Monday, May 10, 2010

14, La Muerte, or a Musical Meditation on the Art of Darkness

I've been listening over and over, as is my wont, to a few songs lately, and wanting to find a way to say something about them. There's a theme to these songs, though, that seems so morbid to set words down about them, especially when the songs themselves don't actually produce morbidness as one of their emotional responses.

What I love about Tarot cards, so resonant and laden with meaning -- and by extension the Mexican loteria, on the one hand nothing more than a paper bingo game and yet somehow also a set of archetypes upon which one might meditate -- is that they become keys to unlock mysteries of meaning. They're like visual wordless poems that allow our minds to wander and learn. Tarot card images are full and complicated: every little piece of the design has a little bit of meaning and correspondence. They're deeply loaded with all sorts of occult symbols and suggestions, as well as the simpler meanings suggested by the parts of the design. Loteria cards are much simpler images, the details quite unimportant. Here's the thing about the death card in Tarot, though. It's not exactly about death. Oh, I know enough about a fortune-teller's trade to know that in context it could mean that. But what it means above all is transformative change.

Which brings me to the three songs I've been listening to. The first is probably the most well known. It's the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World." Here's how I first heard it; you too, probably:

That's the climactic scene from the classic Douglas Sirk melodramatic tearjerker "Imitation of Life." Susan Kohner, who has been "passing" for white, has missed the death of her mother Annie (played by the great Juanita Moore), and now must suffer the guilt of discovering that her mother was a figure beloved by everyone except her own light-skinned daughter; so beloved, in fact that at her jam-packed funeral the greatest gospel singer of our time sings her a parting spiritual. It's a great flick, full of 1950s repression and a very complicated, surprisingly un-racist depiction of African-Americans, setting aside of course the casting of a white actress as the passing daughter.

Anyway "Trouble of the World" is a classic Christian spiritual: "Soon I will be done with the trouble of the world, going home to live with God. No more weeping and wailing, going home to live with my Lord." It's somber, in that it's a song about death, for sure, but it's really more reverent than sad. It's used in the film to force all the tawdry soap-opera characters to think about what they've done and how empty and barren their own lives were compared to the late Annie, who though a humble maid saved enough money to take care of her family and send herself out in style.

I'm not a Christian; I don't share this certainty of "going home to live with God," but the powerful faith revealed in Mahalia Jackson's completely committed delivery is inspiring to me. That death could be transformed from the object of fear and dread to something else entirely is quite a leap. But this is remarkably powerful message music and that leap is made convincing. There are a lot of things people can do in this world, but that finality must be met: and here Mahalia Jackson's steely determination and spiritual optimism says, "have no fear."

The second song I've been listening to is much less well known. Jazz trumpeter Charles Sullivan released the album "Genesis" on the Strata-East label in 1974; it was reissued on the Inner City label a few years later, and actually was recently reissued on CD by that reactivated label. Most of the album is some excellent instrumental jazz, typical of what the indie Strata-East musicians were recording at the time. But the young Dee Dee Bridgewater, then taking a guest turn on the albums of many jazz musicians, was brought in to sing an absolutely devastating suicide ballad, "Now I'll Sleep." You can hear it on Youtube:

"Why am I alive what have I got to live for
I'm through with playing games they just add up to zero
Life is war and war is hell and I'm no hero
I tried I failed but I tried I'm sorry
I can't begin again no chance to change my story
The end is just the end forget those dreams of glory
I had my chance to win I chose to lose
that's funny
Afraid to love so you die unhappy

And those who have no love to give
they have no need to live
how senseless it all is to me

And so I say goodbye with just a hint of sadness
For lonely is the road that leads me from this madness
But frightened though I am I feel a rush of gladness
And peace more peaceful than night
It's the peace I've searched for all my life
Now I'll sleep and never be afraid of waking up again."

It's pretty shocking to hear the sweet voice of the woman who sang "If You Believe" in the original production of the Broadway musical "The Wiz" sing these dire, hopeless lyrics. At the same time, I find this a beautiful, witty song. I love the line, "Life is war and war is hell and I'm no hero." This is an utterly convincing portrayal of someone who has had enough. And though I have lived my life without any bouts of suicidal depression, I find myself checking my mood when I listen to this song just to make sure I'm doing so with a healthy mind. I think that's powerful art.

