Category: music

Indo-European Root of the Day: Wild


I’ve been seeing and hearing the word wild a lot lately. Lately in the news we’ve heard the story of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old adventurer who attempted to sail solo around the world only to be caught in a storm in the south Indian Ocean and have her chances dashed. Her boat? Wild Eyes. The other day I watched Where the Wild Things Are, which I enjoyed immensely but not in the way I expected to. A while back I had my post on Ted Hughes’ “Wodwo,” wodwo being the wild-man. In music, this summer has brought the excellent album The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, which is itself a reference to an ancient pan-European myth, that of a group of ghost-soldiers on a hunt across the skies and earth. “The Wild Hunt” is also a recently finished story in the Hellboy comic, in which Hellboy is the object of the hunt.

In many retellings of the Wild Hunt myth, the charge is led by Norse/Germanic god Woden, essentially the Zeus of Northern European paganism, and whose name includes the rood wod meaning “violence” or “fury.” It may be just coincidence that the wodwo, or wild-man, and Woden, God of Fury, share the heteronym wod at their root, but then again it may be less then coincidental that ancient words for “wild” and “violence” have similar sounds and origins. By the way, we celebrate this ancient god every midweek, unwittingly, as we wake up, stretch our arms, and greet Woden’s day – Wednesday.

Anyway, with this collection of wild thoughts lurking around in my brain, I thought I’d take out my old Shipley book, The Origins of English Words, and have a look at where wild came from. The Indo-European root of wild is uelt, which means, perhaps a bit obviously, “open field.” OK, makes sense. Our wodwo is the man of the field. In Germanic the word is weald, which often is brought over to English as part of an ancient place-name, or by a fantasy writer looking for a bit of authenticity. To wilder is to lose one’s way, to become lost in the wild; to bewilder is to cause someone to do this. The noun wilder means a wild animal (with der coming from the root deor (deer) or dheu, meaning animal). Thus a wilderness is a place where wild animals live: wild + der + ness, with –ness coming from the same root as gather or together. Shipley also points out that the representative assembly of the Isle of Man in Great Britain is the Tygwald, the assembly of the field.

The word wild has come to have many subtle meanings, which we interpret variously as freedom, spontaneity, violence, revelry, fear, and an untamed nature which we sometimes cherish, sometimes revile. They all point back to this original root word, a simple expression of openness. At certain points in our lives we desire the wild life, salivate for it; we freak out and make for the woods (another word with wild at its root) to commune with our past. At other points we see wildness as something to be shunned, the opposite of civilization which we use to define civilization, as if we have completely forgotten where we came from.

Approximately “Queen Jane Approximately”


These days I usually just listen to the iPod at home and in the car, picking my own music instead of letting some unknown DJ pick it for me, but there are a few things on the radio that still make me sit down and listen – Mischke at night, The Current (though sometimes you can be to indie for your own good), Country Dave’s honky-tonk show on WOJB, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion. Yes, hi, I’m from Minnesoootah. While the format and gags on the show are usually pretty funny – but also pretty standard – the show excels at presenting great musical acts in a setting that promotes quality musicianship and – so important – quality sound.

One of Keillor’s favorite acts, it seems – and deservedly so – is the duo of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. For me, these guys sink right to the heart of everything that is good and true about American music. It also helps that Gillian has one of the best voices around today, and Dave Rawlings is perhaps the best and most innovative folk guitarist alive. They appeared on the show Memorial Day weekend to perform some songs from the excellent Dave Rawlings Machine record and a couple extras just for the show. One of those extras was a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately,” a criminally underrated Dylan song from the Highway 61 Revisited album. Lost somewhere in the shuffle between “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row,” where “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is your signpost guiding you along, the siren squeals of “Highway 61” jolt you from your reverie, and “Ballad of a Thin Man” just creeps you out, there are the thick tones of organ, fuzzed-out guitar, and jangly upright piano of “Queen Jane.” Listen again with some fresh ears: it might just turn into one of your favorite Dylan songs, as it has for me.

