Our Common Thread: Songs of Movements and Mourning
Still shot from the socially distanced video for Grace Potter's pandemic-themed single "Eachother," featuring Lucius, Jackson Browne, and Marcus King.
Grace Potter was washing the windows in her living room when a thunderbolt of inspiration struck. Official lockdown orders due to the coronavirus pandemic had caused everyone to sequester in their homes, feeling anxious, afraid, and alone. The singer-songwriter was no exception, even if she could enjoy the company of her husband and son. As she watched them fix a broken train set on the floor, internal locomotion moved her in an unexpected direction: the lyrics and melody of “Eachother,” Potter’s newest single featuring Lucius, Jackson Browne, and Marcus King.
“It was the rare intersection of a singular emotion, a singular circumstance and some simple music all in one beautiful space in time,” she says as she revisits that moment. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s powerful, and life experience has taught me to pick up the tape recorder so I don’t forget it.”
“Eachother” begins with Potter lightly picking her acoustic guitar, and when her tender and emotive voice cuts through the music, she describes the odd routine we’ve all learned to accept as reality.
Streets are all empty
Shelves are all bare
The world is holding its breath like we’re running out of air
Later, in the second verse, Marcus King’s blues-soaked vocal describes the pain and necessity of social distance — “I talk to my neighbor / But we don’t get too close.” The final verse of “Eachother,” featuring Jackson Browne, a COVID-19 survivor, leaves listeners with the uncertainty and instability that troubles so many minds, from the nurse reporting to work with insufficient personal protective equipment to the unemployed musician unsure when she can book another gig: “When it’s finally all over / I wonder how much this world will have changed.”
There are possibilities of hope and despair in that universal inquiry, but Potter’s song finds faith in that which music has always helped facilitate: solidarity. “We’ve got Eachother / And for now, that’s enough.” She sings with a chorus of support from Browne, King, and Lucius.
In an interview, Potter describes music as “more a basic human need than a luxury,” but embraces the contradiction that her craft, like all art, is simultaneously “wildly important and not that important at all.”
In the middle of a pandemic, songs, paintings, and poems — no matter how magnificent — cannot return oxygen to a dying patient’s lungs. But despite its physical limitations, great art can contribute to the emotional and spiritual vitality of people who might otherwise fall victim to cynicism and despondency.
“There are a lot of forces at work right now trying to make our global situation feel doomed,” Potter says, “But music is there to deflate the doomsday fun house.”
The deflation of the doomsday fun house so that people can escape psychological imprisonment is what Potter describes as the “job” of the musician in times of trauma and trouble.
“Eachother” falls into a long, storied tradition of music as a response to global crises and calamities — both manmade and forces of nature — in the service of truth, and in pursuit of what Potter calls “growth and healing.”
Robbing Death of Its Sting
Music, like the rain, is a constant element in human life, and history proves it pours with the greatest force in periods of mourning, when the bereaved and outraged are searching for a salve against the pain of loss.
Helen Dell, a scholar at the University of Melbourne, explains that the troubadour and trouvère traditions of the Middle Ages were the musical attempts to negotiate with the specter of death that haunted the gift of love when life expectancy was low and medical technology was primitive. Singers entertained and moved their audiences with melodic tales of falling in love and then falling into death due to plagues, wars, and mysterious causes. “Does encapsulation within a song rob death of its sting?” Dell asks when analyzing the ubiquity of mortality in medieval music.
Dell’s question points to the constant human search for answers and comfort, especially in times of loss, that is traceable throughout the development of music. In a book that she co-edited, Singing Death: Reflections on Music and Mortality, Dell and other scholars identify several examples of people exercising their creativity in the service of mourning. The Sacred Harp, a choral tradition in churches of the American South, expresses the essence of gospel, which is the hope for triumph over death. Even if the theological questions of the afterlife remain intractable, music has sought to give its players, singers, and listeners a temporary victory for joy in the midst of suffering. From the Irish folk song to the New Orleans jazz funeral procession, the gift of song functions as a reminder of the pleasures and possibilities of living.
Music, Dell explains, “accommodates death by giving voice to the dead,” but also by offering an opportunity for creative response. The impulse to “live with music” rather than “die with noise,” as Ralph Ellison phrased it, informs not only the above examples, but many of the most moving songs in contemporary culture.
A list of songs of mourning and protest through America’s short history could fill volumes of books, but a few have stood out and stayed relevant long after the headlines that inspired them faded.
Abel Meeropal, a Jewish poet, wrote the lyrics to “Strange Fruit” in 1937 to protest not only the lynching of Black Americans, but the federal government’s refusal to coordinate a national response to protect the life and rights of its own citizens. Meeropol’s wife, Laura Duncan, and later Billie Holiday, the singer who would perform its most striking and enduring version, composed and refined its music.
