‘What is it with you and girls-with-guitars?’ a room mate asked me when I was in college. Well, whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have gone away.
We were talking, weren’t we, in number 77, about ‘Country girls’, and how Emmylou and her contemporaries helped to change something of the public perception of what formerly we might have been quite dismissive of, ol’ Country and Western. Perhaps I’ve still got a slight aversion to the unremitting twanginess of the genre, and , forgive me, without really knowing much about her, I probably slotted Mary Chapin Carpenter into that category, even though I was also kind of aware that she had a bit about her – things like ‘He thinks he’ll keep her’ suggested a feisty feminist challenge to the genre’s stereotypes; and I had even heard some great collaborative work that she had done with Shawn Colvin.
So I don’t know why I should have been taken by surprise by her appearance on one of the series of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’, and perhaps wondered how well she’d fit in to the earnest folkiness and the decidedly august musicianship characteristic of the series. I watched her perform this song accompanied by Aoife O’ Donovan. At first its simplicity seemed a bit embarrassing – I waited for the melody and the guitar accompaniment to develop with some subtleties and complexities into a song with more substantial architectural construction. But it didn’t: the simple melody was, instead, consistent and determined, the guitar chords likewise, in a way that I began to find oddly hypnotic and stylishly, bravely appropriate to the piece of work that she had created.
If I’m honest, and if it had only been that one occasion when I had seen and heard that song, I might still have had a few niggling reservations about its potential for monotony, but let’s give thanks to youtube, that has allowed me to watch that clip again and again (and yes of course, I listen to it too on my ipod etc) because the more that I listen to it the more I am impressed by the courageousness of its composition. That mesmerising dreaminess of its style seems more than ever entirely apposite to the ideas it explores and the perceptions it conveys.
Carpenter is not of course the first girl-with-a-guitar to think about the way that air travel can convey interesting fresh outlooks on life. I remember us flying over the Pyrenees with Nicola our friend, on the way to Seville. She told me about the song ‘From A Distance’ (popularised then, but not written by, Nancy Griffith ) and something of the lyric – looking down on the world’s beauty and somehow (OK, rather facilely, I know, because it’s that kind of song) seeing the world’s problems in perspective. (I heard this song later, and despite it all, have come to rather like it). Then I can think of Joni Mitchell’s great song ‘Amelia’ filled with aviatory images ending in the last verse with ‘747s over geometric farms..’ Oh, and here’s a boy-with-a-guitar – think of the last verse of Jackson Browne’s great song ‘How Long?’ -‘If you saw it from a satellite/ With its green and its blue and white..’ Also, Dar Williams has a great song called ‘Empty Plane’ which has a surreal dreaminess in its depiction of the airport experience, not a million miles away from the kind of feelings MCC has evoked in her song.
Lyrically, although she starts with an observation about ‘the lights below me..’, it’s less about the flight (‘and the curve of the world passed..’) than about the arrival, the slightly unreal experience of the Airport itself. At first despite the song’s leisurely , floaty kind of pace, the airport images are concrete and organisational and decidedly untranscendental – ‘stamped ..waved through..mouth of the cannon(!) … Then the baggage carousel , and her prayers that everything’s OK, and her initial ‘envy’ at some of the emotional displays at the reunions of loved ones. But then MCC begins to make the ‘Hall of Arrivals..where the great river empties’ seem more otherworldly, a transitional space between actual places; and it’s within this slightly spiritualised zone that she encounters illuminating perceptions. Ironically this new sense of detachment perhaps also allows her to feel an empathetic sense of unity with the others around her – ‘all borders vanish here’ seems something of a key line. And despite the fact that there is ‘no one to meet me’ her heightened distance-enhanced awareness allows her to appreciate the richness of humanity and its interactions all around her. She feels ‘all but surrounded/by the tears and embracing/by the joy unbounded..’ And where this line of visionary perspective takes her is to a perception of ourselves as transient, not fixed but always moving… but not aimlesslessly or in some nihilistic vacuum – moving on in positive, hopeful directions. This is a song infused with a sense of hope about the human journey. ‘we are…. travellers… gypsies’ but in MCC’s eyes not without wisdom of some kind. ‘We are… philosophers gathering…finding our way…to the next destination…from night into day..’
I go back occasionally to that youtube clip from the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’. I love the way that Aoife O’Donovan is clearly enjoying her opportunity for gentle harmonies and particularly joining in on the ‘Hey hey hey’s and ‘Ah ha ha’s. And I join in too, rather pleased to share a little in those few minutes of dreamlike ‘transcendental’ perspective, as a fellow traveller, gypsy, philosopher (hmm)……and in imaginative sympathy with the song, looking down on the world and seeing (oh, despite it all, Syria, Trump, ISIS, famine and corruption, sex slaves, North Korea, capitalism, consumerism), by the grace of the Great Spirit I believe to be both Love and Creator, ‘lights twinkling below me..’ or ‘glowing’ as they become in the song’s final lines…