, we'll find it when we're good and dead."
It's seriously a crime that the Jennys aren't more well-known. They're a Canadian folk trio, and their voices are...well, they're clear, and they're pure, and their harmonies are a-flippin-mazing. This song sort of encapsulates why I love them: it's serious, but some lines are really funny ("I've fallen many times in love/but every time it's been with the wrong man"), and it's a song about longing, about trying to find a home in a world that doesn't want you to find one.

2. "Girl from the North Country," Bob Dylan
"If you're traveling in the north country fair/Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline/Remember me to one who lives there/She once was the true love of mine."
Dylan's version of "Scarborough Fair"--except that it's an inversion. Where the man in "Scarborough" asks the woman to do things for him ("tell her to make me a cambric shirt"), Dylan's version says, "Please see for me that she has a coat so warm/to keep her from the howling winds." Nice. Plus, I'm a north country girl myself. And man, do those winds howl.

3. "The Wanderer," Johnny Cash
"I went with nothing/nothing but the thought of you."
Actually, this is Johnny Cash and U2. And while there are many, many Johnny Cash songs I could put on here, I just really love this one. It's a bit of a ballad about a man wandering through a post-apocalyptic world ("I went out walking/under an atomic sky"), and he's searching for something--wikipedia says God, but I suppose it could be a number of things.

4. "Brandenburg Concerto #1 in F (Allegro)", Bach
Because I've come to appreciate classical music, and if I had to listen to a set of songs for eternity, I'd need some classical to break it up a bit.

5. "A Case of You," Joni Mitchell
"You're in my blood like holy wine/you taste so bitter and so sweet."
This is my favorite Joni song. Her voice just soars on it. And while it's been covered many, many times, no one else comes close. And she plays a dulcimer on it (how cool is that?). It's a song about a love that the singer comes back to, again and again, whether it's good or not ("Go to him, stay with him if you can/but be prepared to bleed"). Gorgeous all 'round, even if it's sad.

6. "Hallelujah," Jeff Buckley
"It's not a cry that you hear at night/it's not someone who's seen the light."
So this? This is the definitive version of "Hallelujah." You could drown in this song. It's just...Buckley lingers on the notes, on the words. When I listen to this song, I really listen to it--close my eyes, forget about the world kind of listen.

7. "Under African Skies," Paul Simon
"These are the roots of rhythm/and the roots of rhythm remain."
My parents played "Graceland" constantly when I was a kid. I still love "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" (which prompted my three-year-old self to look at my shoes and say to my mom, "I don't have diamonds on the soles of my shoes; I have octagons on the soles of my shoes"), but I love this one more.

8. "Latter Days," Over the Rhine
"There is a me you would not recognize, dear/Call it the shadow of myself."
OTR is my favorite band, and they're so very, very under-rated. "Latter Days" is probably the quintessential OTR song. It's quiet and contemplative, and yet it's so, so intense ("Tell them it's real/tell them it's really real"). Over the Rhine ranges so much, though, from folk to straight-up rock to caberet--it's hard to pinpoint them, and that's why I love them.

9. "Wagon Wheel," Old Crow Medicine Show
"And if I die in Raleigh/at least I will die free."
The chorus of this song was actually written by Dylan, and OCMS wrote the verses. It's Americana at its best, really, and it reminds me of my dad and brother, who like to play it together. It's just a fun song. You need a couple of those.

10. "Sweet Baby James," James Taylor
"There's a song that they sing when they take to the highways/a song that they sing when they take to the sea."
This is a song of my childhood. My dad used to play it for my brothers before bed when we were kids. I still love it, because it's a ballad, and it's a lullaby, and I could probably go to sleep listening to it.

11. "Wrecking Ball," Gillian Welch
"Oh, just a little deadhead/Who is watching? Who is watching?"
Welch has this voice that just--well, it cuts through the bullshit (kinda like a wrecking ball, right?). It's rough and gritty in this song, and you hear her weariness and pain, and it's wonderful. I always imagine the singer sitting on the hood of a car on the edge of a cliff, drinking and smoking and watching the sun go down. It's that kind of song.

