Illustrating the truths of Christianity through the power of music.
One night I was listening to a local rock station who allows their listeners to come up with their seven song perfect playlist. I caught the tail end of one woman’s playlist and noticed an interesting trend through the last three songs—noise, chaotic and furious noise. Fun.’s “Be Calm”, Muse’s “New Born” and Last Tuesday’s “Become What You Believe” were brash, in your face, cacophonous songs that were unapologetic in producing noisy rock (listen below).
Like the Second Viennese School, Free Jazz and the “make music out of anything” composers of the mid-20th century, these songs put aside the tyranny of tonality and opened up their musical framework to pure musical freedom. The boundaries of culturally acceptable sound were eclipsed in order to allow freedom to reign supreme. But isn’t that what our prayer life is like, noisy requests of our will, ignoring God’s will for us? Which is one of the reasons Jesus had these harsh words for our prayers, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matt. 6:7) Our freedom in prayer does not lie in our many cacophonous words, but in the quiet, secret places where we offer our praise and seek out God’s will. Let us not be noise in our God’s ear but harmoniously pray his will for our lives.
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.
Man was made for woman and woman for man. As much as our culture would like to ignore or deny this fact, nature proclaims it daily. And through the ages, artists have been unable to resist its power. Has there ever been a subject which has inspired more artistic expression? And yet, it also seems that the magic of pure, undying love is one that all too many people feel is too good to be true. In this post, I explore two of my favorite love songs: Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Marc Cohn’s “True Companion.” At the same time, I point out the contrast between the songs’ idealized vision and some of the comments their authors have made about the reality of that vision. Although they are able to give us a beautiful picture of romantic love in their art, they believe that it is only an illusion, that they are unable to make the vision a reality in their own lives. I find this at once tragic and believable. In our cynical, fallen world, is it any wonder they should think that way?
This contrast was brought home to me in a famous live performance of “For Emily,” which Paul Simon chose to stage back-to-back with a different song called “Overs.” He explained that “For Emily” isn’t really about a girl named Emily, it’s about a belief. Then “Overs,” a song about a relationship that’s falling apart, is about “the loss of that belief.” Here is that performance of “Emily.” (For a performance with better sound quality, go here):
And here is the follow-up performance of “Overs” (lyrics here):
Of the two songs, “For Emily” was by far the most popular at the time and has remained a much-loved classic through the decades. So why is it that the song which Simon later looked back on with some embarrassment as a sappy nothing has endured so long, while the wry cynicism of “Overs” hasn’t? Perhaps it’s because the desire to “believe” runs so strong in the human spirit. Or as Simon himself wrote in a different song called “Train in the Distance,” “The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” “For Emily” gives us, literally, a dream, a “what if”? But Simon seems to think it’s a little bit like The Matrix—it offers us exactly what we want to hear:
And when you ran to me, your
Cheeks flushed with the night
We walked on frosted fields
Of juniper and lamplight.
I held your hand…
And when I awoke
And felt you warm and near,
I kissed your honey hair
With my grateful tears.
Oh, I love you girl.
Oh, I love you.
But when the rubber meets the road, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of real, complex human relationships, things aren’t so dream-like. Things fall apart. Things break. Things get stale. It is this bleak, monotonous and decidedly unromantic picture that Simon paints for us in “Overs”:
We might as well be apart.
It hardly matters,
We sleep separately.
And drop a smile passing in the hall
But there’s no laughs left
‘Cause we laughed them all.
And we laughed them all
In a very short time.
But is this picture really more “real” than “For Emily?” Or is it only giving us part of the picture, part of the reality?
Fast-forward a couple decades to another young writer who’s just put the finishing touches on a romantic lyric. His girlfriend of seven years is much more interested in marriage than he is, but as an artist he’s so pleased with the lyric that he sings it to her, and she takes it as a marriage proposal. “Men are scum,” he laughs in concert when he shares the story later.
That writer was Marc Cohn, and the song was “True Companion”:
While the song went on to become a beloved wedding standard, Cohn’s own marriage sadly ended in divorce in the late 90s. In a 1992 interview with Q magazine, Cohn described the song as the most sentimental he ever wrote, bordering on “queasy.” He continued: “It’s the guy thinking in ideal terms. I was still so ambiguous about marriage when I wrote it that it was a sort of wish-fulfillment song. And to be honest, I’ve only slowly grown towards the sort of feelings the song is about. I’m still not there.”
Much like Simon, Cohn looked on his work as little more than wishful thinking. Yet it’s a standard he wanted to attain. He wished he could sincerely feel the passion that pulsed through his own heartfelt lyrics:
When the years have done irreparable harm
I can see us walking, slowly, arm in arm
Just like the couple on the corner do
‘Cause girl I will always be in love with you.
