By The Landlord
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
DH Lawrence – Piano
Sometimes, after all the bombast, the hype, the overbearing media coverage, the comments, the commentary, the tasteless Trump-eting, the ugly rhetoric, the bigotry and bullshit, the hate, the hope, the fear, the fury, the disappointment, from a year of shock deaths to duplicitous, double-dealing democracy, broken promise and shambles, and overall, for so many, the buildup of utter despair about what has been happening in 2016, it is sometimes necessary to take a moment to rest, to reflect on what matters most. And take a breath.
So, to escape the echoes of anger, and the white noise of lies and nonsense, the tone of our musical discovery this week is to turn to, and find solace in some other place, in something beautiful. Now that could be a kittens or miniature donkeys on a meadow filled with butterflies, but resisting that for once, let us turn instead to stillness, elegy and remembrance. Let us remember the dead, remember the past, and honour what was. But that does not always mean melancholy, and instead of giving song examples, this week, I offer you instead a garland of song’s sister genre, poetry, which I hope will inspire your music choices.
First up, something very personal. Here are a few of the lines that were among my choices used in the funeral of my own father last year. One of several farewells seeming apt for a sensitive man and lifelong musician or was often lost in chord progressions.
Music, like an ocean, often carries me away
Through the ether far,
Or under a canopy of mist,
I set sail for my pale star.
Charles Baudelaire – La Musique
Elegies can come from the most surprising sources. Mary Elizabeth Frye, a Baltimore housewife, orphaned age three, was brought up without any formal education, and wrote a poem in 1932 on a bit of brown grocery bag about a young Jewish girl, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who fled the Holocaust, stayed at her house, only then to discover that her mother had died in Germany. A timeless work that was never actually published by the writer. Frye, a true talent, died in 2004 at the age of 98.
Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.
Elegies may be sorrowful, but can also be uplifting, songs and poems of remembrance covering huge a variety of emotions. Dylan Thomas’s poem for his dying father mixes rage and tenderness, and the urge to grip on to life:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
So your song choices may include those that try to defy or struggle against death and its aftermath. Others though cannot resist it, and fold into despair, along with everything it brings. So if your song choice is an outpouring of beautiful but raw emotion, then let out here. It might echo the feelings in WH Auden’s famous lines:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
… The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Anger comes with death, usually more from the grieving than the dying, whether that death happened naturally or through war, and its aftermath, whether that be in the world wars that began in Europe or Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, or anywhere else. So here you have a huge choice of songs about the wider patterns and consequences of death and how to remember or comment on them. The tone may vary from pride to anger to despair. Some of the many artists that may come to mind include Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, the Passengers, Elvis Costello, or Pete Seeger.
With this Remembrance Sunday coming up this weekend, there has been much recent debate about whether it is right to wear a red or white poppy, the former argued to be as much a glorification of war as a symbol of remembrance, the latter honouring the dead but not supporting conflict. What other symbols are used in songs about war and remembrance? The poppy of course is most famously mentioned in John McRae’s poem, Flanders Fields, a lament to the dead, but also a call to arms:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The thousands of poppies evoked here are of course symbols of the dead, So your songs might use particular metaphors to illustrate grief and a whole range of emotions. Percy Shelley wrote a poem in honour his friend and fellow poet, William Wordsworth, who saw, at a glance, ten thousand daffodils:
Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
Shelley’s poem mimics the style and cultural standing of of Wordsworth, but leaves us perhaps thinking that it’s as much about the man left behind as the departed. Which brings us to some of the most potent of all songs – those written to remember fellow band or family members or close friends, those who have suffered tragic accident, or have fallen victim to illness, drink, drugs or more. They may refer to their work, or their personal qualities, and what their departure does to loved ones. It is hard not to think this year of Nick Cave and the tragic death of his son, but there have also been many more highly personal elegies. George Harrison wrote one of many tributes to John Lennon, and there are elegies to the lost by artists ranging from AC/DC to Bob Dylan, Elbow to Emmylou Harris, Gerry & The Pacemakers to Genesis, the Libertines to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Pretenders to Prince to Primus to Pink Floyd, Lou Reed to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or Victoria Williams to the Who.
See you at the cemetery gates? Keats and Yeats may feature, but in poetry, perhaps the most famous of this genre is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard about the dead poet Richard Wise. Gray himself experienced a series of tragic deaths, leaving him to question his own place in the world. So again, songs about the dead are as much about the person who is writing about them.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
And so, whether your songs are about individuals or groups, war or tragic illness or accident, in metaphor or literal description, the best are those that combine image and emotion, profundity with power and pathos with beauty. And what better, or more inclusive a passage to end on than this from the final story of James Joyce’s book Dubliners, The Dead, for all of us:
He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
So then, please eulogise about your elegies and make known your songs and music of remembrance in comments below. This week’s overseer, using undoubted sensitivity, is the brilliant Barbryn, who will call time on Monday evening for playlists published next Wednesday, when our own curfew tolls the knell of parting day. Lest we forget.
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