12. "Outloud," Dispatch
"Do you suppose that I'd come running? Do you suppose I'd come at all?/I suppose I would."
My kind of non-sappy love song. It's about seeing someone you love in the middle of choas, in the middle of the street, and wanting them to call out to you. Apparently Dispatch got sick of this song after a while--too much love, not enough angst. I still love it.

13. "Lakes of Pontchartrain," The Be Good Tanyas
"But we never turn a stranger out/on the lakes of Pontchartrain."
Another Canadian trio. They're grittier than the Jennys, a bit more rough around the edges. This is a cover of an old folk song about an Irish man who goes to New Orleans and falls in love with a "Creole girl." There are many Be Good songs I could put on here ("The Littlest Birds" is wonderful), but I really like this one.

14. "Casimir Pulaski Day," Sufjan Stevens
"All the glory that the Lord has made/and the complications you could do without/when I kissed you on the mouth."
Oh, Sufjan. Ben Carr introduced me to you through this song, which is wonderfully, morbidly appropriate. Death and love and all those things--just a perfect song. It's painful to listen to, especially when I think about Ben: "All the glory when he took our place/but he took my shoulders and he shook my face/and he takes and he takes and he takes."

15. "Fields of Gold," Eva Cassidy
"But I swear in the days still left/that we'll walk in fields of gold."
Another one who died too young--of cancer, to be exact, in her 30s. Eva Cassidy has another one of those voices that soars and drops and you just go with it. You hear hints of the power of her voice in this song, but for the most part it's a soft song.

16. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," U2
"I believe in the Kingdom Come/when all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one/but yes, I'm still running."
I actually don't think that all the colors will bleed into one: I think they'll stand out in contrast to each other, but instead of them being a cause for conflict, we'll celebrate all of them. But that's neither here nor there. Most of the time, I haven't found what I'm looking for either, and half the time I don't know what exactly I'm looking for.

17. "Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio)," Miles Davis
Everyone needs some jazz. This song is a whopping 16 minutes long. And apparently it's different from most of Davis's other stuff, but I really like it. Can't really pin down why I like it, but I do.

...and that's it. I'm always up for more recommendations, and feel free to tell me what you'd listen to if you had to listen to one playlist for the rest of your life.


  1. I hate blogspot with the fire of a thousand suns now. I can't comment in Firefox + Noscript so I have to use MSIE and then it makes me be logged in to Wordpress to comment as Wordpress so I changed it to name and URL and by god it had better work or I'm going to scream bloody murder at the person who made Blogspot.

    Um, right. *frazzled smile*

    Anyway, was saying that I am always fascinated by people who comment in great detail about their music as I don't feel as much of a connection to it owing to a hearing impairment. I tend to not have my hearing aids turned on when I can help it, so my world is mostly silence not sound.

    It creates a different perspective, that's for sure.

  2. "I listen to a lot of folk, and I've really come to appreciate my parents' music (I grew up on Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor). "

    Dear Sarah, are you sure you're not my daughter?

    No, I know you're not: she's younger than you, and asleep upstairs in my house, not off in Philadelphia making a new life for herself, quite yet. But she too was marinated in folk music all through her childhood, and has come to appreciate much of it on her own.

    I listened to the "Graceland" album -- and it was an "LP album" back then -- obsessively while I was expecting her, and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" was one of my favorites. (Later, "That Was Your Mother" also seemed relevant!)

    Which filled me heart with longin' for the Lakes of Pontchartain.
    "The Lakes of Pontchartrain" is high on my husband's top-ten list-- but for him, nothing will ever outshine Paul Brady's original version (hey, we're old).

    I'm no good at the desert-island list, myself, I have too much trouble making decisions. But if you like folk music, are you familiar with the Watersons? Forty years and two generations of absolutely amazing music.