When I look in your eyes,
I’ll still see that spark,
Until the shadows fall,
Until the room grows dark.
And when I leave this Earth,
I’ll be with the angels standin’.
I’ll be out there waiting for my true companion.
But like the couple in “Overs,” he and his wife couldn’t keep up that spark. It was only a dream.
But dreams don’t come from nowhere. Desires don’t arise by accident. Whether we realize it or not, there’s a part of ourselves that still remembers the Garden of Eden. Non-Christians dismiss it as a chance illusion, but those of us who believe God’s revelation through Scripture can clearly trace the source of what they can’t help feeling and expressing. It is a longing for paradise lost, a foretaste of paradise restored. Far from being an illusion of reality, this longing points to something that will one day be far more real than this fallen world, where hearts are broken and people fall out of love all too easily. It was not so in the beginning, and it will not be so in the world to come, when God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.
Even here in this fallen world, we have the opportunity through Christ to experience the joy of a loving marital union built on His sure foundation. For it is only when we set our affections on Him that we can truly know the sweetness of an enduring, earthly love. Without Christ, our joy is a passing thing. In Christ, we find the joy of knowing Him, and all other joys with it.
These things have I spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. — John 15:11
John Piper on theology and the arts in five minutes. A tall order but he gives a great broad overview of the intersection between the two. Excellent primer for the discussion many Christians are having regarding the role of the arts in the church and in the life of the Christian.
Yankee Gospel Girl discusses the combination of grace and justice as found in Jean Valijean’s song “Who Am I?” from “Les Miserables”.
Like most of you, I recently watched and enjoyed the movie “adaptation of an adaptation” of Les Miserables. Translating the musical to the big screen was largely a success, and the decision to sing live was a brave move that bore some excellent fruit. You can read more of my thoughts on the film and the music here.
In this post, I wanted to focus on a particular number sung by Jean Valjean: the song “Who Am I?” Javert has just apologized for accusing “the mayor” of being a former convict, saying that the real Jean Valjean has been caught. After Valjean pardons Javert and sends him back to his post, he must fight an inner battle as he considers the fact that an innocent man is preparing to stand trial for a crime he didn’t commit. What choice will he make? Or is there even a choice about the matter? Here is a portion of that soliloquy, as powerfully presented in the new film by Hugh Jackman:
One day, a particular pair of lines jumped out at me as I was walking and thinking about this song. They had jumped out at me before, but only because they were poetically memorable: “This innocent who bears my face/Who goes to judgement in my place…” Suddenly, a little light bulb came on in my head. I saw what the writers were doing. And I realized that even though Valjean is typically the character emblematic of Christ-like sacrifice, he himself is actually flipping the symbolism around with this lyric. It seems that as he considers the man about to stand trial, he is also remembering another Innocent who went to judgement in his place.
Indeed, how many songs have been written to the effect that that cross should have been ours, that we were the guilty and He was the sacrifice? Except Valjean will not hear of it here. He insists on taking the blame that is rightfully his. In fact, and this is important, he is insisting that justice be served. People more often associate Valjean with mercy and Javert with justice. Yet here, Valjean takes up justice’s cause.
It’s not limited to this part of the story either. Consider the scene where Fantine is assaulted by a soldier and lashes out to tear open his cheek. By the time Javert arrives on the scene, the soldier has his account of how things went down ready to go. “This prostitute attacked me!” Javert believes the word of the soldier. But Valjean saw the entire incident as it played out in front of him. He knows Fantine was not in the wrong. Hence, Javert is (unwittingly) making an unjust decision to accuse Fantine.
The word “justice” itself is spoken by Valjean in “The Confrontation,” where Javert comes to arrest Valjean, and Valjean begs for time to make sure Cosette is provided for. “Let justice be done!” cries Valjean. Of course, Javert thinks this is very ironic. But we’re meant to believe Valjean is once again on the side of justice.
Let’s return to the case of the innocent man facing judgement in Valjean’s place. Why is the man’s sentence an injustice? It is an injustice, because the man is no more than an innocent man. But when we make the analogy to Jesus, we remember that Jesus was more. Jesus was man and God. Consequently, divine justice was still fulfilled by his stripes. Because God is at once perfectly merciful… and perfectly just.
We ask, how can God be merciful and just all at once? Yet the more we ponder the question, the more we see that the real question to ask is how can He not be? And more fully than ever, we feel the absolute necessity that Jesus be one with God Himself in order for His death to have any efficacy whatsoever.
Valjean has already accepted Christ’s sacrifice in exchange for his soul. He “made that bargain long ago.” Now, by rescuing this innocent man from a false accusation, and by caring for the weak and helpless, he is keeping his side of that bargain—to do justly and love mercy. There is a reason why the scriptures place these two injunctions side-by-side. They are inseparable. Both desires exist in the person of God. Both should exist within the human soul.