Naturally Dave and Gillian strip away all that, leaving just the simple, lilting chord progression and melody intact. And from that they build a new masterpiece: one filled with subtle but powerful harmonies and waterfalls of arpeggio scales, cascading over and over again as if from a dizzying height down to earth. The intricacy of the guitar work belies an emotional simplicity that is easy to latch on to as the song carries you forward.

[wpaudio url=”″ text=”Dave Rawlings Machine – Queen Jane Approximately” dl=”0″]

(Sorry for the squawks at the beginning – you can also listen to the original audio at the Prairie Home Companion website. Also you should definitely give Gillian and Dave some money for their music!)

My 50 Favorite Albums of the Decade


Everyone else is doing it. Surely the best reason to do anything, right? Over the past few weeks all the big style/culture mags and blogs have been looking back on the decade and declaring their favorite music, books, movies, etc. And while I could probably name ten movies worth seeing from the 2000s, and maybe a couple books (I’m still working on books from the 1900s – would you like a list from that decade?), one thing I can definitively discuss and rank is music. Looking at the lists from Pitchfork (too hipstery (also, “brought to you by Haagen Dazs”?! lol)), Paste (too…Paste-y), NME (too Britishy), Rolling Stone (I’m sorry but any list with System of a Down is automatically disqualified), NPR (John Adams and Britney Spears on the same list? Double lol), et al., and not entirely liking what I was seeing, I realized the only true judge of the best music of an era is one’s own self – because music is so utterly subjective, and debating the merits of one list or another tends to get both violent and boring after oh, five minutes. As one friend said: “how could you include ___ but not ___ or ___?” Just fill in your own blanks and you basically have the substance of every disagreements. So a guy’s gotta come up with his own list – not a “best albums” list, but a “favorite albums” list. I basically abandoned objectivity and just went with my gut on this one. Anyway, hope you do enjoy it, and maybe pick up some of the music listed here!

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James Wright and Bill Callahan


This poem is one I always think of when Spring comes around…I’d say it’s one of my top-three favorite poems, and on springy days like this it’s definitely number one. The following poem is one that always sneaks up on the first one in my mind and rides piggyback through my imagination, or the two of them are holding hands and wandering through together.

James Wright, “A Blessing”

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

* * *

Bill Callahan, “Let Me See the Colts”

Knocked on your door at dawn
With a spark in my heart
Dragged you from your bed
And said let me see the colts

Let me see the colts
That will run next year
Show them to a gambling man
Thinking of the future

Have you been drinking no
Nor sleeping
The all-seeing
all-knowing eye is dog
And just wants to see the colts

We walked out through
The dew dappled brambles
And sat upon the fence
Is there anything as still
as sleeping horses
Is there anything as still
as sleeping horses

* * *

Now if you’re thinking…man, I wish “Let Me See the Colts” was a beautiful, mind-expanding song I could listen to right now, well you’re in luck, because Callahan is a songwriter, and one of the world’s finest at that, and his band’s called Smog:



“When I forget how to talk, I sing.”

lines writtenmusicpoetry

Jeff Tweedy, “She’s a Jar.” My new mantra, it seems. Usually you choose the mantra but this one chose me. It’s from the second song on Wilco’s album Summerteeth, a song I’ve probably listened to 100+ times over the years. I know every word. But somehow this one time this one line hit me and hit me hard. Incredible how you can hear a thing over and over and over and it never gets you, or you never get it. And now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s following me and it feels good.

Headphone Love: “The City of New Orleans”


Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor.
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

Good morning America how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

* * *

This song calls back to a very early time in my life, associated with hazy memories of my living room and Arlo Guthrie’s record on the turntable. That was back when our house still had carpet and I remember laying there in front of the stereo and hearing this song. Hearing it quite a lot, as my dad is a big Arlo fan. I don’t know if he listens to Arlo much anymore, but I seem to remember him always being on when I was kid. Of course memories are faulty as a rule so I could be making all of this up. Either way, this song has a special place in my heart, and it has never grown old to these ears. I love it as much today as I did back then.

