Some years back I was given a Dave Carter/Tracey Grammer CD by an enthusiastic friend; I listened to it once (only half attentive), and blithely shelved it, consigning it to the ranks of new-country-folk hybrids, pleasant and (may I be forgiven) unmemorable. This was very stupid of me. Circumstances have brought me back to the late Dave Carter’s impressive body of work – thoughtful, brilliantly imaginative, often ambitious songs. None moreso than this, which has already become a bit of a standard, and I do repent me in dust and ashes for being dull of ear, and slow to catch up with more discerning listeners.
Carter’s early death, of course, adds an ironic poignancy to this song: he no longer anticipates a going; he has gone. Where to start to respond to this pagan/earth-loving anthem about dying? Let’s start with the strength of its spirit, which puts me in mind of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle on the brink of his father’s death – the images seem allied to Thomas’s longing for men whose words ‘fork lightning’, whose deeds ‘dance in a green bay’; who ‘sang the sun in flight’, whose eyes ‘blazed like meteors’…There’s all that kinship with the natural world in Carter’s song, but not the rage, not the desperation and regret; instead a bold determined affirmation – ‘I will fly..I will strike.. I will bellow…I will leap..’
What do we make of all these? At the very least it perhaps paints death as the spirit’s release rather than the spirit’s extinguishment, but in images that imply perhaps an absorption back into the energies and the creaturely variety of the natural world. It conjures up a sense of native American spirituality and their identification with/reverence for creatures of earth and air. I also can’t quite divorce this song from images left with me by John Boorman’s great film ‘The Emerald Forest’…Here Carter sings of ‘leap[ing] like coyote’, ‘run[ning] like the gray wolf’, accessing consciousnesses and energies beyond the limits of the human frame.
Alongside the bold continuity-affirming statements of will, are the invocations, calling on the crowd of natural spirits to witness and welcome the power and release of this transition – and so ‘lonely hunter’, .my brother’, ‘spirit dancer’, ‘tireless entrancer’, and ‘mournful sister’ are all addressed – (the last of these acknowledging that there is something natural in grief?) –encouraged to ‘come’, ‘spring’, ‘sigh’ and encouraged too in the song’s final couplet to see both the irrelevance and, paradoxically, the beautiful value of that grief – ‘..do not sorrow for me..’ (yet) ‘all your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’
But I’m treating this like literary analysis – forgive me (again) – this is song, all song, and the lyric is perfectly married to a melody and the total production – the underscored simple plunking of the plucked five string banjo, the sympathetic interplay between the minor and major chord movements; the little leaping contrast between the more low-key invocatory first halves of the verses and the affirmatory second halves, Tracey joining there for harmonies and the inter-verse fiddle additions; the powerful bridge between second and third verses, and the sheer modest understatedness of it all– Carter’s crafted it like a dream.
The glorious irony of this song is that in discussing death it actually celebrates life, in terms of a richness which only those with a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world can muster. Even in exploring and imagining that ‘absorption’ and release, while the images are of dissolving, ‘I will rattle like dry leaves’ , ‘I will crumble..’ – and this is an extraordinary image, and the point I’m getting to: even in this there’s beauty, glory – ‘..crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go.’!
Ok, clearly…this vision of the afterlife isn’t one according closely with (as you know by now I hold) a Judeo-Christian perspective; but neither is it a simple atheist-humanist perspective. The whole lyric implies continuity and transcendence, of course – not just ‘Should you glimpse my wandering form..’etc. but hey, this is a song and not a propositional thesis on afterlife perspectives ! And as a song it glitters with the glory of life and the natural world; it pulses with energy, will, determination, hope, and beauty, beauty, so that, in the final lines even the sadness of grief has exquisite worth and sparkling beauty – ‘..your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’