Little Birdie, Come Sing Me A Song

When I found the music of Steve Young, I had been heartsick awhile, and he was singing songs that told stories about a world I knew. It’s a world where you go somewhere and aren’t sure how you feel about it, where you feel the past pushing you away and pulling you back, where you cover sad feelings with crooked smiles and bitter words, where you make tough choices and always pay the price for them. Often those songs seemed to speak the story of my life far better than I could. Steve’s voice, full of grief, anger and tenderness, all fighting to be heard at once, lifted me out of myself and then sent me back home,  as if  his voice were my own at last discovered.

February, 1975. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny day in Carbondale Illinois, and I am buying groceries at the mall. I wander through the JCPenney  store on the way out and stop to thumb through some record cutouts. I pick up an album with a lime-green cover with a small photo in the center of a young woman walking across a bridge, Seven Bridges Road. The cover seems perfect for a Bread record, but I pick up the album nonetheless.  The back side is more interesting, dense with information.  There is a small black and white photo of a young man and woman walking toward the camera, eyes cast down. I survey the list of songs to discover that the singer wrote “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” the title cut of a Waylon Jennings album I own.

I have listened to Seven Bridges Road three times, and it isn’t dark yet. I feel like I have found a much weathered family Bible, so inscribed with my own family’s history that it is hard to know whether the book’s importance comes from the printed word or the handwriting that covers the margins. These songs are Steve’s stories, but they are at once the story of a people and, yes, my story too. The songs are sung with great passion and propelled by the same contradictions that move me forward some days, hold me back on others, and on the worst days collide like two full force gales.

I first found some of my tensions and contradictions mirrored in the great Southern novels. Last year I took a course on Southern Literature and Culture at Southern Illinois University where I am a doctoral student. We read 15 Southern novels spanning more than 100 years.  I was drawn particularly to Faulkner and Penn Warren. In Faulkner’s magnificent Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson, a son of the South studying at Yale, tells his roommate the awful history of his family taming the wilderness of frontier Mississippi and the great sins that flowed from that conquest. Torn apart by conflicting impulses toward his home and the South, Compson pronounces the only benediction he can manage, “I love it, I hate it, I love it.”  In Penn Warren’s  All the King’s Men, Jack Burden offers a tortured tale of politics and class in the New South:  “And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.”

Quentin Compson and Jack Burden express contradictions that I feel, but they are both from the aristocratic South, which seems a long way from the world of tenant farming that my parents carried with them and talked of often enough that I feel it is my legacy too. The course took a stab at this element of Southern culture in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Our time would have been better spent on Steve Young’s songs, “Long Way to Hollywood,” “Montgomery in the Rain,”  “The White Trash Song” and “Seven Bridges Road.”

In Steve’s songs, sometimes the hardscrabble culture of the South shows its kind face as in “Long Way to Hollywood,” a song about leaving the South.

All them ole Depression people, Babe, I know they took a heavy load.

All their children, my kinfolks and cousins, still walking down Tobacco Road.

Well, they still talk about Hank Williams, Lord they’re clinging unto his fame.

I’m of the same race. I’m from the same place. Got the same lonesome blood in my veins.

The lonesome blood that takes the singer away produces moments of nostalgic longing in “Seven Bridges Road.”

Sometimes there is a part of me has to turn away and go,

Running like a child beneath warm stars down the Seven Bridges Road.

More typically, the remembrance is bitter and sad as in “Montgomery in the Rain.”

I know I look funny to you all honey, but I am just one

Who was once from here and now who’s come back again.

I ain’t asking for nothing but my song and a cemetery wind. 

I understand all of these things that day, but I will appreciate the songs more deeply as time goes on. What I don’t understand is how long these songs will endure as part of me, how I will lean on them through some of the greatest crises of my life until, finally, I face one that will require me to put the songs away for a time to be rediscovered later. I also don’t foresee that someday the singer and I will be friends and will grow old together in in the same city.

