Editor’s Note: Today we welcome my fellow Christ and Pop Culture contributor Nick Rynerson to Retuned.
Among the American musical landscape (littered with niche music, one hit wonders and obscure junk) there are a few tracks that stand the test of time and like a good wine, evolve with age. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is teeming with those kinds of songs. Essentially a bootleg (1952 didn’t have the most airtight intellectual property laws) compiled with the utmost of fanatical preoccupation, Harry Smith traveled the States buying up old 78s, trying to find the essence of American music. On this compilation exists some of the greatest country, blues, gospel and bluegrass songs every recorded.
Of all the great songs Harry Smith has introduced us to, one that has captured my imagination is Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s James Alley Blues. One of his few known recordings, recorded with Victor in 1927, the song has become a cornerstone of American music. At first glance, James Alley Blues, a relatively simple country blues tune about tough marital love, is nothing all that special. But upon further review, the words prove themselves to be a memoriam to love that is almost Tennysonian in its understated magnificence and committed despair.
Before digging into the meat of Brown’s magnum opus, I would advise taking a couple of listens. It isn’t required, the lyrics are posted below, but if you let the musical aesthetic and the words wash over you, the likelihood of this essay striking a chord might increase a bit. And for your listening pleasure, I have provided three great versions of the song. The first by Brown himself, the second by David Johansen of The New York Dolls and the third by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco.
Brown has captured the pain, pressure and labor of marriage better than any marriage book I have leafed my way through. He isn’t offering advice and he isn’t giving us a guide to marital bliss, but Brown is like a friend who can relate. He’s telling his story to a married friend, as if to both soothe his own worries and offer some blessed reassurance to press on.
As a recently married guy fighting his way through the dreaded first year, Browns’ words pointedly relevant for ms. Don’t misunderstand me here; marriage, even a new, tough marraige isn’t a complete hell, far from it. And what I love about James Alley Blues is that Brown isn’t writing this song to his enemy, but to his comrade, his life partner. In an honest song about committed love and the valleys that come along with the mountains of martial love, Brown is lamenting and doting.
Times ain’t now nothing like they used to be
Oh times ain’t now nothing like they used to be
And I’m tellin’ you all the truth, oh take it for (from) me
I done seen better days but I’m puttin’ up with these
I done seen better days but I’m puttin’ up with these
I been havin’ a much better time with these girls now I’m so hard to please
In the first two phrases of James Alley Blues, Brown is remembering that time in the relationship that was easy, satisfying and passionate. It is the sacred time in a relationship before things became difficult, before life reared its head and the two lovebirds realized the blemishes of one another. It’s the time that haunts the brokenhearted and embitters the stale couple. It’s partially a romanticized state and partially a rush of newness. It’s the first ‘feelings’ of love. These are the feelings that mature into a deep love, that grow stronger but are never as intoxicating as those immortalized times. Here we see Brown wrestling with the demythologizing of love. Like the Christian who returns from a conference, a camp or a retreat and can find no satisfaction in the day to day of life. It’s the phenomenon of discontent. The time before you pick up your cross and begin to take painful, repetitive steps.
But then, in a moment of clarity, Brown realizes he couldn’t have it any other way, despite his desires to run to new, exciting women. Maybe he did. Maybe he’s saying that he did stray in unfaithfulness. But either way, his mind has wandered and his contentment is suffering for it. Even though he knows that he is where he ought to be. Brown is like a Christian caught in the arms of a vice that not only betrays his conscience but also makes the communion of man and God unsavory. It’s the clash of escapism and responsibility.
‘Cos I was born in the country she thinks I’m easy to rule
‘Cos I was born in the country she thinks I’m easy to rule
She try to hitch me to her wagon, she want to drive me like a mule
You know I bought some groceries and I paid the rent
Yes I buy some groceries and I pay the rent
She try to make me wash her clothes but I got good common sense
Here Brown expresses his discontent with her. She thinks he’s easy to rule. “Easy to rule” is attributed to Brown’s perceived incompetence. She doesn’t validate him or view him as worthy of leadership. Her excuse: he’s from the country. But this is Genesis 3, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). Many women, when they entrust themselves to men in marriage soon find the man they married fundamentally lacking because of their own fear, the reality that the husband has the responsibility can be crippling. Eve was bound to her husband and he was given headship. This was Eve’s curse; that she would want to reign, but wouldn’t.