    In case you're not, here's a sample from their very early years, about another North Country girl:

    And here's Lal Waterson's daughter singing one of her mother's original songs:


  3. @Pius: Ach, I'm sorry about Blogspot. It's a pain, that's for sure. I think it's kind of fascinating to think about a world of silence, myself, since (like most hearing people) I'm surrounded by noise. In fact, I always, always need music when I'm cooking or cleaning.
    I think for me, music is half about lyrics and half about sound. Obviously, some songs wouldn't work as well without the music (I'm thinking of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer"--couldn't have the "lie-la-lie" chorus without the music). But some songs work as poetry too, I think.

    @Amaryllis: Pretty sure I'm not your daughter, unless something really freaky has happened. :) I had this little rebellion in my teen years when I wouldn't listen to my parents' music at all, and then all of a sudden, I started again--first with Simon and Garfunkel, then Joni Mitchell, then was a snowball effect, really.
    I've heard *of* the Watersons but haven't really listened to them. Thanks for the links. I'll check them out!

    Also getting over being sick. Something going around my department, and I'm thinking I was the last one to catch it...

  4. Very difficult for me to figure out what music I'd bring to said desert island. I had essentially no taste in music for a long time, and have only recently begun actually exploring what's out there. Simon and Garfunkel have a pretty strong childhood resonance for me, but otherwise my parents listened to a lot of classical music, which I never paid close enough attention to for me to actually differentiate composers.

    I've definitely found I have a taste for folk and folk rock, but a lot of the time I have no idea how to categorise the things I'm listening to (I'm not sure any meaningful genre could encompass Regina Spektor's work). As a hobby, I've taken to roaming youtube in search of indie groups. Wishing I had my headphones at work today so I could check out more of your list - although, wonderful as that rendition of 'Hallelujah' is, Rufus Wainwright is the One True Performer of that song for me. Some of the other groups sound slightly familiar as well, and I suspect I heard them from my housemate's collection a year or two ago. Really should have asked her who all those groups were; few things are so frustrating as trying to hunt down a little-known song based on only fragments of lyrics.

    This is the second time in a few weeks that someone has posed the "15 albums on a desert island" question to me; I think the universe really wants me to make a list.

  5. @Will: I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about "Hallelujah."
    My parents listened to tons of classical music, too. In fact, here's a story: my dad and brother were driving over the Throgs Neck Bridge (Bronx to Queens), stuck in traffic, and Beethoven's 5th came on. My brother, who was 3 or 4 years old, immediately sat up straight in his seat, eyes wide, and proclaimed that "this is the best music ever!" When my parents played the 5th, my brothers would stand up in their high chairs and wave their arms around to the first movement.
    If you're going to check out anyone on this list, make it Over the Rhine and the Wailin' Jennys. You won't regret it, I promise.

  6. The Harmonious Blacksmith (a.k.a. Air and variations) was like the theme song of my infancy. I mean, sure, I was a Raffi aficionado as well, but: man, *Handel*. To this day it conveys for me a conviction that the wheels of the world are turning as they should.

    Now that I see they also did "Littlest Birds", I'm certain I've heard the Be Good Tanyas before, and definitely must investigate further. Canadian indie bands shall one day rule the earth.

  7. I hope Canadian indie bands take over the world. It would be a glorious thing.

    And I also loved Raffi when I was a kid.

  8. Raffi! I loved his tapes and records when I was a kid :D

    I even still remember some of his songs, such as his version of "Baa baa black sheep".

  9. "De Colores" and "The Bowling Song" stick out in my memory. My dad, I think, can still sing the bowling song.

  10. So I just finished listening to Concierto de Aranjuez and now I am confused, because 'Jazz' and 'music I like' are not circles that are supposed to cross on the venn diagram. The first half more than the latter, but nevertheless it is anomalous.

    However, it's possible that I need to build some kind of sonic shrine to the Wailin' Jennys, because: ye gods. I am now exploring the rest of their works and being absolutely floored by their rendition of The Parting Glass.

  11. There should be many, many shrines to the Wailin' Jennys. I, too, love their version of The Parting Glass. And their version of Long Time Traveller. And their version of Motherless Child. get the picture.

    If you go to the Folk Alley website, you can download one of their concerts for free. According to my parents, they're actually BETTER live than in studio.

    The Wailin' Jennys: they blow your mind.