Fear and Hope in the Great Depression

Southeast Engine

“And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenburg County,

Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay?

Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking,

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

— John Prine, “Paradise”

Songs about the fates of small towns are nothing new. For as long as they’ve existed, and for as long as they’ve been changing, songwriters have found inspiration in the conflict of “then vs. now”, especially if it takes place where they grew up. John Mellencamp, for example, centered on the plight of family farms and what that meant for the small towns that he knew back home. And of course there’s one of his biggest hits, “Small Town”. In fact, the small town song is such a staple that it’s a short list of songwriters who can steer clear of clich√©.

Not all views of small towns, however, paint them as pristine utopias spoiled by by the iron boot of progress. In Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, “nobody knew there was coal in them mountains”, but it portrays Harlan as a place people wanted to leave even before “a man from the northeast arrived / Waving hundred dollar bills / [and] said I’ll pay you for your minerals”. The family of the song sells its land to the coal company and high-tail it to greener pastures, until hard luck sends the grandfather back to Harlan and into the mines, where you “spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave”. Some, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown”, don’t focus so much on the town as it was, but that the progress was a double-edged sword of the good (“These mills they built the tanks and bombs / That won this country’s wars”) and the bad (“Now sir you tell me the world’s changed / Once I made you rich enough / Rich enough to forget my name”).

One of the most recent, and most striking portrayals of small-town life comes from Southeast Engine. In 2011, they released Canary, an album that focused on the trials of a family in southeast Ohio during the Great Depression. No matter when it was released, Canary would have been hailed as a strong album, as a leap forward for a promising young band. Coming as it did on the heels (and in the midst) of recession, economic struggles, foreclosures, and heated debate about shared sacrifice, however, the album gains even greater resonance. The Depression-era setting certainly doesn’t seem as abstract as we might like it to be.

Songwriter Adam Remnant has always brought an old-style sensibility to the band’s songs, anyway. His often wavering, haunted vocals — sounding like they’ve passed through a clapboard church as well as a long dark night of the soul — give Southeast Engine’s best songs a spooky air. Remnant is also known for strong thematic lines running through Southeast Engine’s albums.

So for all of its ambition, it wasn’t surprising that Remnant and company could steep themselves in the Appalachia of their Ohio home and write a batch of songs about the area. What might have been surprising, though, is the thematic discipline they display. Southeast Engine were, and still are, a young band, and the tendency of youth is to try to set the world on fire with grand, sweeping statements. Remnant smartly keeps his focus on this one family, trusting in the universality of their experience to resonate.

He also manages to stick to his storytelling, and if any editorializing comes, it’s from the mouths of his characters who at least have the benefit of harsh experience to back them up. If Canary‘s narrative ever wanders, it’s just down the road and into the town that the family calls home, to document shared misfortune while the local coal supply dwindles. The Depression-era setting also accomplishes two other things: it avoids any accusations of nostalgia since the closest anyone in the band came to the Depression was probably watching their grandparents’ otherworldly sense of thriftiness, and the grittiness of the setting keeps the songs from succumbing to the trap of viewing the past as a simpler, halcyon time.

Despite the hard times depicted in the songs, however, Southeast Engine — and the family — never lose hope. Times are hard, but you have to keep striving for better days, even if those better days don’t come in this life. In the album’s opener, “Curse of Canaanville,” Remnant sings:

“Men overtook these branches to feed their iron tongues

They carved their initials into the trunks

And they carted them off leaving nothing but sawdust

Now mother father won’t stop drinking he’s calling on his kin

He’s naming names spitting blood and cursing Canaan

Yeah even the saved are forsaken”

Immediately after, though, he follows up that bit of despair with “So I’m going back to the garden where the trees are in full bloom / I’m shaking off the ashes of brimstone and doom / I’m gonna pick a thousand apples in a single afternoon”. He goes on to add, “So it seems the world can be a nightmare with heaven intertwined / Men lower the canary down into the mine / But they’re raising up a raven seven times the size”.

That push and pull between light and darkness gives Canary a sense of tension even in its lightest and most optimistic moments. “At Least We Have Each Other” muses, “Let’s go sledding on the Pine Street hill / It’s too damn cold to be sitting still / And oh just to feel the thrill of knowing you’re alive”. “New Growth” issues a challenge to “Let us usher out the waning moon and the old stars that preside / Over this gathering, let the sheriff be condemned / Yeah let us get rid of the rot and start the whole thing up again”.

So it goes throughout Canary‘s songs of struggle and hope, and the realization that even if you come through this current trial, you won’t emerge unscathed. It’s a challenging album, not just because of the serious lyrical content, but also because the band chucks out some of its poppier elements in favor of a sombre, dirge-like quality that they feel underscores the album’s story. The album feels rough and hand-hewn, and that lack of smooth edges can sometimes make for an uncomfortable listen.

Now, Southeast Engine revisit that same small town with the Canaanville EP, featuring four songs that further explore the world they created on Canary. It’s possible that, lyrically, Canaanville is even bleaker and more scarred than its predecessor, if only because the coal has finally run out. Musically, though, it’s surprisingly upbeat, which may initially make it more accessible than Canary. This isn’t second-rate stuff, either. Any song on Canaanville would fit right in on Canary‘s tracklist, and the band seems more skilled and confident than ever. Canaanville isn’t an afterthought; it’s an integral part of a complex tale that Southeast Engine have decided to tell.

“Old Oak Tree” kicks things off with a spry bounce, using the oak tree as a symbol of the life the narrator’s parents tried to build together. By song’s end, however, he’s on a ferry leaving town, seeming to view the tree as a symbol of everything that went wrong with that plan. For those left behind comes the hope found in the “Great Awakening”, in the form of traveling ministers and their tent revivals. The blind will see, the infirm will walk again, and the town will find its way on a healing path — or at least those are the preachers’ promises. In one of the EP’s neatest tricks, “Canaanville” comes next on a wave of pure tent revival piano as the narrator exclaims, “Canaanville, Won’t you care for me / Like I care for you? / You were once a little thriving town / But now you’re through”.

“C&O Railway closes Canaanville with a man standing on the tracks leading out of town — tracks that he helped build. He recalls laying the rails so the trains could come into town, but the trains are gone now and so is his job (“How I miss that way of life / To wake and go to work / I’m standing on the rails right now where the lines converge”). He looks back on the town’s brief time of prosperity and decides that it wasn’t worth the cost:

“So the trains came for the coal we mined

And the timber we cut down

They came to take away what wealth was buried in this town

They came here to take away what sweetness we could savor

As they hauled away all of the fruits of our labor.”

He considers himself a ghost, thinking that if the train were to come barreling down the track and through him, that it wouldn’t hurt at all. What happens at the end? Does he stand on the tracks, waiting for that train’s light to take him into oblivion? Does he hop a freight car for opportunities elsewhere? Does he simply turn around and walk back into Canaanville, to fade away with the town? Like much of Canary and Canaanville, that’s left up to the listener. One of the strengths of these songs is that, depending on your worldview or your mood or your own personal experience, you can see it as a tale of the light being suffocated by the darkness, or of the darkness being burned back by the last vestiges of hope.

Canaanville and its citizens will never be the same, but maybe it remains to be seen what that really means.