This February day, it is enough to have found songs that my own heart cried to have written. Had I known enough and believed enough, I would have prayed for these songs.

Like a lot of people, I take the presence of songs for granted. Songs appear and disappear. Sometimes they reappear in another’s voice. Sometimes they come back in the same voice. I hold onto a few, some from my adolescence, some to mark periods in my life, some to help cherish peak experiences, and a few just simply because they are truly wonderful.  Still, for the most part, I treat songs as disposable commodities, not as great art that speaks my experience in some enduring way.

Mostly, I long for a song to speak how my life is right now. Once this immediate desire is fulfilled in a moment of clarity, I move on. Before I know it, a fog returns to obscure the nature of things.  There I am, gripped once again by an insatiable longing to be understood, taught and comforted. Art that endures calls out my name not just one time but many times and changes along with me.

When I was 17, I preached a sermon for the first time. I took as my text part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the beginning of the letter, Paul discusses the relationship of “suffering” to the “glory of God.” I was more interested in the connective tissue that linked those two terms: endurance, character, and, most importantly, hope. It was two months after my father died, and I was looking for a redemptive element in his death. Paul argues that suffering builds endurance, and endurance yields character that gives us the capacity for hope. I don’t know if what Paul writes is true or not, but I do know that I have always had to have hope to go on. I want to believe that longing is the seedbed of hope. In Steve Young’s songs, I find traces of what I have endured and hear my life named. That afternoon and for some time after, these songs give me a way to understand my past and to live with my conflicted nature. Later, Steve will write songs that are more hopeful and recast how I hear these earlier songs.

The novelist Jonathan Lethem has written that the listener, some of us at least, longs for “the voice, and what’s behind it.” What we want from that discovery “is to be with ourselves but not alone.” On a February day forty years ago, fate smiled on me, and I found the work of an enduring artist at an industrial dump site—the cutout bin—and felt I was not alone.

 Everything is its own sigh at being what it is

 And no more, an unanswered yearning

 Toward what will be, or was once perhaps,

 Or might be, might have been, or . . .

From “The Evening Star” by Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translated by Randall Jarrell)

(This is the first of two posts on the music of Steve Young. This post is a bit more conceptual than usual, but I shall return to my storytelling form in the second half. Some of the material here appeared first in my long essay “That Same Lonesome  Blood” in the music issue of Oxford American, 2001. I owe a special debt to Marc Smirnoff for publishing that essay and for all of the help he gave in its editing. My friend Mark Lucius offered some valuable suggestions and caught a number of mistakes in this essay. Thanks Mark for the close reading.)

20 thoughts on “Little Birdie, Come Sing Me A Song

    • Thanks I was a little worried. I wanted to develop this theme of longing more but I worried I was getting too much away from what I have been doing. Nice to know someone gives me permission since I have trouble doing it myself.

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      • I just read the copy the emailers got. Those seem to get away from me a bit fast. I didn’t change anything major, but I smoothed out some sentences in the copy on the web. Some of my most loyal readers get it in email. I should do better by you.

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  1. Robert Penn Warren was, in my opinion, the most astute observer of human nature other than Booth Tarkington. I am told by one of his former students that he used to come into the classroom, sit cross legged on the dest, lay a pile of matches on the dest with easy reach, and proceed to talk about people for 50 minutes without interruption. (Other than to load his pipe and fire it up every now and then.) What he did in All The King’s Men was to create images of a half dozen people that are so indelibly printed on my memory as to prejudice my thinking about politicians for ever more. What’s more, I can understand the motivation each carried into the story and I can accept it as a gift of the human spirit even though by any standard evil accompanied each. Tarkington’s Penrod is the closest thing I have to a role model as I entered into the pile of literature my grade school teacher made available. I found myself on every page. I wish I had been introduced to your kind of music at an earlier age. Believe it or not I heard it first when I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in my early army days. It meant nothing to me. A nasal twang and cry baby lyrics. But since moving to S. Ill in 1961 I have come to fully grasp the sadness and the honesty of the music. As you so aptly point out, “everything is its own sigh at being what it is…..”

