Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm seein' your world of people and things, Hear paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

39 Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportees’

Generally music doesn’t do tragedy. I’m not talking about the ‘she done me wrong’ song or the unrequited love and ‘I’m in a mess’ song – I’m talking about the reality of death type of tragedy. Murder ballads don’t count because they are usually a domestic drama. I’m not even talking about the Ohio or Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll type of protest song. I’m talking about a larger scale of tragic death song, like when hundreds or thousands of people are killed.

I don’t think any rock song can do horrific events justice, because merely via the form there is a trivialisation aspect at work. It doesn’t stop people having a go though.

The stupidity of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has been a suitable subject for some big names. Lennon tried with Luck of The Irish and while I like the tune I suspect it’s because I love Lennon. U2 have their own Sunday Bloody Sunday and it rocks, that’s for sure, but the self conscious nature of the song (‘how long must we sing this song’ ) just reminds us that this is a song. The killing fields in Cambodia produced a Mike Oldfield soundtrack of nice music but no songs as such. The Dead Kennedys produced a slab of indignant anger for Holiday In Cambodia that I love but that anger is directed more at the reactions of upper class rich white kids than it is at Pol Pot.

Bruce Springsteen realised all this instinctively when he responded to the 9/11 tragedy with The Rising – he obliquely references the tragedy and it works. Neil Young goes for the specific in ‘Let’s Roll’ and it doesn’t.

I can only think of two songs worthy of inclusion on my list that touch the requisite sensitivity buttons in an artistically superior kind of way while also being damn fine songs. And they are not rock songs.

The folk tradition is about the only form that can it carry off. There is an earthiness and honesty inherent in that form that makes it possible. It is a tightrope walk, though – the chasm of sentimentality on one side and a river of earnest bilge on t’other. The song can’t be too specific but needs a hook. One of the two I'm referring to is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is a great song. In a kind of straightforward narrative it details the... um...wreckage of the iron ore ship – the Edmund Fitzgerald. The only thing, though, is - it is not spine-tingling, and for the most part it seems to be more about the weather and the actual ship than it is about the tragic deaths.

Woody Guthrie manages to capture lightning in a bottle in Deportees by focusing on the way we deal with a mass tragedy – by dehumanising it. The lyric is a skillful combination of the poetic and reportage - ‘The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, A fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills, Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? The radio says, "They are just deportees".’ The genius hook, of course, is the use of names – Juan, Rosalita, Jesus y Maria. It touches the universal, adds the personal, even a hint of the spiritual, all within a three plus minute pop song.

In Woody’s song we feel for the deportees who die in the airplane crash, and without adding the earnest pomposity of The Doors’ Unknown Soldier, we are able to reflect on the other victims of similar circumstances. I can't think of another example of such brilliant illumination.

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