Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Some songs tackle human problems through shifts in perspective, placing local conditions against a backdrop of something far larger.

   Beautiful Star:

One such song is "Beautiful Star," from a 1963 album of Christmas spirituals by Odetta.  The song mentions the Star of the East, presumably the star the magi followed in the Nativity story –– the one referred to in Matthew 2:2 when the wise men were in Jerusalem asking for whereabouts of baby Jesus.

The song is not Christian in any doctrinal sense, being instead a non-ecclesiastic contrasting of conditions here on Earth with a comforting beyond out there.  The initial reference to a Star in the East soon gives way to stars in general, stars returning to run their nightly rounds, stars transporting the singer away from her troubles.

Here is its last verse:

     Although you see me goin' on
     Yes, watch the stars, see how they run
     I have my trials here below
     The stars run down at the setting of the sun
     (Oh) watch the stars, see how they run.

Odetta's singing and intonation breathes life into these lines, making the contrast between my-world-down-here and the Big Picture an affecting one.

Just why it is that nighttime skies and heavenly regularities are soothing is itself a thing to ponder.  Something about vast, timeless spaces brings relief from demands of daily life –– maybe the jumping from earth-bound stresses into the autopilot of heaven, where we're no longer behind the wheel but carried off on a stream of light and star-stuff, losing ourselves in a twinkling surround.

   Defying Gravity:
   Jesse Winchester

Now an alternative to being carried away in heavenly absorption is to be carried away by Earth itself. Here, for instance, is "Defying Gravity," by Jesse Winchester.  It first appeared on Learn To Love It (1974) and was later covered by Jimmy Buffett (1976), Emmylou Harris (1978), and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (2000).

This version is from Live At The Bijou Cafe, Philadelphia, May 26, 1977, and its first two verses are:

     I'm riding a big blue ball 
     And I never do dream I may fall
     But even the day that I do
     Well, I'll jump off and smile back at you

     I don't even know where we are
     But they'll us we're circling a star
     Well, I'll take their word I don't know
     But I am dizzy so maybe it's so

And here is the vehicle in question:

NASA image of Earth

Well ... a big blue ball it is, and there is a quizzical tone to living on it, as if Earth itself were a giant bemusement park.  Winchester seems to be along for the ride, a passenger, and when it's time to get off, that'll be OK.  His is an easy no-worries adaptation with the promise of a sprightly finish: he'll "jump off and smile back at you."  The soft timbre and unhurried drift of his voice is central to this tone, you can almost float in it.  The heavens don't lift him out of earthly concerns, he lifts himself out by a relaxed acceptance of the journey.

   One More Trip Around The Sun:
   Jonathan Edwards

A similar, if darker, adaptation can be heard in Jonathan Edwards' song, "One More Trip Around The Sun," from Live In Massachusetts (2006).  It is an atypical birthday-party song, being narrowly about time cycles and the futility of birthday resolutions, more broadly about the complexity of trying to control anything.  

Here are its second verse, refrain, and last verse:

     You know you never see it comin'
     Always wind up wonderin' where it went
     And only time will tell if it was time well spent.
     Just another revelation,
     Celebrating what I should have done
     With these souvenirs from my trip around the sun

     And I'm just hangin' on while this old world keeps spinnin'
     And it's good to know it's out of my control
     'Cause if there's one thing that I learned from all this livin'
     Is that it wouldn't change a thing if I let go

     I think I'll make a resolution, that I'll never make another one
     And just enjoy my ride on this trip around the sun
     And just enjoy my ride
     Just enjoy my ride
     Just enjoy my ride
     Until its done
     Until it's done
     Until it's done
     Just enjoy my ride
     'Til it's done

Desired outcomes may not resolve as we would will them; we are always playing catch-up with ourselves, flying somewhat blindly, and only in the fullness of time seeing what we've done or might have done. Edwards' world seems close to Jesse Winchester's merry-go-round Earth, but sung in a more sober key.  You don't imagine Jimmy Buffett covering it.  And I like that the repetitions in the last verse parallel its content, the over-and-over phrasing rolling in our ears, lulling us into the motion of the ride.

Finally, a poem by Wislawa Szymborska which zooms in to show us how we can enjoyably ride the big blue ball.  It is "The Ball," from Monologue Of A Dog, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak (2005):

                              THE BALL
     As long as nothing can be known for sure
     (no signals have been picked up yet)

     as long as Earth is still unlike
     the nearer and more distant planets,

     as long as there's neither hide nor hair
     of other grasses graced by other winds,
     of other treetops bearing other crowns,
     other animals as well-grounded as our own,

     as long as the only echo
     has been known to speak in syllables,

     as long as we still haven't heard word
     of better or worse mozarts,
     platos, edisons somewhere,

     as long as our inhuman crimes
     are still committed only between humans,

     as long as our kindness
     is still incomparable,
     peerless even in its imperfection,

     as long as our heads packed with illusions
     still pass for the only heads so packed,

     as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
     still raise voices to high heavens––

     let's act like very special guests of honor
     at the district-firemen's ball,
     dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
     and pretend that it's the ball
     to end all balls.

     I can't speak for others––
     for me this is
     misery and happiness enough:

     just this sleepy backwater
     where even the stars have time to burn
     while winking at us

There is really quite enough on our blue ball to occupy us and bring enjoyment to the ride.  It is the element of illusion that makes this possible, for we can "act like very special guests of honor at the district-firemen's ball," and we can "pretend that's it's the ball to end all balls” –– whether that ball be the district-firemen's ball or Earth itself.  So here we are on Earth, with its teeming life, creation, humanity, inhumanity; and here we are also with "our heads packed with illusions," illusions which can lead to folly and disaster, but also transport and delight.

Szymborska won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her compelling Nobel Lecture, The Poet and the World, dealt with inspiration and its precondition: a default sense of not-knowing, an abiding openness to novelty and surprise.  It contains a passage relevant to "The Ball": 

     The world –– whatever we might think when terrified by its
     vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its
     indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals,
     and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants
     feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses
     pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've
     just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead?
     we just don't know; whatever we might think of this
     measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets,
     but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as
     it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think
     of this world –– it is astonishing.

This passage is itself astonishing.  In a single fertile sentence, it conjures the sense of our brief moment in a massive "measureless theater."  A moment that may be puzzling, dizzying, beyond our control, yet dazzling for all that.  We have our trials here below, but also the oompah band, which is certainly the best party band ever.  And even those starry skies, the ones that bring relief in Odetta's "Beautiful Star," they too are witnessed from seats down here in Earth's theater.

And, say, that ball up in the night sky ... isn't that the Man in the Moon looking down upon us?  “Winking at us, unintentionally," maybe bemused at our common situation?  All of us in our courses, going around in circles.

NASA image of Moon 

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