Hearing this song we put ourselves in the position of its singer, brought to life by such a gifted vocalist as Bridgewater. We're allowed to experience a flash of this terminal disappointment and sense of failure, and the grasping desperation of taking matters into her own hand. But we're also allowed to walk away at the end of the song: surely the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I" has never had a better testament. Interestingly on the album, the graceful piano and voice of this song is immediately followed by driving bass and percussion of an extended suite called "Genesis." To me it's almost like trumpeter/composer Sullivan is immediately repudiating the pessimism and self-doubt of "Now I'll Sleep" by saying that life, creation, genesis, is complicated, challenging, sometimes chaotic, but worth staying awake for and ultimately rewarding in its gift of experience, both bad and good. All that existential angst? Get over it!

Art, like the tarot cards, is full of meaning and symbolism: it should make us confront the deep and dark things as well as the light and joyful ones. Both the solemn inspiration of "Trouble of the World" and the brutal self indulgence of "Now I'll Sleep" ask us to confront our assumptions.

The third song I've been listening to is "How Glory Goes," from an obscure musical called "Floyd Collins" by composer Adam Guettel. The version I enjoy the most is sung by Audra McDonald, the title song of her second solo album, released in 2000. (Another excellent version of the song is performed by Brian Stokes Mitchell on his own eponymous album.)

The song is a meditation on what happens when you die: as in "go to glory," the rapturous revelation of heaven at the moment of passing in Christian teaching. It begins:

"Is it warm?
Is it soft against your face?
Do you feel a kind of grace inside the breeze?
Will there be trees?
Is there light?
Does it hover on the ground?
Does it shine from all around, or just from you?
Is it endless and empty, as you wander on your own?
Slowly forget about the folks that you have known?
Or does rising' bread fill up the air
from open kitchens every where?
Familiar faces far as you can see, like a family?"

Audra McDonald is an art singer; and her theatrical training suits this song well. Her voice is almost operatic, soaring; the arrangement behind the song delicate and restrained with the flavor of theater music or classical music not pop. The gorgeously sung lyrics muse on all those unknowable mysteries of mortality.

"Do we hear a trumpet call us and we're by your side?
Will I want, Will I wish for all the things I should have done,
Longing to finish what I've only just begun?
Or has a shining truth been waiting there
for all the questions everywhere?
In a world of wondering suddenly you know;
And you will always know..."

In my own religious tradition, the Yoruba-based Santeria faith, there's a proverb attached to one of the sacred divination oddu: "The one who knows does not die like the one who does not know." To my mind, rather than promising some kind of special treat upon death to the initiated, some heavenly reward or playground of virgins, what these words are avowing is more profound. They're saying that when you explore the mysteries of your faith, of spirituality, you gain a level of consciousness that is what other religions might call grace. You find peace in being given a peek at the mysterious workings of the universe, seeing the transformative changes of life and death as not something to be dreaded, but something that simply is, trusting in the cosmic machinery that in the end, everything is as it should be.

Which I think is why I find "How Glory Goes" so special. It strips out the fatalism, the morbidness, the darkness, if you will, of that most human of predilections, worrying about what happens next. It doesn't say it's wrong to ask unanswerable questions, but it gives us the tools to move on with our lives lifted of the burdens of uncertainty. It offers a kind of spiritual serenity, which becomes a call, I think, to experience the living of the now with reverence and wonder and joy, welcoming the changes that need to come as the unfolding mystery of being.

As the song concludes:
"Only heaven knows how glory goes,
what each of us was meant to be.
In the starlight, that is what we are.
I can see so far..."


  1. I bought Sullivan's album, downloadable at Amazon and am looking forward to listening tonight. Incredible vision of Mahalia Jackson......I remember the movie well as well as her performance. Great selection. I agree, always have a clear and light hearted mind when listening.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Troods, and for all your comments over at Ile Oxumare. I hope your weekend improves things!

  3. I enjoyed to read your post. It's an interesting vision of life and death.
    There's a lot of those songs talking about the last hours, the fear of the dark...

    always listen to the lyrics