Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mystical gospel music from Jolie Holland

This post is about two songs I like by Jolie Holland. About a year ago I did a short review of her album Escondida and was by necessity limited to a couple of sentences about these songs, but wanted to spell out my thoughts on them some more. The songs, “Black Stars” and “Goodbye California,” both take these huge leaps into mystic visions, and achieve this great adaptive reuse of country and folk sounds.

Holland is probably considered an Americana performer because she does acoustic music with roots in traditional sounds. She is associated with The Be Good Tanyas and Freakwater, and I think both of them get put in that compartment. Her first album, Catalpa had a real low-fi quality (you can stream it from her website (, and Escondida is less smooth and radio-ready than some other Americana stuff. She chews her words around and puts more flex in her rhythms than say The Be Good Tanyas (compare “Littlest Birds” from Catalpa with the same song on the Tanyas’ Blue Horse).

I’ve zeroed in on these songs because it is somehow surprising to hear music with these roots used to communicate non-Christian religious ideas. I remember hearing a bluegrass song that sounded exactly like one of the many bluegrass gospel songs but it was about Buddha achieving enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Christian belief powers some of the best folk, bluegrass, and country music, and provides some of the best language. “Are you washed in the blood, the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb, are your garments spotless, are they white as snow.” But sometimes even though you get caught up by the music and the language, you realize you can’t quite go with the theology, even if you are a church goer. And the hard-core Christian theology separates some musicians from the music. It feels strange hearing someone sing one of those gospel songs and wonder whether that’s really what they believe. Do they belong to those words and vice versa? But religious language is so captivating, I would never ask someone to stay away from the songs. Still, I wish there was material just as good that could be shared more broadly in the music community. That’s where someone like Jolie Holland comes in. She uses the same sounds to express a mysticism that can be taken as non-sectarian – she might be a Buddhist or something else, but her words don’t tie her songs to one creed.

Like the Song of Solomon, Black Stars is a love song that points to something beyond the two people. The song starts with a scuttering bass line on guitar and a two-note whistle. The lyrics starts out with the contradictory image of “shining black stars.”

<>“I saw you tonight
by the light of the shining black stars that circle my heart.
I saw you come in though it was dim.”

This next line:

“I have been listening from the beginning.”

sets up a kind of cosmic meditation, of attention that has been present since when – the beginning of time? I think so. It is listening as an aspect of the universe that transcends individuals.

The next section describes a powerful encounter between two people. When they meet, everything else falls away.

<>“When you arrived
it was as if we had both died
and gone somewhere else you and my self
That otherworldly feeling came over me stealing.
My mind was reeling,
blood bleeding red like my guitar.
Whoever you are.”

Holland’s vocal line moves slowly. The melody often works within little three note groups bounded by a minor third–down a half step, up to a step above the starting pitch, back, or similar variations–although these are broken by larger intervals. The line seems to slow down even more at the lyrics about the guitar, which goes low into her vocal range. In the section that follows the melodies seem to become even more constrained:

<>“Cold in the night
I think you’re right to whisper and listen
like flowers glisten in a quiet garden.
The moon is wizened
and it is old as a toad in a Chinese story.
The fallen glory of my ego is laid at the feet of all our purposes.
And my purpose is to keep on dreaming.”

Rather than move towards complexity, this song leads towards simplification. And this brings you to the song’s key line: “the fallen glory of my ego.” The song arrives at this state of selflessness. Instead of dreams falling away, waking life falls away to reveal an essential dream state.

Holland sustains this section for 1½ minutes out of a 5 minute song, and finishes it with the ring of a bell, breaking the spell. The song ends with a recap of parts of the earlier lines that launched the encounter, although when she returns to “When you arrived” the music sounds like a new section is beginning, and the final line, on her self, is absolutely unresolved harmonically.

<>“I am fishing for wishes
That’s where you come in.
Though it was dim
When you arrived it as if we had both died and gone somewhere else,
You and myself.”

The return of the words, and the music that suggests beginning rather than ending implies an endless cycle, always heading towards the still point when the fallen glory of ego is laid at the feet of our purposes.