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  2. Nice post. I wish I could take credit for it but the line you quote comes from Rainer Maria Rilke via another talented poet Randall Jarrell. Your weaving of literature and your own story in your response is what I long to see people do. It’s the only justification I have for the self-centered account of the world that I share. It makes me feel so much better when it starts a conversation.

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  3. Wonderful, David. Your pieces (especially this one) give expression to some similar feelings I have had listening to music. I don’t have your gift for beautifully articulating these experiences. However, your writing helps me better understand some of my own reactions to certain artists and songs and why music is so central to my life.

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  4. I listened to Steve Young (1964) singing Seven Bridges Road. What a voice and what soul. I listened to a couple of other versions of the song, but they don’t begin to touch Young’s original.​ It tears your heart right out of your chest.

    Thanks, once again.

    *Dean*

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  5. Thanks for this June. I truly value your views and understanding of Steve. It’s one of my better stories that Barb invited you to your first Steve show back in the 70s and you ended up working in his behalf.

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  6. I sometimes think all of my responses to your blog posts are like those basketballs i could never sink; they just glance off the backboard, into someone else’s hands. Kind of like this meditation I composed after reading your March 18. 2016, post:

    Seventy percent of our aural nerve cells don’t communicate with the brain directly but make a U-turn to re-connect with our Jurassic ear. This seems largely irrelevant to daily life, except to a handful of people who actually hear music that—for the rest of us—plays only in our heads. A newly returned war veteran is one of these people. Recuperating from war injuries in a hospital, he begins hearing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and thinks the music emanates from a building across the street. But no one else, not other patients, not his visitors, not the nurses, hears this music, and at some point it occurs to the vet that he is that “Johnny” in the march. Maybe he’s waiting for the “hurrah, hurrah!” the march promises or just a “thank you for your service”. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist-author of Awakenings, thought of self-generated music like this as a way for us to communicate directly with our brains. It talks to us. We respond. The vet, overcoming his initial irritation at the constant broadcasting of this mental music, starts to accept and look forward to it. Soon, it becomes part of his day and he finds a place for it among the mundane chores of daily life, a life the music is helping piece back together. Comfort food to his emotions, perhaps. An acceptance of those things he cannot change.

    But songs aren’t always bandages for our emotional wounds. Sometimes I think we call up a wounded heart to nurse it all over again. Because it can never be mended, only lullabyed to sleep for a time.

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    • You should never apologize for your comments. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone writing not being joyous at such articulate. Somehow this song by Steve seems the perfect response. You can hear it on youtube.

      No Longer Will My Heart Be Truly Breaking
      by Steve Young
      © 1987 Starry Pyramid Music Administered by Bug Music
      I don’t know how long It may be in coming
      I don’t know how long It may be taking
      But my deliverance is promised now
      No longer will my heart be truly breaking
      Well you just can’t break it
      Cause you just can’t take it
      Not on this world any more
      Cause it seen through the tears
      Its seen through the years
      And I don’t know how
      But one day
      It saw through the fears

      And I don’t know how long it may be in coming
      I don’t know how long it may be taking
      But my deliverance is promised now
      No longer will my heart be truly breaking

      I don’t know many people with the courage to write such a song or, for that matter, to speak of the heart as you have here. I am proud to have known Steve and to know you, old friend.

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  7. I left a long reply but it got lost as I tried to log in. Didn’t save a copy, either. Pooh! But here’s something that occurred to me as I was finishing up my earlier post.

    I sometimes find myself filled with that pleasurable sadness that gives me shivers, a sadness that’s found refuge in a song. Sometimes, a sadness is so profound, there is nothing else in experience quite as authentic, and the song–that one and only that one–tugs the sadness out. It’s the only one that does the job. So there I am, goosebumps and ghosts on display, tracing a finger along the long scar of the long-ago wound and not thinking but re-immersing myself in that moment. I am sure it meant something more, means something more, though I’ll be damned if I can identify that “something more”. It eludes me. Only the feel of it remains.

