Some of the first material by yours truly in years; this is a track for my harsh noise/power electronics unit Concrete Isolation. Lovely and disgusting.
Johnny Cash: The Long Black Veil
Though originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, I consider Johnny Cashs’ version on the seminal live album At Folsom Prison to be the ultimate version of this fine song. Johnny’s deeper, far more somber voice and the stripper-down backing of a single acoustic guitar give the song a gravity and impact neither Left nor Johnny in his other versions of the song, or any other performer of the song for that matter, could match. Johnny Cashs’ studio version on Orange Blossom Special is a far cry from this superb rendition.
The story is simultaneously both ludicrous and impressive; the imagery in the song is strong and most poetic, but when you start thinking about it, the logic in the song is ten types of messed up. The story is essentially simple: it is the story of a man who was condemned to death because he was falsely identified as the slayer of a man, and who refused to give an alibi because he was “in the arms of his best friends’ wife”; the story is told first person ten years after the events took place, by the dead man himself. Especially the last verse is a veritable gem of simple yet effective poetic imagery: “Now the scaffold is high and eternity’s near/She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear/But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil she cries o’er my bones/She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail”. Seriously, there are few lyrics as good as that in the world, especially combined with the understated, plain and mournful delivery on At Folsom Prison. The little laughter and joke in the middle of the song only serve to accentuate the decidedly dark yet somehow consoling tone of the song.
But on the other hand…
So this guy’s humping his best friends’ wife behind the friends’ back, but is still such a stand up guy that instead of causing his best friend and his less-than-faithful wife sorrow and pain, decides to lose his life? OK, I guess I can dig that, the fact notwithstanding that the best buddy would probably be pretty darn broken about his best friend getting the death penalty. But isn’t the narrator of the song being extremely reckless and inconsiderate to say the least, taking the fall for a murder he didn’t commit and thus letting the killer get off scot free? I mean, what if the killer was a cold-blooded sadistic serial killer and if the narrator hadn’t acted as the fall guy, would have been caught, but because he didn’t he’ll kill and kill again? Isn’t it possible that this one foolish act of not speaking the truth caused a lot more harm and grief than two, maybe three broken hearts? I mean, really, adult people should be able to take this into consideration. Also, what about the wife? Is she really so callous and cold-hearted that she allows her one-time lover to lose his life just so she won’t have to face her husband knowing the truth? She just stands there in the crowd but says not a word? What the heck? What the actual heck is wrong with these people?
OK, jokes aside, The Long Black Veil is a genuine folk classic, though by folk song standards a relatively young song (written in 1959), which collates many murder ballad themes expertly into an effective, even if logically somewhat flawed, narration.
Old Crow Medicine Show: Methamphetamine
“There’s a war out there and it’s fought by poor white men”
I don’t know about where you come from, but over here in Finland drug addiction and drug problems have most often been (at least when I was a kid) described as a predominantly urban problem, something that’s plaguing the cities in particular, not the countryside and the small towns. I don’t know if the situation has changed, probably has, but that’s the implicit understanding I grew up with; and generalizing it to the rest of the world, via popular culture such as movies, books and music, tales of drug addiction usually took place in an urban setting.
Old Crow Medicine Show, a wonderfully old-timey country/folk/americana band from Nashville, Tennessee who still manage to sound modern and relevant today – somebody described them as a pre-war string band meets Nirvana, which sounds accurate to me – shake such conceptions as the above paragraph to smithereens with one striking song. With a distraught, almost pained, Bob Dylanesque-voice, the song takes the listener to a world of poverty and no hope of a better tomorrow, of a world that has changed too fast for the people stuck in the underbelly of it to keep up with the pace… “‘Cause when it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard/I’d rather sell him a line than to be dying in the coal yard”. It’s a stark, striking and honest-sounding account of a disease crippling an already crippled part of society. From the opening verse where “The babies whine ’cause they can’t find nothing to eat/But mama she ain’t hungry no more/She’s waiting for a knock on the trailer door” to the end where you’re instructed “You better watch your back ’cause you just can’t trust a friend/And the method man is going to get you in the end”, it paints a dystopian vision of the rural working class.
