Awhile back, before the Great Migration, I wrote an article here titled: Gram Parsons: An Underrated Songwriter? At the time I was the Admin of an ND group devoted to Parsons and his legacy (a group that happened to have the most members of 190+ groups here at the time).
One reason for its composition was that, in measuring the legacy of Parsons, it seemed as though his songwriting was not much considered in terms of his seminal role in the formation of whatever we’re talking about here (insert label of your choice). Specifically I had in mind the sensitivity to the poetic that other writers such as Kristofferson and Newbury were bringing to the country music table at the time.
A recent post by John Ellis on a new album by Gram’s protégé Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell seemed to struggle once again with the question of labels, specifically country, alt country, and Americana. Mr. Ellis sidenotes, “My inner circle, which consists roughly of four bribed friends and my long-suffering wife have heard me repeat ad nausaem that what separates the albums I want to review from the albums that I don’t is often the songwriting.”
That got me thinking about this age-old question about what we call “it” (or more like two-decades-old max). I think we can at least agree that whatever label we prefer (and personally I don’t prefer Americana, as most of you know), good songwriting is something we all value deeply in whatever we’re dealing with here, and that most Clear Channel Country does not exemplify that essential quality in our music.
With that let me get back to Gram Parsons as a great songwriter by looking at one of his many outstanding compositions (more than others accumulate in much longer lifetimes).
“A Song For You” is one of Gram Parsons’ most enigmatic songs, and most beautiful. But what does it mean? What story is being told?
We pretty much know the imagistic first verse is descriptive of the Okefenokee swamp area of rural Georgia, where Gram grew up until his dad put a bullet through his head one Christmas Eve:
Oh, my land is like a wild goose
Wanders all around everywhere
Trembles and it shakes till every tree is loose
It rolls the meadows and it rolls the nails
Could it also be descriptive of the inner being, the soul of the narrator? Sounds like he’s on one heck of a ride.
Then the refrain:
So take me down to your dance floor
And I won’t mind the people when they stare
Paint a different color on your front door
And tomorrow we will still be there
Why is it her dance floor? Why are people staring? Why tell her to paint her front door a different color? And then almost a resigned statement that, yep, tomorrow we will still be there.
We know we’re in the heart of the old, languid, deep South. Could it be people are staring because, perhaps, it’s an interracial love affair? Just one thought. As for painting a different color on the front door, a good article about this topic as related to “signals” or emotions: http://www.examiner.com/article/what-the-color-of-your-front-door-says-about-you. Could it be that emotions, as symbolized by the color of one’s front door, are about to change? Perhaps the narrator is trying to tell her that might help, changing that color, possibly even change a quantum outcome that seems preordained?
Jesus built a ship to sing a song to
It sails the rivers and it sails the tide
Some of my friends don’t know who they belong to
Some can’t get a single thing to work inside
Losing the story line here? Perhaps not. What is this ship that Jesus built? To most folks in this part of the country, well, I guess the ship could be the world, and he built it so He, and perhaps the narrator/writer, could sing our songs to it, to its glory. The next line implies that, while he has found peace with this thought, not so much with some of his friends who are much like him. Maybe they’re artist types, musicians perhaps, who are what they are partly because things just aren’t working quite “right” inside, and they don’t know just where they belong.
And tomorrow we will still be there.
I loved you every day and now I’m leaving
And I can see the sorrow in your eyes
I hope you know a lot more than you’re believing
Just so the sun don’t hurt you when you cry
Wow, bang, just like that. The pretty picture has shattered, and in a matter-of-fact, this-is-the-way-it-is kind of way. Why is he leaving? He’s loved her every day. But he can see the sorrow in her eyes, that line written almost as if it’s an out-of-body experience and he’s watching the scene unfold, or about to. The third line, suddenly pulled from his inner thoughts now in direct address to her, reminds me of Faulkner’s “Memory believes before knowing remembers” (did Gram read ol’ Bill? he must have, or just that Faulkner expresses what is deep inside every Southerner, including Gram?). I hope you know that no matter what I still care? Just so that blazing Southern sun doesn’t do too much more damage than I’m doing now? Hmmm.
Then a quick syllabic “So” before the refrain to end (some hear “Oh” I hear “So” as in therefore).
…And tomorrow we may still be there.
Back to the moment, take me down to that dance floor girl, ’cause we just don’t know yet what I’m about to do. But does the last line change to “may” from “will”? Is he re-thinking his leaving? Would a different color on her front door change things?
One last thing. Why such a simple title to such a complex song? The same title was obvious for Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” — it’s all in direct address to the lady and not much reading between the lines needed. But this painting? Perhaps it’s in line with Gram’s tendency to provide us with simple titles to some of his most intense songs (e.g, the “Hot Burrito” songs).
Too much bad English teacher in me? Yep, just listen and enjoy. This song was probably not meant to be torn apart like this. But one can’t help the thought process the enigmatic story elicits. Gram himself said it was a love story about a place he came from and hinted also that it was about leaving (that much we could tell Gram!), but added, “but it’s about a whole lot more.”