Many great works of time-based art – music and film – pivot on still points towards their center, when time seems to slow down and nearly stop. Most Hitchcock films reach that point. One of the effects of sonata form is to place Beethoven’s slow movements in the middle his works. Taiwan Deth brought their performance last week down to a point of a single noise puncturing silence. This is the movement of ecstasy. “Black Stars” uses constrained clusters of notes that move by small steps like chant, sometimes decorated with melismas like Middle Eastern music.

“Goodbye California” sounded more like a conventional country song. It starts as a thoroughly morbid contemplation of suicide, but in the same way that “Black Stars” kicks a love or lust at first sight encounter into a trajectory towards selflessness, the thought of suicide leads to a vision of union with the universe.

<>“When I’m dead and gone
My immortal home will hold me in its bosom safe and cold.
No more desires will light their fires
Or disturb my immaculate calm.
And the birds of the air and the beasts of the soil
And the fishes of the desperate sea
Will know who I am and our substance will expand
As part of everything.”

The last words are picked up as a group chorus:

<>“As part of everything my God,
As part of everything
And the clouds will roll
And the wind will blow
And the beautiful birds will sing.”

This may be an even better example of adaptive reuse of country music than “Black Stars,” with its tightly constrained, chant-like melodic line. The chorus here really sounds like a country gospel song, maybe “I Saw the Light.” But Holland replaces Christian theology with this statement of mystical union with the universe. When I hear her sing it, I have no doubt of her conviction. And this song, or at least this chorus, could become an anthem for the people in society listening. I hesitate to put a single label on the audience, but it consists of mono-theists, multi-theists, and atheists who feel their common sense of humanity (and connection with other organisms and natural forces), interdependence, and mutual responsibility has greater spiritual power than sectarian affiliation. Jolie Holland sings to them.


  • Wow - you really hit the nail on the head. I was just remembering the toad in Black Stars this morning, but forgot where I remembered it from. And then I stumbled on this by accident, an analysis which made me rethink the song spiritually.

    In truth she attends the Church of St John Coltrane.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:08 PM  

  • Hi David
    I appreciated reading this entry of yours--my room mate brought a copy of it home from work yesterday. That was his comment, previously.
    I was a literary freak when I was a teenager, the kind of girl who would get crushes on dead poets (Dylan Thomas, Yeats.) I think Thomas does something similar to what I was trying to do in Black Stars, make a grandiose cosmology around his life through his body. I just wanted to point out the humor I was trying to make in Black Stars, too--The line "It was as if we had both died and gone somewhere else" was making a reference to the phrase "felt like I'd died and gone to heaven" only its a song about getting a crush on a super-weirdo (that's what you do when you're a super-weirdo) one doesn't know if getting close to said weirdo will be heaven or hell. Then the line about "the fallen glory of my ego" is also a self-effacing jab at the kind of egos band leader super-weirdos (like myself, and the object of the crush in question) are supposed to have. The line goes "the fallen glory of my ego is laid at the feet of all our purposes" and it also means "I give up, I have no shame, make me jump through whatever hoops you want to make me jump through cause I have a shameless crush on you." The most obvious of my purposes is to get this guy into bed, and I was hoping a dreamy song would help. Well, it didn't help a whole hell of a lot, but we're real good friends now, and we're both in great relationships and he really likes the song. He is also the "motherfucker" in "Do You Have To Go Crazy?" and he's also the guy who drew all the illustrations from the Tarot cards in the album art, Stefan Jecusco. If you inspect those cards you will see further eveidence of my circle of friends' dark, slightly religious-themed humor. A bunch of us are recovering from fundamentalist upbringings. I appreciate having the Bible comme out of my pores, as a writer, sometimes, but I see myself more as in the line of Bulgakov ('the Master and Margarita') and Waits ('Hang On Saint Christopher,' and 'Jesus Gonna Be Here') than your typical gospel songwriter. Michael Hurley's 'Open Up, Eternal Lips' and Townes Van Zandt's 'Two Hands' are some great songs that have inspired me to keep mining these veins.
    My roommate said I go to the Church of St John Coltrane but that's only very occasionally. I wouldn't want to mislead....
    I appreciate you taking the time to think about my work, and I hope I haven't talked your ear off here. I just particularly wanted to point out the humor in Black Stars.
    Best Regards

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