I can’t understand that fear perfectly, but I have seen it in my wife and in the wives of those around me. It’s natural and it’s from the guilt of Adam that it comes. It’s nothing new to mankind. And neither is the man’s response: self-justification. Brown does what she asks, or tries to. But at a point, he cannot keep up with the demands, so he digs his heels in. Then come the arguments, the fights and the discontent. The seeds of despair have been sewn.
I said if you don’t want me why don’t you tell me so
You know, if you don’t want me why don’t you tell me so
Because it ain’t like a man that ain’t got nowhere to go
I’ve been givin’ you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
I’ll give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
And if you can’t get ‘long with me well it’s your own fault
In despair comes pride. Here is Brown’s stubbornness coming to a head, like it does in all of us. “If you don’t want to be with me, fine. I don’t need you either”, he says. Maybe he’s convinced himself of it in the moment or maybe he is trying to scare her back into kindness. It proves what we probably already knew, Brown isn’t an innocent bystander. He’s fighting back. This is his side of the story at it’s most biased. He is telling us (or maybe himself) that he is easy to love, that he always responds in love to his perfect bride. Maybe he thinks that, maybe it’s a guilt tactic. Most fights have a few of those thrown in. We are all so blind to our self-righteousness. And it seems to me that Brown has been building himself a fortress of good works to guard against the critical eye of his true love. The combination can be fundamentally toxic.
How you wanted me to love you and you treat me mean
How do you want me to love you, you keep on treatin’ me mean
You’re my daily thought and my nightly dream
Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die
Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die
And another time I think you oughta be buried alive
Here it comes to a head. He keeps defending himself until he can’t anymore and he breaks into a three-line love song. He loves his wife, dang it. Amidst his pride, his foolishness, and her mistreatment. Now, some of the reworked versions, Johansen’s in particular, replace “nightly dream” with “nightmare dream”. And I think this is a real slight at Brown’s intended meaning. She isn’t a horrible soulless woman, she is Brown’s true love, and if you catch them in between fights he would probably sing her praises all the livelong day.
But that doesn’t change the fact that marriage is hard as hell and Brown has taken us into the middle of a war zone that is marital conflict. For me, my wife is the one relationship in my life that can so quickly swing between doting adoration and violent frustrations. Marriage is hard to make sense of, especially for a newlywed like myself. Some days are so hard, so painful that I despair of life itself and other days I am so aware of the great divine gift that my wife is. But it’s a struggle. But every fight, every date night, every family emergency, and every late night conversation are leading to a great and perfect Marriage Supper where every tear shall be wiped away and every wrong righted. The journey is for our growth and Jesus is very evidently changing both of us, but in the meantime, it’s nice to have Richard “Rabbit” Brown to empathize with me.
A review of the month in music.
- Beyonce ruled the Superbowl and had her own HBO special. The reaction to her halftime show was mixed. Was it expression of feminine power or playing into the sexual desires of men?
- Flavorwire presented us with 10 Christian Songs they felt do not suck. Do you agree?
- How do you explain our multi-dimensional universe? With music, of course!
- MC Hammer was arrested and suggested that he was racial profiled.
- Marco Rubio who gave the counter argument to Obama’s State of the Union address, loves 90’s rap. On the other hand, the soon resigning pope loves classical music, especially Mozart.
- A large tribute to musicals at the Oscars of mostly contemporary re-imaginings.
- Is the rock hiatus a sham? Flavorpill thinks it is.
- 80’s rocker Adam Ant talks about his bipolar disorder with Rolling Stone and his return to music.
- PBS Idea Channel thinks an mp3 or vinyl is better than a live performance. What do you think?
- Can the deaf experience music? The BBC National Orchestra thinks they can.
- EDM artist Al Wasler did not win a Grammy and this Spin contributor is thankful.
- My fellow Christ and Pop Culture colleague, Nick Rynerson, examines why Americana and Folk music have experienced a resurgence in recent years.
