Anatomy of a Great Song IV: Kris Kristofferson’s “Duvalier’s Dream”
This, to me, is the best example of what can happen to a song once it’s out in the world and its meaning is no longer controlled by the writer.
Let me set up the context in which I was hearing Kristofferson’s “Duvalier’s Dream”, so that what I say afterwards makes some sense.
Last week, after a difficult month and the anticipation of one particular encounter, I forced myself to relax after said encounter by putting on some music and reading. I poured a drink and let my player run with the headphones on, inspired by, and drowning out, the screeching 20-something girls who live upstairs and were having a drinking party of their own.
I’ve never paid attention to “DD” before, but that night it came on just as I was reading the following passage:
“ ‘Lucy especially was devoted to the mysticism so often found among those suddenly released from the domination and discipline of the church…She accepted a highly personalized God to whom she would talk as if He were a member of the family circle. Her religion was intimate and homely, with God a ubiquitous presence invading dreams, provoking miracles, and blighting sinners’ fields.’
Following the Revolutionary War, the new republic was jarred by a period of ecclesiastical turmoil, during which the established churches were viewed by a large segment of the populace as spiritually bankrupt. The flood of religious experimentation that roiled the United States during the first decades of the nineteenth century, [was] christened the Second Great Awakening…
The line separating religion from superstition can be indistinct, and this was especially true during the theological chaos of the Second Great Awakening, in which Joseph came of age. The future prophet’s spiritual curiosity moved him to explore far and wide on both sides of that blurry line.”
(A note: I’m crazy about Jon Krakauer. I’ve been meaning to get to his books for years. I spent the little free time I had in May devouring Into Thin Air, a book that is both claustrophobic and terrifying. A friend recommended Under the Banner of Heaven [on Mormon Fundamentalism] to me, from which this passage comes, and I’m crazy about it too. He’s an adverby/adjectivey writer like me, but he does it well. I think he’s a walking thesaurus. He has some brilliant phrasing, some of which I read several times to fully appreciate. This book also plays into my recent interest in why people are persuaded into religious conversion, especially in mid-19th century America. Wouldn’t you love to be dropped into that time? It seems like total chaos…everyone starting over together, this confluence of great wealth and great poverty; violence and abandonment of order; vain attempts to uphold virtue and righteousness in a context of slavery and misogyny; frontier crossing and boundary breaking. It fascinates me.)
So with this passage and my interests as of late, I suppose I was receptive to an alternative reading of “DD”. I kept replaying the song and re-reading those passages. Like all of my Anatomies of Great Songs, I feel compelled to write about this one because I had a heightened experience of it, not just because it complemented my mental state so well (or ’cause I was drinking…), but because it is a great song deserving of some analysis.
In truth, it’s a love song. Right? The lyrics detail the way in which a disillusioned man is rescued from his isolation by a captivating woman, only to be left heartbroken and destroyed after she’s done with him. Read about the apparent prophetic powers of Joseph Smith (not to mention his charisma), however, and suddenly the words have a whole new meaning. This is before you consider their potential affirmation of, or punishment for, Smith’s promotion of “spiritual wifery”.
“He shunned the world of mortals and the sounds of human tongues
And blessed the night that chased their sight away.
A disillusioned dreamer who would never love again
Who’d tried of it and found that it was rotten.
It’s hard to keep believing when you know you’ve been deceived
To face a lie and dare to try again
But there’s nothing like a woman with a spell of make believe
To make a new believer of a man
She touched him through the senses that his mind could not control
Then smiling, stepped aside and watched him fall
Betrayed by his own body and the hunger in his soul
Duvalier was a dreamer after all”
Structurally, the song doesn’t offer much for analysis. To me, the songs that aren’t complicated by heavy instrumentation and distracting tricks, yet are riveting to the listener, are the truly great songs. The accompaniment is virtually absent in the verses and mostly driven by a small group of strings the rest of the time. They open and close the song, and fill in the sections that have no singing. The main riff played by these strings finishes with a half-step resolution that is more overtly emphasized at the end of the song, lending an eerie, resolved-but-not-really finish. I’ve heard a few other songs that use this effectively.
Speaking of other songs, doesn’t this sound like something else? I can’t figure out the pathways; whether KK heard other songs that he melded bits of into “DD” or if I’ve heard several other songs that use bits and pieces of his melodies, the string riff, the overall sound of the recording, his vocal delivery. I don’t know. Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” maybe? I’ve been especially frustrated by my failing memory of other songs and their details with “DD”, but I’ll keep thinking about it.
Finally, I adore KK’s voice in this song. Predictable, I suppose, since I’m such a voice girl. I do like his singing, and I was one of the people who dropped everything and ran to the side of the stage when he appeared at a recent Calgary Folk Fest to see his, erm, gorgeousness up close, but I wouldn’t say he’s normally in my regular rotation. The vocal delivery in this song might shift that, though. I like the creak as he finishes off “Duvalier was a dreamer, after all”, with a little sigh in there, like we all try to rise above our dark desires, but to no avail. Delivered in a knowing way…oh KK, you’re so smart.
It seems that’s why Mormonism, and all the related American-based religions of that era, were so successful: they allowed one to indulge (well, to some extent) (well, some more than others) without repercussions in the afterlife. I know I’m generalizing. There does seem to be allowance if not for overt capitalist greed (or, ha, constructed parameters under which cheating is not only permissible, but rewarded – instructed! – by God), then for the acquisition of material goods and pleasure in non-spiritual activities, in some of these religions. Resistance is futile, no? Look at poor Duvalier…whatever your reasons for avoiding romance, it’s likely someone will eventually break through.
The little reading I’ve done on KK doesn’t reveal much of a religious background or inclination, but I could have missed something. I doubt he planned to have this read as some kind of vague commentary on spiritual belief and conversion under conditions of disillusion instead of one man’s romantic plight, but you never know. He’s a smarty pants, though, which makes him a good songwriter. Those ones that rely on an extensive knowledge of literature, and continue to question the world around them, wrapping up their ideas in concise songs like “DD” (only 3 minutes!) are the best songwriters.