A wonderful mix of train songs by my friend Lindsey had another version of this song by John Denver, a version I’d never heard. This version of the song, a live version of the song, starts with a quick story about the recording of the song, with  J-Denny mentioning how Arlo had basically stolen the song out from under him. “Really ticked me off,” John says, although I find it hard to believe anything really ticked him off. The song and the story kickstarted the idea for this post in my mind, because the song does have some history behind it that I bet many don’t know. Plus, it’s just a beautiful song and sounds terrific in just about anybody’s hands.

Let’s talk lyrics first. The song is fairly straightforward here; it’s a story song about travel on the City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans. The train is one of the old Illinois Central lines, running the “southbound odyssey” from Chicago, to Memphis, to Jackson MO, and finally to New Orleans. And it’s still active today, though operated by Amtrak, as all passenger rails are in the US. The song is a fairly sentimental look at the transition of the US from a rails country to a car country, and the transition from private rail companies to the single quasi-government one, Amtrak, which happened in 1970-71, the same time this song was written and recorded. Hence the line, “this train’s got the disappearing railroad blues,” a line I took for the longest time to be some sort of ghost-train reference.”The steel rails still ain’t heard the news.”

The lyrics are filled with lively characters, and the writer seems to be struck by a certain feeling that many people, especially writer types, feel when they ride long-distance trains, which is a sort of instant nostalgia. Every experince is heightened, every smell and touch and sight evocative of a past that is not quite passed yet, but not quite present anymore.

And there is that magnificent chorus. “Good morning America, how are you? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son. I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans, I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” Honestly, this chorus ensures this song will be remembered as one of the finest in all of American music.

Pretty great for Arlo Guthrie, right? Maybe, but not entirely. You see, he didn’t write the song. Arlo did not write “The City of New Orleans.” The song was written by Steve Goodman, a Chicago singer/songwriter who went through most of his career as an unknown, what they’d call a “songwriter’s songwriter” – that is, a writer well-respected by other writers, but one who received little attention for his own work. He did finally receive a Grammy nod in 1985 as the songwriter behind Willie Nelson’s hit version of the song – but he had  died from leukemia months earlier. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. If you can, do try to find some of Steve’s work, as he was an excellent singer and songwriter. And if you’ve ever been at Wrigley Field for a Cubs victory, you’ve heard Steve sing before; he wrote the unofficial Cubs anthem, “Go Cubs Go,” which they often play in the stadium.

As memorable as Arlo’s version is, there are other versions as well, many of them equal to, if not actually better than Arlo’s version. I’ve already mentioned two: John Denver’s and Willie Nelson’s, but there are more. There is of course Steve Goodman’s original, a stripped-down folksy romp, and versions by Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, and – my personal favorite – a duet version of the song with John Prine (a close friend of Goodman’s) and Randy Scruggs, featuring Scruggs’ awesome guitar work.

Musically the song and all its incarnations follow the same muse, each version incorporating a bright sound and a bouncy steam engine beat. All have a distinct country flavor, incorporating steel guitar, mandolins, and an abundance of pickin’ guitars. The Guthrie version has that wonderful piano and accordion combo, and the Scruggs/Prine version has some incredible pedal steel, not to mention great solos by Scruggs and Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds).

Well, I believe that’s enough of me talking about this song and all its wonderful cover versions. I bet you wanna listen to some of these! You can download a ZIP file here with all of the versions mentioned above.

Greg Brown, “The Train Carring Jimmy Rogers Home”


Come along, my dear, the time is growin’ near,
We’ll have to walk down where the field is overgrown.
Consumption has claimed his life and we dare not miss the sight,
Of the train carrying Jimmie Rodgers home.