There’s not much death mentioned in the song, but nobody who listens to the song and really takes it in can deny that the shadow of death looms in every line of the song, that this song is very much about death and dying; not just individual, corporeal death, but also the death of whole families, societies and maybe even a way of life. The imagery painted in the lyrics, combined with the delivery, are intensive and somehow immediately convincing and credible. Methamphetamine sounds like anthem to the sickly and tortured death of a stratum of society.
The method man is gonna get you in the end.
Runemagick: For You, My Death
Sometimes the simplest things can be the most powerful and evocative. Such is indeed the case with Swedish Death/Doom Metal band Runemagicks’ masterpiece For You My, Death. The lyrics of this four-minute song consist of four simple lines, which despite their simplicity hold in them such power:
“For you, my death
For you, my life
For you, my soul
For you, my death”
The slow march of the drums, the majestic guitars, perfectly accentuated by the solo towards the end of the song, and the gruff vocals that deliver the lyrics with a reverence and almost ritualistic chant. The song is a dedication, a prayer, a salutation, a homage. Usually “beautiful” in Metal music seems to be a term used with over-melodic material over saturated with synths, female vocals and that whole thing, but to me, this is a song with more genuine beauty in it than most of that whole lot.
Many have tried to write odes and homages to death (and other things) using far more complex and eloquent turns of phrase, but few have managed to create something as enduring, honest and beautiful as Runemagick. And so economically at that, too.
Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues
“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”
Surely one of the most iconic lines in country music – or any genre of music for that matter. The first half is also the name of a nice book by one Graeme Thomson; not a perfect book, it has its flaws, but I’d still readily recommend it to any fan of death, popular music and both. It’s also the book that made me conscious of how I was not so interested in love songs but death songs as showing the faces behind the mask of popular music because, though there are more of the former, in many ways the latter better define their eras and their music. Love is more often filled with empty platitudes… even when death is a platitude, it’s somehow more enlightening about the circumstances and ways of thinking behind. Love comes and goes for most of us but death… death’s it, once you contract it, it’s usually a pretty permanent state of things.
With that introduction to the theme in mind, Folsom Prison Blues makes the modern mind think of a more innocent age. Johnny Cash famously tried to think of the worst thing a man could do, and to a mind saturated with news of pedophilia, rape, mutilation, torture of both mind and body and countless other atrocities, it seems quaint to think of killing a man in Reno just for the heck of it as being the worst thing someone can imagine… but on the other hand, enhance the story with a bit more graphic detail and a more cynical, less repentant account, and it’s still today a pretty bleak story. The upbeat tempo does, in the end, disguise a pretty twisted character… although a character who has, it seems, later in prison comes to see the error of his ways, because he “knows he had it comin'” and he knows he “can’t be free”.
Folsom Prison Blues is a pretty typical “old time” murder ballad lyrically, in some ways not unlike a song like Knoxville Girl (though it goes into less graphic detail); the act of killing seems like a spur of the moment thing and though the killing is the pivot upon which the story of the song turns, it’s mentioned almost incidentally in the lyrics. Unlike Death Metal, the lyrics do not feast upon the act of murder; instead, it concentrates on the impact of that one deed. And there’s a moral in the story, the killer gets what’s coming to him and is forced to reflect upon the path his life took because of the killing – in this case, with a more or less repentant mind. On the other hand, it’s maybe less of a death song than a prison song with a strong tangent to a murder ballad, because the body of the lyrics is about being imprisoned for life and dreaming of freedom. And of course, there’s trains in it. Heck, if only Johnny sang a line or two about getting drunk, even David Allan Coe would admit this is the perfect Country & Western song.
All in all, though, Folsom Prison Blues does to me embody much of what a death song is and should be about: not being fixated on death, killing, dying and being deceased, but reflecting upon what these things mean to the ailed person, those around him/her/them, and those inflicting this ailment on others.
And it’s a damn fine song.