Songs from close to the bone

One of my most long-standing musical friendships is with a musical mentor and collaborator, JK Gulley, a fabulous guitarist/producer and songwriter.  There is a song of his that will always be one of my favourites, called In My Father's Field.  I know there's a great recording of it by John Cowan (of New Grass Revival, etc).  I've heard JK perform it live, on several occasions. The song makes me cry because it is siimple, emotional, powerful, and truthful.  Just hearing it is like the deep heartfelt sigh of contentment and relief when you finally arrive home after a long journey and settle down into your favourite chair, or a long hot bath. I hope someone will play it at my funeral someday, so I'll rest easy.  It's that kind of a song -- written from close to the bone.  Here's a snippet:

In My Father's Field, by JK Gulley

In my father's field, that's where you will find me
at the end of a winding road
by the shade of a lonely tree
the home of his childhood and sweet memories
in my father's field 

I go there for comfort, I go there for peace
I go there for freedom, I got there for me
and it does my heart good to touch my roots
in my father's field. 


You can find the John Cowan performance of this on YouTube -- I recommend it. 

In my own experience, these songs are the hardest to write, and the most worthwhile.  They're hard to write, because it can be so difficult to get past all of the personal baggage to the song itself, in a form that actually communicates and evokes emotional response from others.  As I have written on other occasions: if a song makes you cry, that's catharsis -- if it makes other people cry, that's craft.  If you can do both, it's probably magic.

I have tried, many times, to finish a song called "After The Shooting Stops" -- I shared a rough acoustic version of this song once, in the Acoustic Guitar website.  The song is based on a long-ago experience of a shooting in our local high-school.  I wasn't even in the middle of things, and yet it profoundly affected me, as it did so many of my friends.  I will probably record this, someday.  

Iris DeMent's song, My Life, is another of my favourite examples of this kind of song, written from a place of introspection and feeling of insignificance.  But her chorus is about small comforts that may be the most important of all:

Chorus from Iris DeMent's My Life

But I gave joy to my mother
and I made my lover smile
and I can comfort my friends when they're hurting
and make it seem better for a while. 

Wow.  How simple and profound can you get?

Some years ago, I lost a dear friend, an agent that I had worked with for years. Her name was Morgan (Sandy) White, and she died suddenly, of cancer. One minute she was feeling not well, and within a couple of weeks, it seemed, she was gone.   She was buried on a hilltop, near Lake Simcoe, and I remember the details of that day, how the sky looked, the clouds of soaring birds overhead. At her wake, I promised her family that I would write a song for her, which I did.  I wrote it on the drive home that night, and the song was called So Rudely Interrupted. I had it demoed a few years later (with vocals by Jay Riehl, guitar from Wendell Ferguson.  You can hear it on the website.) It's a truthful song about a lifelong conversation, interrupted, and there's a little bit in there of an honest reflection of how even a person of faith may struggle with coming to terms with loss and grief.  And there were echoes and feelings there from the loss of my own mother, some years earlier. So whether that song ever serves any other purpose, I wrote it from a deep emotional place, which is what I mean when I say "close to the bone".  You know ... deep down, where it hurts.  

With every kind of song that I might choose to write, and love to write, and to perform, these are the kinds of songs that I will always be proud of having written. Maybe, they are a part of what gives our work meaning.