On the South, its Themes, and Why we Love the Music we do

16 Jun

Papa died smiling
Wide as the ring of a bell
Gone all star white
Small as a wish in a well
And Sodom, South Georgia
Woke like a tree full of bees
Buried in Christmas
Bows and a blanket of weeds

— from “Sodom, South Georgia” by Iron & Wine

Southern Comfort: The Language of The Music We Love

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For whatever reason, the above video and lyrics (from Cold War Kids’ “Saint John,” and Iron & Wine’s “Sodom, South Georgia,” respectively) represent a wicked infatuation I have with the South — its imagery, themes, history, values, architecture, lifestyle, music and people. Old_Train_Car_by_irishcompass

Particularly in music, I gravitate towards the grit and grime that evokes an old era of an ancient part of this country. The Black Keys and Alex Dupree are particularly fond of painting their songs with the broad strokes of southern culture, as are more mainstream groups like Dave Matthews Band.

And I can’t get enough of it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I visited Charleston, South Carolina a few years ago I think it became the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. The historic district is simply astounding. There’s such beauty in the ancient architecture of the South, such a history of agrarian society. Though it is deeply tainted, it remains such a fully developed, self-enveloping kind of culture.

Music that employs the imagery or sound (or both) of the South continues to mesmerize me. “Church House Steps” by Ben Harper is driven by the dark, gravelly voices of the Blind Boys of Alabama. With organ-driven blues they reminisce about the region’s millions of churches and invoke its religious entrenchment, which at times was a grave enabler to the crimes of the last three centuries.

It’s no doubt that both the lyrics and the style affect me — songs that hop a train and venture through the entire countryside with banjos, grungy guitars, sloppy cymbals, powerful slide-work and hammering vocals seem to immerse me in a culture that once was. Or perhaps never even existed other than in song. RainyDayBasement-charleston-SouthCarolina

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But which matters more? Lyric or Music? This has fascinated me for a long time.

Would we love a song as much if its lyrics drew on imagery that didn’t connect with us?

Would “Louisiana Bayou” be the same if the words and sound didn’t match so perfectly? In other words, as a general rule, would listeners be as prone to fall in love with a song as quickly if the two didn’t match up?

We make excuses for songs that preach things we don’t agree with because we simply love the beat, hook, or evocation. Take Damien Rice’s “Woman Like a Man,” as graphically sexual as it is angry. But it’s haunting beauty, in acoustic guitars, cello, and sparse percussion, makes up for its abrasive language.

In the opposite way, language can keep us from liking things we might otherwise fall for. A lot of hip-hop is this way. It’s infectious and you start to move instinctively, and then you realize you’re jamming to a self-indulgent, gangsta celebrity singing “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” and suddenly it’s ruined.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think we’re all pretty hypocritical with what we choose to listen to and what we choose not to (and why), but does it matter? A love for music is a journey — we become infatuated with things we originally despised and lose our passion for styles that used to give us a high. Trying to write a rubric for why we love what we love and if we’re loving everything we should is impossible, pointless and pleasure-robbing to boot.

But it’s fun to notice the trends in our taste and try to trace them back to where they began.

For me, songs about the South and music that comes from its rich history probably began with Dave Matthews Band, the first group to pull me out of my metal days (Joey Jordison is still a badass on drums) of high school. Since then, artists like the aforementioned Iron & Wine continue to fuel my addiction. Iron_and_Wine_by_jonito

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And therefore, my final exhibit, from Iron & Wine’s “Resurrection Fern:”

And when sister Lowery
says Amen,
we won’t hear anything
The ten-car train will take
that word,
that fledgling bird
And the fallen house
across the way
It’ll keep everything
The baby’s breath, our bravery
wasted and our shame

And we’ll undress beside the ashes
of the fire
Both our tender bellies
wound in baling wire
All the more pair of
under water pearls
Than the oak tree
and its resurrection fern


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