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 (http://www.jolieholland.com/sounds.html), 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.