- We hate silence, even where silence is encouraged as in a classical concert.
- Which leaves us with this infographic describing what happens in our brain when we listen to music.
- But we almost forgot about the #1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100, Harlem Shake and the endless array of viral videos with the dance.
- All content must be exclusive to Retuned.
- Content must explore music through the framework of the gospel.
- Write in a way that invites conversation and comes from a place of humility.
- You will be expected to respond to any comments that arise from your article.
- Retuned does not pay guest or regular contributors.
If you are interested in becoming a regular writer for us please submit an article example and a biography. Currently, we are looking for writers who can commit to at least one article a week.
Soaked with Christian and Arthurian imagery (see the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, “The Lady of Shallot”), If I Die Young recounts the story of a young woman who has an untimely death. But the great thing about the song is that she does not mourn her imagined death but rather looks back at her life with joy. Stating that even though her life was cut short, “Well, I’ve had just enough time,” she also implies the purity of her life, “I’ll be wearing white when I come into your kingdom.” Imagine if all of us could look back at our life as the singer or Paul does:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8)
Furthermore, the singer cares more about the people she left behind rather than pondering why she had to die. She asks God to provide a sign to her mother (“Lord make me a rainbow… She’ll know I’m safe with you…”) and tells those at her funeral, “Gather up your tears, keep ’em in your pocket/Save them for a time when you’re really gonna need them.” The singer also provides them with burial instructions, which reframes her death as a celebration of a life, “…bury me in satin. Lay me down on a bed of roses/Sink me in the river at dawn/Send me away with the words of a love song.”
The tragedy of her death is continually overshadowed by glimpses of hope in the song since she had a life well lived and is now with Jesus. The loss of any believer in Christ, especially if they are a child, should move us to grief but as If I Die Young so beautifully demonstrates “death has no sting” when “God… gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” and changes our perishable body to an imperishable resurrection body (1 Corinth. 15:50-58). This is what underlies the hope of the song and the hope of all believers in Christ. One day we will all be reunited and the love song we were sent away with from this life will turn into a love song towards the savior (Rev. 14:1-5).
Covering the best and worst of the music world.
Being a father is messy business. Fathers at their best provide their sons and daughters the tough, rough around the edges, yet tender love which their children need. At their worst, they abandon their families (physically or emotionally) leaving their children without the needed love of a father. Unfortunately, we can easily see the outward effects of absentee fathers in the African-American community. But we often miss the more subtle effects of fathers in other communities who are physically present but do not engage and love their children. We live in a time where an entire generation of adults has been left with a skewed understanding of what fatherhood is. In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden wisely discerns his generation’s predicament, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” — a profound statement on the importance of fathers.
Christian fathers’ responsibility is even greater as they have the honor and burden of being the spiritual head of the household. Not only are they commanded to “wash their wives in the word” (Eph. 5:26) but they must also raise their children in the gospel — both difficult tasks. Though when fathers look to their Father in heaven as their head, the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ trickles down into their marriage and the raising of their children. What we have then in the following songs are true portrayals of fatherhood, outlining all the ways we mess up as fathers but also the ways in which we succeed. Fathers are never going to get it right 100% of the time but we have a Father in heaven that will for us (Warning: Some of the videos below contain expletives).
Daughters – Nas: This is a song of regrets for how Nas raised his daughter and did not protect her from the things of the world to only end up like her Dad.
Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations: This song is a great example of how not to be a father, since this father does every possible thing wrong.
A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash: Okay so this song is obviously supposed to be humorous but what a deranged way for a father to make his son a strong man.
Cats in the Cradle – Harry Chapin: A sobering tale of a father too busy to spend time with his son, who then turns out to be like his Dad and too busy to spend any time with his father. This is the complete opposite story of Robert Munsch’s classic children book “Love You Forever”.
Der Erlkönig – Franz Schubert: A father desperately tries to rescue his son from a demonic creature.
My Father’s Eyes – Eric Clapton: Clapton explores the desire to be like his father in raising his children.
Just the Two of Us – Will Smith: A song of the joys and realities of fatherhood.
Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder: A beautiful song about the unconditional love a Father has towards his daughter at the moment of her birth.