By no means all country music affirms the possibility of salvation even while it depicts suffering. While a powerful song by Ry Cooder draws on Biblical symbolism – in particular, that of the journey to the Promised Land – it does so with a strong streak of irony. In ‘Across the Borderline’ (1982), the religious principle of hope is queried by reference to the all-too-familiar sense of hopelessness and despair experienced by refugees, which in turn serves to illustrate the general theme of the inevitable disappointment of human life.
Reaching ‘the broken promised land’, those seeking asylum – and, by analogy, salvation – find that the journey they have endured, and paid for, only puts them ‘just across the borderline’. Of course, while the world depicted here may be one of profane suffering and disappointment, the song relies on the sacred dimension for its powerful effect: it is evoked precisely to stress its impossibility.
Someone whose work we might like to characterise as wholly secular is Kate Wolf (1942-1986), though it would be more accurate to say that many of her songs celebrate the natural world, which is the main focus of her spiritual life. Wolf died of leukaemia while still at her musical prime, but she left a substantial catalogue which has yet to be given due recognition. A recurrent theme in her work is the sadness of human existence, set against the great mystery of nature: a mystery which may or may not provide us with peace.
Consider ‘Rising of the Moon’ (1983). Not to be confused with the famous Irish rebel song of the same name, it is a melancholy meditation on the passing of time.
Notice how the theme of human love is not even hinted at until we are well into the song. In order we have the moon, the river, the vine, the sand and the moon. It is her wonderment at the reflection of the moon on the water and the endless flowing of the river that preoccupies her; only then does she draw a parallel with the sequence of human life. As the song proceeds, there is more detail: the wind, the herons, the trees. Only then is the person whom the singer loved, but who has long been absent, given an identity.
Wolf ponders the passing of the years, the unpredictable way human life may proceed, and wishes that person well; and even then it is the analogy with the river that provides the overall meaning. We are all borne away ‘somewhere where the river goes’. Perhaps our lives might just make sense within this context, but there are no guarantees. ‘Some love lasts forever’, but by no means all. In the singer’s case, it clearly has not.
There are other songs by Wolf in which the natural world, while it can help us situate the human drama, seems almost hostile to human meaning and human welfare. ‘Unfinished Life’ (1981) is an example.
The singer has crossed rivers seeking ‘crystal fountains’ but has found that her best route is through ‘mountains’: a rough terrain for a rough life. The odd wording – ‘a journey with my soul’ – and the startlingly honest summation of the human fate – a journey which ‘only goes from the cradle to the grave’ – allow us little sense of hope. There may be ‘light from a lover’s eyes’ to ‘save’ by way of recollection, but it cannot penetrate the darkness of the overall story.
It is the chorus that merits particular attention. Far from offering resolution, it complicates the picture, taking the form of a statement by someone with whom the singer may have been in love. That person declares from the start that life is hard: wounded birds have to find the strength to fly; as trees enter autumn, their leaves can turn to ‘colours of the rainbow’, but the legendary end of the rainbow cannot be found. He can offer no grain of comfort. Does the speaker in the chorus endorse the singer’s view of nature? It would seem so, as in the final verse the singer runs off into the fields, in hope of freedom, but she only encounters the wind and the ‘rising dust’.
While the melancholy of ‘Rising of the Moon’ might seem mild compared with the bitterness of ‘Unfinished Life’, for Wolf they both emphasise the limits of human aspiration, when set against the background of the natural world. It is not the task of nature to give us neat solutions to the riddle of human life. Nature is way beyond our neat distinctions and divisions: it is all-embracing, sometimes benign, sometimes hostile. Either way, though, it is essential that we come to terms with it, and respect its motion and its moods.
Kate Wolf’s work seems to be overlooked by many devotees of country music, but I hope I have given some hint as to her brilliance. Another figure who deserves to be better known is our final choice of county artist: Townes Van Zandt.
With much of his work, the pain is stark and there is no redemption to be gained. A representative song is ‘Waiting ‘Round to Die’ (1970): it articulates the bleakest possible worldview. He sets the scene for the whole of one typically damaged life.
There is no clear direction along the ‘dirty road’ of life, and absolutely no meaning. All the singer can do is continue his gambling and drinking while he rambles along – all because ‘it’s easier than just a-waiting ‘round to die’. What could he expect, given his start in life? He comes from a home where his father would beat his mother for the slightest reason.
The rest of the song documents his girlfriend’s betrayal, his failed attempt at a robbery, and his time in prison – with his addiction to codeine being the logical outcome. Surprisingly, the song itself sounds bracing, as if we are invited to relish the fact that human life is hard, and that for some it is hardly bearable.
A song of Van Zandt’s that is, if anything, bleaker than ‘Waitin’ Round to Die’ is ‘Kathleen’ (1969). The sound is certainly not bracing, being a slow lament accompanied by strings. The dark mood thereby created is fitting for the lyrics, which amount to one long cry of despair:
The singer has no desire for fair weather: his choice, prompted by the ‘pain’ he is enduring, will be either to ‘go insane’ or to visit the mysterious woman of the song’s title. At first, the natural world seems to offer no sense of meaning: indeed, it is the swallow who asks the singer to clarify the bird’s dream, not vice-versa. However, by the end of the song we see that the natural world can offer something more than meaning. The coastal setting of the final verse is laden with significance. As he hears the ‘roar’ of the waves, and as he is led by the light of the moon, he crosses the sand and so enters the sea: ‘And the waves, they take my hand. / And soon I’m gonna see my sweet Kathleen.’ He will be with her once again only by joining her in death. This is nature’s balm.
It would be wrong, however, to stress only the intense pain which Van Zandt frequently conveys. There are some songs in which he offers a wider perspective. Consider finally ‘Rex’s Blues’ (1978). It is dedicated to a friend of the songwriter, Rex (‘Wrecks’) Bell: Van Zandt chose his name because Rex was known then for his turbulent lifestyle and his failed enterprises. The song conveys the paradoxical nature of the human condition.
We may, he tells us, try and rise with ‘the blue wind high and free’, but soon she will ‘lead you down through misery’, leaving you ‘low as low can be’. Life can never provide fulfilment: if the singer were able to drink a whole ocean he would, he tells us, ‘lay me down dissatisfied’.
The paradoxes become more striking as the song progresses. Next, he is prompted to ponder the absurdity of our existence, summarising it as an exercise in futility: ‘All born to grow and grown to die.’ Each one of us has to come to terms with the self-defeating quality of our attempt both to find our place in the world and to make sense of it: we each have ‘a restless tongue’ which seeks to ‘classify’ whatever comes in view but to no avail. The singer feels ‘chained upon the face of time.’ Even his capacity to articulate his understanding of reality is dismissed as ‘foolish rhyme’.
However, there is some sense of resolution as the singer affirms his willingness to die without regret. Living and dying form a continuum: one has to go along with the flow of existence, no matter what suffering it brings you, and embrace death as a natural consequence of being born. What he can offer is this intriguing affirmation: ‘There ain’t no dark till something shines: / I’m bound to leave this dark behind.’ It would be reductive to try and translate this paradox into prose meaning: like a Zen koan, one simply has to contemplate the riddle and let it do its work.
The paradox of this ending is perhaps the paradox of the poetry of pain in general. In giving form to sadness and beauty to despair, it allows us to endure it.