Last March, jazz vocalist and pianist Kandace Springs released a cover version of “Strange Fruit,” which now provides a “beautiful yet ugly” (to use Springs’ words) musical backdrop to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the nationwide uprising against police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system that followed.
Now, as it has throughout its history, “Strange Fruit” confronts the listener with the reality of a dead body swinging from a tree in a country that prides itself on human rights and equality under the law.
“Strange Fruit” depicts the cruel consequences of legal and political authorities acting as if Black lives do not matter, and is as relevant now as it was when lynchings were commonplace. Then, as now, the racial justice movement seeks to finally create a country that takes seriously its promise to uphold everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Learning historical truth through statistical data is essential in the practice of democratic citizenship. But the danger is that numerical calculations can flatten the human reality behind the casualty count. In times of national mourning, music can bequeath to its audience entertainment and emotional stimulation. It can also pull off the magic trick of making the seemingly distant and abstract become personal, even intimate.
In another example, Johnny Cash’s intense and authoritative rendition of Peter La Farge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” alchemizes the heartbreaking story of one Native American Marine into an exploration of war, patriotism, the American expulsion and oppression of its Indigenous people, and alcoholism. Hayes contributed to the preservation of his country in the iconic battle of Iwo Jima only to return to land that was stolen from his ancestors.
The outrageous continuation of racial injustice has continued to inspire songs across genres in the modern era. Son Volt’s “The Symbol,” from 2019, brilliantly explores to whom American symbols and soil belong through the story of one Mexican immigrant wrestling against a surge of nativist hatred. “Cry No More,” by Rhiannon Giddens, is a stunning gospel remembrance of the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church hate crime of 2015 that doubles as a protest against centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and countless episodes of oppression against citizens of color. In hip-hop and R&B, Alicia Keys (“Perfect Way to Die”), Childish Gambino (“This is America”), and many others have written and performed music of mourning and protest in reaction to incidents of police brutality.
While racial injustice is an ever-present part of the American story, more isolated disasters and traumas have also given birth to grief and anger in song.
The Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young classic “Ohio,” released soon after the killings of anti-war student demonstrators by the National Guard at Kent State University, grieved the dead while challenging the apathy of the public. “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” Neil Young sings, effectively placing the audience in the infamous photograph of a young woman crying in anguish over a lifeless body on a campus quad.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen recalls hearing a stranger from a moving car shout, “We need you, Bruce!” The utility that the songwriter offers is not necessarily political, and it certainly isn’t militaristic. But a song can heal, provoke, comfort, and sharpen focus for those who assimilate it into their lives, and so Springsteen set to work. The unidentified fan’s declaration was partially responsible for Springsteen writing the songs that would comprise his 2002 record, The Rising. On songs like “Lonesome Day,” “Paradise,” “Mary’s Place,” “My City of Ruins,” and the title track, Springsteen goes inward, searching past the traumatic images of the attack to sketch the imagery of their aftermath: widowed husbands waking up alone, funeral lunches, and lonely women contemplating suicide.
A more mundane example of national hardship is the financial crash of 2008, and its subsequent liquidation of middle-class wealth. Anaïs Mitchell cites the economic precarity and instability of that era among her influences for her outstanding 2012 album, Young Man in America. Throughout the eclectic soundscape of modern folk with classical accents she creates, Mitchell employs a vocabulary of labor. Working in the immediate and metaphorical sense, her language of work, and its disappearance, inspects the loss of purpose and identity — not only in the lives of unemployed and impoverished individuals, but also in a nation gone adrift into extreme inequality.
Letting in Light
These songs, along with many others, coalesce to form an informative and inspiring chronicle of human pain and persistence during trials of historical significance. It’s a musical tradition fertile for continuation today, as with Grace Potter’s “Eachother,” an early example of what will be inevitably be many that address, dramatize, protest, and mourn the costs of the coronavirus pandemic.
The desperate need to connect amid the isolation of the virus was a driving force for Potter to invite other musicians to collaborate on the song. Working collaboratively, even from afar, served as “an appropriate acknowledgement of our common thread,” she says.
As the rates and sickness and death from COVID-19 escalate, and the stakes of racial injustice become more apparent and urgent, Potter’s simple refrain, “We got each other,” gains power and resonance. Music has consistently offered a singable and danceable reminder of human potential of creativity and possibility of unity, even in the worst of times.
It might not save lives (at least not in the physical sense), but music allows listeners to emotionally navigate otherwise confusing and overwhelming realities. It opens a sliver for light to challenge the darkness. The author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war during World War II and often wrote about war, racism, and poverty in his body of work, saw it that way, reminding us that “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”
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