The Voice, the Song, the Vision, the Light

[Video: 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne (live), performing Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” (Lyrics here.)]

From whiskey river:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

(W. S. Merwin [source])

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Exquisite

You may already know of Natalie Merchant’s recent Leave Your Sleep project. Here’s how she describes it, at the start of the little booklet which comes with the CD (and I think as a bonus with the downloadable edition):

This collection of songs… documents our word-of-mouth tradition in the poems, stories, and songs that I found to delight and teach [my daughter]. I pulled these obscure and eccentric poems off their flat, yellowed pages and brought them to life for her. I willed into being this parade of witches and fearless girls, blind men and elephants, giants and sailors and gypsies, floating churches, dancing bears, circus ponies, a Chinese princess and a janitor’s boy, and so many others. I tried to show her that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes. I gave her parables with lessons in human nature and bits of nonsense to challenge the natural order of things and sharpen her wit.These poems speak of so many things: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment. Grave or absurd, these are the things that make a childhood, that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of this beautiful-horrible world of ours.

What Merchant did, in short, was set over 20 seemingly simple childhood poems to music informed by adulthood. The results, I think, utterly justify a six-year wait.

I am particularly enthralled with her take on “The Land of Nod.” Here are the lyrics, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem:

From breakfast on all through the day
At home among my friends I stay;
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do —
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find the way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.

Merchant, again:

[Stevenson’s wife] Fanny nursed the celebrated man of letters as he finished his classic volume of poetry, A Child’s Garden of Verses, while confined to bed in a darkened rented room in the south of France. His body shrunk to only 109 pounds (seven stone eleven and a half), he wrote through fever and night sweats with his right arm strapped to his body after a particularly horrible lung hemorrhage. While he coughed and struggled for breath, he invoked his childhood and composed a treasured collection of poems with those memories. “The Land of Nod” is one of the most beautiful of these verses. Both dreams and childhood are elusive and fleeting; Stevenson understood how impossible it is to return to either once we have awakened or grown up.

The arrangement — the orchestration — which Natalie Merchant chose to accompany her light, gentle voice is particularly affecting. It tugs at the heart, in the same way that Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” did at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. That song benefited from the weight of the entire grand trilogy of films that preceded it. Merchant’s “The Land of Nod” does all the heavy lifting on its own.

(Interesting, too, the contrast between Annie Lennox’s and Natalie Merchant’s vocal treatments: As it often does, Lennox’s voice feels almost like a barely controlled warhorse; Merchant’s, more that of a mother thinking of what she herself has left behind — as well as what her children will, in years to come.)

Here’s “The Land of Nod,” from Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep:

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The Land of Nod (from 'Leave Your Sleep')

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