Well, we had some hard times these last few years,
Lost the farm, almost lost our spirits, too.
Yeah, but it’s the strangest thing; when we heard that man sing,
Oh, we knew somehow we’d make it through.

I can hear that whistle blow; that old train is rollin’ slow,
Sounds like it’s cryin’ for the singin’ brakeman, too.
Back to the sunny south he’ll go, and he’ll never roam no more,
Here’s the train, oh hold me close, oh sweetheart do.

Come here my little fella and let me hold you up.
I want you to remember this day when you’re grown.
How your mama and your dad were so proud and so sad,
Watchin’ the train carrying Jimmie Rodgers home.

There goes the train carrying Jimmie Rodgers home.

– – –

A beautiful song by folkie Brown, probably my favorite of his and one of his most popular. I like this version the best, Gillian Welch singing backup. Gives me chills.



One By One

One by one the teardrops fall as I write you
One by one my words come falling on the page
One by one my dreams are fading in the twilight
One by one my schemes are fading fast away

One by one the flowers fading in my garden
One by one the leaves are falling from the trees
One by one my hopes are vanished in the clouds clear
One by one like snowflakes melting in the breeze

One by one my hair is turning gray
One by one my dreams are fading fast away
One by one I read your letters over
One by one I lay them all away

One by one the days are slipping up behind you
One by one the sweetest days of life go by
One by one the moments stealing out behind you
One by one she’ll come and find not you or I

One by one I hear the soft words that you whispered
One by one I feel your kisses soft and sweet
One by one I hope you’ll say the words to marry
One by one to one by one forever be

– – –

The thing most people don’t understand about Woody Guthrie is that he was a truly incredible and advanced wordsmith, an American poet of the highest order. Woody Guthrie is known more as a “songwriter,” which is like a poet, but somehow cruder, more base, less academic. Really, though, a song is nothing more than a poem you can dance to. Still others know Woody as a populist, an advocate for justice and “the little guy.” For some he’s simply a bum from Oklahoma.

It’s become one of my quests in life to help Mr. Guthrie’s image and raise him up to where he belongs, a place occupied already by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and the like. The Pantheon of American Poets. I know that he’d rather be kicking around in Frost’s back alley playing harmonica, but he deserves to be remembered justly.

An example of his poetic prowess: “One By One.” An example of why he’s not remembered as a great poet: nobody ever heard or read “One By One” besides maybe his family, until the singer Billy Bragg, with the help of Wilco, recovered some of his unpublished work and put it to music on the incredible Mermaid Avenue records. I can tell you now, that if people had read this poem while he lived – and if he hadn’t died so young – he would be read in homes and schoolhouses the country over. As it is, it’s hard to find any of his work in print (despite the best efforts of Bragg & Co.), minus his autobiography and the new book of his artwork.

Immediately it’s easy to see that Woody had a flair for repetition. He understood and loved the sounds of words, and he knew a good phrase when he heard it. In “One By One” the anaphora is, naturally, “One by one…” which gives the poem real heft, but also slows it down in time. The sense of the phrase is slow, but reading it over and over also makes the poem move slower, in a strict, quiet rhythm. The poem is indeed one of silence. Teardrops fall, hair turns gray, leaves fall, flowers die, words are written down, not spoken. The sweet days of life – a summery metaphor – slip into the silence of autumn. The only real sounds are whispered words, in the last stanza. The poet here is not grief-stricken, but he is melancholy and verging on hearbreak. He sees life moving by as he waits and waits for his love to answer his marriage proposal. A less deft hand would have turned this subject into the stuff of melodrama, but here Guthrie handles it with delicacy, and he preserves each moment beautifully.

Wilco turned these words into a classic song, and more than a couple people have remarked that it’s one of the finest songs ever written. The group shows a real understanding of the words and turns it into a somber tune driven by piano, organ, and a steady, expecting, beat. Jeffy Tweedy’s voice is quiet and doused in reverb. I have to a agree, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and all-time favorite poems.

Wilco – One By One