Wonder what Walt Whitman would say if he saw his name attached to a “service area” sign for the southern-bound?
Driving down to Baltimore today, where I am happily ensconced now, I decided to listen to a cd I’ve had on the backburner for awhile. But let me back up: I love, love, love Natalie Merchant and have for many years — well, Natalie Merchant after her stint as the lead singer for the 10,000 Maniacs. Her voice verges on holy at times. Merchant’s songs are melodic and soothing in ways my uneasy soul requires now and then.
Separately, I also love folk music. In the tradition of peanut-butter and chocolate, Merchant opted to join hands with folk and make “The House Carpenter’s Daughter.” Don’t be put off if you think the combination sounds odd at first. Merchant put some real thought into this album – she has written all of the liner notes as well as introductions to every song, which include reasons for each selection.
I don’t outright agree with her notion that these songs are slipping away due to the advancement of urban life but here follow excerpts from Merchant’s thoughtful introductory mini-essay:
“… These are the songs to soothe resltess babies, accompany the games of children, ease toil, celebrate love and mourn death, they speak of the spirit world and weaknesses of the flesh … What they all share in common is that they remind us of our humanity, of what we share.
Sadly, these are the songs that have been gradually slipping away from us. Since the abandonment of agrarian for urban life, the swift death of regionalism and the advent of recorded music, we have left many of these songs behind as relics in printed anthologies and the field recordings of musicologists.
As thoroughly modern people, we wonder how the archaic tales of shipwrecks, fair or fallen ladies, buried treasure, the lonely sojourns of pilgrims, or the trials of tenant farmers could speak to us about our world. Still, these traditional hymns and ballads embrace us with their familiarity. How can we feel so much nostalgia for times in which we never lived or places we can never visit? In our ’sophisticated’ minds we know that both have vanished but these songs teach us about what we know in our hearts.” — Natalie Merchant, Woodstock, NY 2003
The album is certainly worthwhile and one that can only enhance a drive from NYC to Baltimore on a gorgeous chilly spring day.
In relation to the query Merchant ends with: yes, people gravitate toward the familiar to ground themselves in what’s known before venturing into what’s unknown — it’s the paradox of our ’shared humanity’. We want to feel secure before we give into the deeper drive to find out what we don’t know.
It’s a simple equation really: I want strong roots before I go prodding around in the dark – that way, I won’t actually fall should I trip over something uncertain. But alas, poetry folks know (& this is our secret bond) that the security and the risk are equally grave and promising because the ground is as temporal (temporary) as anything else we don’t know — so the familiar we actually end up pining for is the familiarity of searching for the unknown, however unknowable it is. That’s why we’re happy to shake the very foundation that ‘our humanity’ always returns to for reassurance: words words words.
There is no there there, folks. And this is worth all of our effort.
Responses to “After the Maniacs”
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.