Tuesday, November 2, 2010


In 1958, when I was eleven, I heard “Tom Dooley” on the radio, asked my mom for a dollar, walked downtown to the music store in Huron, South Dakota, and bought the 45 single. I then proceeded to grow up with what has been called the “folk boom,” and have been a fan (and even a folk singer!) ever since. Like what passes for country music today, folk was the pop music of the sixties, but it has given rise to the honorable vocation of the singer-songwriter, most of whom cannot be demeaned with the label “pop.” They’re just laboring out there on the circuit, not getting very “pop”ular, but creatively observing and chronicling the lives of real folks in their music. 

Among the very, very best of these is Richard Shindell – almost in a class of his own, really. Shindell, as someone has written, “gets out of the way” of the stories that his songs tell. And “story” is something of an understatement. His songs are little novels, with movement, character, and plot. The songs remind me, in their inventiveness, of the novels of Annie Proulx: the people and the stories are so off-beat that they could only be made up, yet they are so real that when you are finished you wonder if you could visit these places and talk to these people. You know them.

In Nora, the story-teller has had an affair with the woman of the title; she is moving away with her husband who has “accepted a parish in Greenland.” (There’s the unexpected Annie Proulx twist; it’s so odd that maybe it’s true – could the song be autobiographical? When you listen to it you think, “This must have actually happened.” But it’s fiction.) In his farewell to his lover, he sings:

     Your husband has accepted a parish in Greenland;
     I met him drowning his vows at the bar,
     And there we raised
     The first and the next
     And a third glass to you,
     Hunched on our bar-stools,
     Calling our truce
     By your name...

The wry and darkly comic Are You Happy Now describes the manic loneliness of a man whose wife has walked out on him – on Halloween:

     I smashed your pumpkin on the floor,
     The candle flickered at my feet,
     The children peered into the room,
     A cowboy shivered on the porch,
     As Cinderella checked her watch.
     A hobo waited in the street,
     An angel whispered, trick-or-treat,

     But what was I supposed to do
     But to sit there in the dark?
     I was amazed to think that you
     Could take the candy with you too!

In the tender Reunion Hill, a Civil War wife who hasn’t heard from her husband since the day she watched from the top of the hill as he “walked across the valley and disappeared into the trees,” provides comfort to a bedraggled platoon of retreating soldiers crossing her field:

     I cleaned the brow of many a soldier
     Dowsing for my husbands face

Ten years later, she still visits the top of Reunion Hill, no sign or word from her husband, but a vision of some small hope:

     A single hawk in God’s great sky
     Looking down with God’s own eyes
     He soars above Reunion Hill
     I pray he spiral higher still
     As if from such an altitude
     He might just keep my love in view.

The Courier in the song of that name is a sort of everyman observer of everywar. He delivers to the front line the orders from the prince and the "marshals" at the rear, and then prepares to take the last messages of soon-to-be-dying men back to their families, and to the world. It's a reminder that war is always old men sending the young to die:

     The Captain breaks the seal
     And quickly reads the note.
     On your feet boys,
     Make your peace boys,
     Pass those letters down
     To this courier,
     Guardian of the word...

In Transit, a nun changes the tire of her choir's van at the side of the road, while crazed Friday afternoon commuters whiz mindlessly past -- so mindlessly that, blinded by the setting sun, they all miss their exit (as the freeway comes to an end) and plunge into the water below:

     In they all went, like sheep to the slaughter,
     Bankers and carpenters, doctors and lawyers;
     in they all went, families in minivans,
     Ashcroft republicans, weekend militiamen...

as Sister Maria tightens the last bolt and her choir proceeds to their concert at the state penitentiary. A modern parable of heaven and hell.

My current favorite, from Shindell’s recently released Not Far Now, is Balloon Man, a touching, arresting painting in words. I say “arresting” because the song makes me stop and, well, look. I look down, from the balcony. What turns it into a love song is the refrain (attached at the end here); the observer is simply sending his lover a picture post card. Here it is. (You may, like me, find yourself thinking about whom you would cast to play the balloon man.)

     I'm standing outside on the balcony,
     balloon man is passing below
     making his way to the park by the church;
     he goes where the little ones go.

     Balloon man's a little bit ragged;
     his glasses are slightly askew,
     one lens is cracked and his shoes never match;
     he might have a screw loose or two.

     His rig is a marvel of equipoise
     Leonardo might've designed:
     Bamboo for the wide horizontal,
     pine for the vertical rise.

     He's wearing a flag-bearer’s harness,
     he's holding the whole thing aloft,
     balloons all arrayed, he's a one man parade,
     if he ran he'd surely take off!

     It's cold up here on the balcony,
     and it's time that I went back inside.
     Balloon man waits for the light at the corner,
     I'll watch til he goes out of sight --

     but there's a wind that whips round the corner
     and he's having a hell of a time –
     he staggers, and it looks like he might just go over,
     but balloon man he puts up a fight.

     And you're so far away,
     on the other side of the world.
     I  just thought you should know
     that balloon man lives in it too.

Tom Dooley was the Kingston Trio's rendition of a true story. Shindell's little novels are all made up in his fertile brain. But, boy, are they real. (By the way, I’ve cast Kevin Spacey as the balloon man.)

Here’s a video of Shindell singing Reunion Hill
Here’s Richard Shindell’s web site, which includes his bio and tour schedule.
If you want one CD to introduce you to Richard Shindell, I recommend Courier.

No comments: