But Grant, you missed the best song…
I could have written this as a comment on Grant’s latest entry about Christy McWilson, but it’s time I put up something new in my own little corner here, and this probably will run a little longer than just comment-length. And, probably most importantly, I had – rather ironically – actually already been planning to post something about a song of McWilson’s on that Guilty Women record that stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it a few weeks ago.
Only it’s a different song than the one Grant was going on about.
Not to diminish the worth of “Weight Of The World”, just to be clear; it’s just that I was already plenty familiar with that particular song, because McWilson had recorded it back in 2000 on her solo debut disc The Lucky One. Nice to see it revisited here; if Grant hadn’t caught it that first time around, clearly there are others who didn’t either, and it’s most definitely worthy of a new lease on life.
But a couple songs later on the disc comes McWilson’s other songwriting contribution to Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women. (The record, by the way, struck me as an admirable left-turn for Alvin as a way of acknowledging the death of Chris Gaffney, for many years a staple of Alvin’s band, the Guilty Men. Rather than trying to record without Gaffney, he asked a handful of women with whom he’d worked in various capacities over the years to make a record with him. In addition to McWilson, the Guilty Women include Sarah Brown, Cindy Cashdollar, Amy Farris, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, and Lisa Pankratz.)
Anyway…the song is called “Potter’s Field”, and when the record reached that track, with McWilson’s soulfully sweet voice in the lead, supported by empathetic harmonies from several of the other women, I just assumed they were singing a traditional hymn. It’s the kind of ballad that sounds as old as the hills, from the very first time you hear it. But it’s not. This is a Christy McWilson original. In my humble opinion (though Grant may contend otherwise), it’s the best thing she’s ever written.
It’s a fairly simple song, in a way that any accomplished songwriter will tell you is deceivingly hard to come by. It’s not really the lyrics so much that make the magic; there actually aren’t that many lyrics, though all of the words belong, and serve the song. In the chorus, McWilson requests that she be buried in potter’s field, a place “where the powerless are strong.” The emotion floods in on the next line: The melody shifts to a sorrowful minor-key as McWilson continues, “and the nameless are unclaimed and unrevealed.”
The song’s two brief “verses” (if they could be termed that) between the choruses feature similarly wistful musical moments. You can feel McWilson’s heart pouring out as she sings about “the dreams and all the disappointments” (in the first verse) and “a song that promises no sorrow” (in the second).
The whole thing clocks in at a tad over three and a half minutes, but it feels like it floats by without passage of time, another mark of a truly special song.
McWilson’s “Potter’s Field” isn’t yet a classic traditional tune – this is, after all, its first appearance on record – but it seems to me to be precisely the kind of number that warrants permanent residency in the annals of American folk songs. I’m not entirely certain that can happen anymore, in this latter day and digital age.
But I can say, for certain, that I hear it.