Archive for February, 2012

I’ll probably talk about Josh Ritter, one of my favorite songwriters, quite a bit on this blog.  He writes airtight songs, the kind where every word feels carefully chosen. It’s obvious that he works his tail off to make his songs as perfect as they can be, but he never loses that rare quality, that charisma and personality that makes the songs relatable.  Too many songwriters (and I’d be this type if I were one) over-edit themselves right into boring songs. Ritter can get a little sleepy, but I’ve never found him boring.

Anyway, he’s also fairly literary, so he touches upon folklore elements quite a bit, usually as allusions woven into more real-world tales.

“Bone of Song” comes from his excellent, fairly quiet 2003 album Hello Starling.  I think it’s a great way to kick off the blog because it’s not rooted in any one mythology, but goes straight to the heart of the idea of music as the product of some almost divine force in the universe, as something much bigger than ourselves.

In the song, the narrator finds a bone in the roots of a tree. Upon closer examination, etchings and engravings on the bone reveal its special nature:

I ran my palm along them and I heard
lucky are you who finds me in the wilderness
I am the only unquiet ghost that does not seek rest
the words on the bone of song were close and small
and though their tongues were dead I found I knew them all
in the hieroglyphs of quills and quatrain lines
Osiris—the fall of Troy—Auld Lang Syne
Kathleen Mauvoreen—Magnificat—Your Cheatin’ Heart
the chords of a covenant king singing for the Ark

All the great tales and songs, linked together and created via the same animating creative spirit.  I love that “unquiet ghost” line and, to me, “chords of a covenant king singing for the Ark” (above and beyond its killer alliteration) evokes Leonard Cohen’s too-much-covered “Hallelujah.”  And since we’re on Cohen, the whole song also brings to mind Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” in which Cohen envisions himself living in a tower many, many floors below luminaries like Hank Williams.

Interestingly, Ritter goes even further into the idea of the song as being larger than the artist when his narrator examines the bone further and finds:

a blessing written older than the rest
it said leave me here I care not for wealth or fame
I’ll remember your song – but I’ll forget your name
the words that I sang blew off like the leaves in the wind
and perched like birds in the branches before landing on the bone again

As my old “Introduction to Poetry” teacher used to say, “That’s good stuff!”  It seems to play a little bit with the idea of the Aeolian Harp, which makes music when the wind blows across its strings. Only in this case, the harp plays the narrator as much as the narrator plays the harp.


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