Saturday, March 29, 2008

`Music is the Language of Heaven'

My oldest son sends compilation CDs of music he thinks I’ll enjoy. His taste is reliably good and his musical interests are broad so the discs often spend weeks in my car. For the first time in years I’m learning new music – that is, music new to me – by heart. His latest gift is heavy on Dylan oddities (“Dixie”), Dylan covers and Sam Cooke but also great live versions of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Especially fine are Buddy Holly’s “Dearest” and an alternate take of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

The best cut Joshua sent, however, is Levon Helm’s cover of the Stanley Brothers song “False-Hearted Lover Blues” off Helm's recent Dirt Farmer. It’s a classic bluegrass rant, beginning with acoustic guitar interrupted by two rim shots like gunshots. I have a weakness for story songs. In this case the whiskey-rotted speaker blames his troubles on two-timing women. The complete lyrics are here, but this is the passage I especially like:

“They'll bite the hand that feeds them
Spend all the money you can save
From your heart strings weave silk garters
Build a dog house on your grave

“When my earthly stay is over
Sink my dead body in the sea
Just tell my false hearted lover
That the whales will watch over me”

At work here is a species of surréalisme de Americane primitif, or some such thing. André Breton had nothing on Ralph Stanley. “Build a dog house on your grave” is a memorable putdown, better than the conventional “I’ll piss on your grave,” worthy of Mark Twain because it’s so unlikely: Imagine feeling enough resentment to invest time and money in building a cemetery dog house. I was floored several years ago when ABC’s Nightline profiled Helm and he casually came out with this:

“Music is the language of heaven. That's what Emerson taught us. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was playing music. I would grab an old broom and, you know, pretend that I was singing and playing.”

Who else would cherish the words of The Two Ralphs – Stanley and Waldo Emerson? I’m assuming Helm has read Emerson’s “Intellect.” Here’s the pertinent passage:

“The angels are so enamored of the language that is spoken in heaven that they will not distort their lips with the hissing and unmusical dialects of men, but speak their own, whether their be any who understand it or not.”

Before writing this post I reread “Intellect” – early Emerson, from Essays: First Series (1841) – and plucked this morsel of confident, democratic Americana:

“Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? Every body knows as much as the savant. The walls of rude minds are scrawled all over with facts, with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions. Every man, in the degree in which he has wit and culture, finds his curiosity inflamed concerning the modes of living and thinking of other men, and especially of those classes whose minds have not been subdued by the drill of school education.”


Ron Slate said...

You might enjoy the music of Ollabelle, which includes Amy Helm, Levon's daughter. Amy also plays on Levon's DIRT FARMER. One of my daughters pointed me to Ollabelle -- but I got the jump on DIRT FARMER.

Anonymous said...

The Amy/Levon harmonies are amazing, indeed.

I included Helm's version of False-Hearted Lover Blues in a muxtape (an online streamable mixtape) I made of artists who will appear at the Bonnaroo festival this year. Because you like this song, I think you'll enjoy the entire 12-song mix. You can find a link to it at