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  8. Hello David, I am happy to have found this piece transcribed. I was fortunate enough to have been at Steve’s memorial, and I was very moved by what you had prepared. It was clear how much you had been touched by Steve’s gifts as an artist, as well as friend and human being. I could well identify with your story, although I am not from the South, I have always longed for it. It has a strong pull on me that i can not explain or articulate.

    My travels there stir something in me. I do have southern roots, but they go back a couple of generations. I’ve always felt out of place, here in the mid-west. My discover of Steve’s music is similar to yours, I just happened to stumble upon the Blue Canyon version of Seven Bridges Road. I had heard of Steve through the music of Gram Parsons, so I was aware of him, but up until that point I had not heard him.

    I was not in JCPenney, when I found my copy, it was in a used record store. In my opinion; misplaced there waiting for me in the dollar bin. I saw that cover and I knew, just from that pose. The laid back look on Steve’s face. It could have been from a hundred years ago. That appealed to my sense of history and the past.
    If I can borrow the Japanese phrase,”koi no yokan”. Although I am using the meaning slightly out of context, since I did not know Steve personally.
    I knew that I had found someone that would change me, open new doors and ones that had been closed. His words and songs had a profound affect on me, that continue to this day.

    I am forever grateful to him for his honesty, the bearing of his soul in his lyrics,how he expressed the dichotomy that so many of us live with in our lives, and the struggle to find your place, and purpose.

    I think as a writer, you are in the same vein as Steve. Your writing is poetic as well, and captures so many flavors, colors and emotions. I think Steve was a good teacher, as you pointed out, when you mentioned you could as well have read Steve’s lyrics and learned as much. I agree.

    With his later work as a writer, he drew on more personal, and deeper feelings. He moved in different directions. He was able to transition and change as he matured. It was a natural progression, that did not diminish his talent, it only grew to encompass the direction of his own life. In his search, manifested in his music, I think he succeeded.

    I hope he was content and able to garner a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment with what he had accomplished, not just in terms of success, but in the fact that he touched and inspired people, on his journey of self discovery.

    You represented him as a true friend, and inspiration, which in turn, I believe you were to him as well. He would have been humbled at your graciousness.

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    • I have been keeping up with the blog the way I should the last month. Been a little stumped in my writing and it has spread over other things I’m afraid. This is one of the most gracious responses I have received and I am so glad that you took the time to write all this. You clearly have a lot of passion for music, a sensitivity to other people, and a caring nature. Thank you for writing and becoming one of my readers and one of my Facebook friends. If a response like this doesn’t get me started again, I am a lost cause.

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      • Thank you, David, you are very cordial and a pleasant sensitive person, a rare breed. You have a heart, and through what seems many trials you have managed to make your way to where you are now., which I hope is a more happier and content place. It seems the constants in your life have been music, writing, and the friends you have made along the way. Your writing is warm and inviting, I think a reflection of your personality as well.
        I do have passion for music, among other things. I would say, that I am a passionate person with many interests and causes dear to my heart. I have to admit, I have not kept up with it for the last several years. I only have been able to through Facebook.
        I know there are a lot of emerging artists and some that have been around for a while that I only have a passing knowledge off. My circumstances, do not make it easy to indulge in this passion like I used to. I only started this block a few months ago. I don’t have many followers, frankly, I was surprised to have any.
        Nothing would make my day more(I should say night) that to know that you have started taking up the pen again, to find the words flow from you like a spring time river, or a fountain from a tucked away small town. Thank you for acknowledging me, it means a lot. I respect your writing immensely. Your characters are rich and vibrant, some are down and out, but still maintain an air of grace and dignity.I think you write in the tradition of James Agee, and to some extent Studs Terkel. Your stories don’t need music to sing.

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