Early in her solo set at the Melting Point in Athens, GA, Patty Griffin is belting a new song from a yet-to-be-released album (American Kid, due 2013), when she totally misses her note. It’s not just one word, either, but an entire phrase. She just completely misses it – opens her mouth, aims at the sound, and falls about a full half-step short of what she was going for. I can tell because her face flinches the way you do when you expect to take a sip of soda and it turns out the cup is full of milk. Besides, Patty Griffin is not one of those gals who inexplicably aims for a minor note in the middle of a major key. She is not a jazz singer. So far.
The mistake doesn't slow her down, though. The three or four words which slipped out that way fall behind, and she persists through a song which is emotional and honest. It’s called “Faithful Son” and it presents a moment wherein I’m reminded the world won’t end after the election. When all else fails, we’ll have a new album full of Patty Griffin songs to dive into next year. Songs about love and hope and transcendence and beauty, despite whatever dark and bleak crapstorm might befall us in the wake of this seemingly polarizing political shit-flinging we call an election season.
I’m reminded in that moment of an evening I spent alone in my old apartment back in Seattle, two weeks before the election of 2008. I was listening to Patty sing “Up to the Mountain” – a song I’d heard a million times before. Children Running Through was sort of a beacon for me during a time when I was wading through some rough waters – overcoming the trauma of 9/11, a breakup, a career shift.
“Stay on the ride,” Patty was singing right at me through my laptop speakers. “It’s gonna take you somewhere.”
But, I don’t know how I’d glossed over “Up to the Mountain” so many times. This particular night, I was feeling it. I listened to it a few times before deciding to look up Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech – the last one he ever gave, the one about which Griffin wrote that song. I sat there in my apartment and just cried that night, reading the speech, listening to the song, thinking about the Bush years and 9/11 and everything I was going through, and what it would mean for every American minority – the black community specifically, but really everyone – if Barack Obama managed to win that election.
I hadn’t been in a trusting mood when Obama showed up on the scene, certainly not for any politician. That he was asking for trust, for us to join him in a long crawl out of a reckless ocean, seemed so presumptuous to me. But by the time I was there on the floor of my living room, having my little moment with that Patty Griffin song, I had long since come to the conclusion that the previous decade had brought us some darkness. And, despite its deep and engrossing nature, all it takes to break the vast and seemingly ever-reaching darkness is a single struck match. And that’s hope. And that’s no small thing. That’s what Obama was talking about, so I joined hands with that movement.
But I came even further to understand in that moment that Barack Obama was a single link in a very long chain – a chain which had begun long before he arrived, and which included Martin Luther King and Patty Griffin and Barack Obama and millions of other people whose names would never be known beyond their families, and me. I started thinking about another speech Martin Luther King made, about how there would be small missteps and mistakes and places where the movement would be pushed back, but in the end, “We shall overcome.” (Of course, I had no idea yet that I would write a book about the woman who helped bring that song so far into the world that Dr. King - and President Johnson - would quote it.)
Now in 2012, four years later almost to the day, President Obama is meeting with CBS’s Bob Scheiffer and his opponent Mitt Romney for their third and final debate, and I’m watching Patty Griffin move through a set of new and old songs. “Up to the Mountain” isn’t in her set list tonight, but it doesn’t need to be. The song is still important, provocative, and arresting – absolutely – but we’ve walked out of the depths into the shallow end these last few years. We’re not out of the water yet, but we’re heading that way.
She’s nearing the end of her set when she lights into “No Bad News” – a song about the lying jerk who done you wrong, presumably. But there seems to be a certain underlying spirit to the tune this night, in the middle of this election which has been so marred by negative ads and things like t-shirts that say “Put the white back in the White House.” We’re all sick of bad news, particularly this crowd of likeminded individuals in a state and a region presumed to be full of closed-minded bigots (it’s not – they’re just louder than the rest of us).
We won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid
And though the darkness may come our way, we won’t be afraid to be alive anymore
And we’ll grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us
Til there are no strangers anymore
She sings these lines and pauses for a solo on her chunky guitar. On the recording, there are horns here, other instruments, drums and whatnot, but tonight it’s just Griffin and her energy moving through the “solo”, and the energy in the room. The crowd is cranked up from this last verse and swells underneath her, carrying the song through to the end before erupting in screams and applause.
“I feel like a Beatle up here,” she says.
She comes back for an encore and sings "Heavenly Day" and "I'm Gonna Miss You When You're Gone". She thanks the crowd for skipping the debate in order to see her return to performing solo. It's one of the best shows I've seen all year, and it's a shame this tour will be so short for her.
Sure, she flubbed that line on “Faithful Son” then struggled to tune her guitar later in the set, but who cares.
“I listen to my old recordings sometimes,” she told the crowd, trying to tune her guitar, “and not everything is in tune, and I think – yes! It’s still beautiful! Not everything has to be in tune all the time.”
She's absolutely right. Allowing room for humanity to happen - to recognize that nobody's perfect, that imperfection is important sometimes - it reminds us to be forgiving and have some mercy on ourselves, mercy on each other. Music is there to remind us that even when a note is flat, the melody always moves forward.