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A Song is Meant to be Sung

David Curtis

There are those who pay attention to the words of a song, and those who let them stream by like a passing breeze. In my seemingly endless endeavor to stop apologizing for who I am (and am not), I have sometimes reckoned with a question: Are my songs really more about the lyrics than the music? It’s true the creative impetus usually begins with the words – and for me, ultimately the words to a song will keep it around or force its obselescence. I have often said and still believe that my songs are mainly “poetry put to music”. But, the lyrics I write for songs are specifically meant to be sung. They are often born within a melody and depend on the chords that accompany them.

Maybe I should consider myself a modern (female) troubadour – in that I take seriously the crafting of each lyric, and in keeping with that tradition, they belong inside a song.

A song that is meant to be sung to someone.

Yes, here I am still writing songs in my own poetic way, and I still need to sing these songs for others. (Have I been complicating this simple fact needlessly? For decades?)

For the month of October I will be playing every Wednesday at The Family Wash, in East Nashville. There’s a certain circuitous beauty for me about being back there – although it was the old location, I did a month-long (I think it was October) residency there years ago, just before recording Luminous, and with the incredible band that was on that record. We tracked live, and I know it would not have gone as well if we hadn’t had that experience the month before. This time I’m starting out spare, as a duo this first week, and hope to be adding members along the way. I’ll be taking the opportunity to play songs from the last decade or so – as well as of course, this crop of new songs I’ve been working on.

Also this month I am hoping to get up a new page on my website just for lyrics. There’s something about letting the words to my songs be seen so nakedly – without the music – that has always made me feel a little too vulnerable. Like they would be judged unfairly if taken out of their aural context. But I have to admit that as a listener myself, I’m always eager to read the words to songs. Reading the lyrics inside Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon record when I was in middle school (a relic I found of my mother’s) marked the beginning of my own path as a songwriter.

For now, here are the lyrics to “Goodbye Kiss”, from Birdlight – one I plan to play at the “late night residency” at some point.

For those of you who can be a night owl at least once this month, hope to see you at The Wash ~

GOODBYE KISS

 

When did you learn

Life can be savage

And unfair?

 

When did you learn

No number of tears

Can bring back the lost lamb?

 

When did you learn

Not every fallen feather

Needs to be gathered –

 

When did you learn

Although the road goes on

Somewhere

You don’t have to take it there…

 

Well I wish I’d learned

Long before this –

Every breaking morn

Arrives, like a goodbye kiss –

 

Songs from the east

Birds I cannot name

Busy bringing in a new day…

See how the creatures

Seem to just carry on

In the face, of so much lost

 

Well I wish I’d learned

Long before this –

Every breaking morn

Arrives now, like a goodbye kiss –

 

Unanswered questions

Unfinished visions

Keep hanging around

Like fog, in the trees ~

 

http://www.jenniferniceleymusic.com/nightbirds/

 

(Photo by Teresa Mason – 2007?)

Something About the Highway

David Curtis

It's easy to feel that you have momentum when you're out on the open road. With no choice after every stop but to get back in your vehicle and go, you just get used to nearly constant motion. You imagine Grace and Speed as your new companions. Something that resembles Hope emerges on the long horizon. What does a dream look like after all, in the process of becoming?

For three weeks last month I toured solo, through what I would call the heart of the American West. Since nearly the beginning of my life I have had a love for this region. In fact my earliest memories are of an epic trip my family took to the West Coast and back the summer I was almost three. We traveled in what we called the "Camptruck", an army green Ford F-600 that had been converted into what looked like a modern (meaning 1960) version of a Conestoga wagon, green tarp covering wooden bows that could be rolled up and down on the sides; a 16 ft wooden bed containing several mattresses, a large chuckwagon department for supplies in the very back. My grandfather and father and uncle drove and rode in the cab, while the women and children all piled in the back. My mother was pregnant with my sister, Anna. Which reminds me of the story of my great-great grandmother Anna Rebekah, who really did ride in a covered wagon from Tennessee out West after the Civil War, while she too was pregnant. In the story handed down she "prayed to die". The rest of the story is that she lived to have the baby, they didn't care for it out there, and they ended up retracing their steps back to Tennessee.

Such migrations have shaped not only this country, but have helped make each of us who we are -- those of us who have deep histories here. Those of us whose family trees are tall and wide and complicated, that record lives of forbears who arrived on this continent centuries ago and kept moving, until they found a place that felt like home? Then made it so, at any cost necessary, to themselves and of course to those whose home it was first...

It can be overwhelming to see and read (and try saying out loud) all the indigenous names -- for streams, roads, rivers, counties -- through Oklahoma in particular. When I passed a sign that said "Kichai", I instantly thought of my maternal grandmother. Billie Colwell Pope was born and raised in East Texas, an area they call the Piney Woods. She took me several times to a tiny cemetery in a place called Keechi, near Buffalo, where she grew up. My great-grandfather and several other relatives are buried there. When I tried to find information about the origin of the word, what little I found on the Internet revealed it to name an Indian tribe from Louisiana who migrated to both Oklahoma (Indian Territory) and Texas, before being forcibly relocated during the Trail of Tears. In the late 1700's one of their last settlements was near present day Palestine, the place where the cemetery stands. The Wikipedia article went on to note that the tribe and their unique language is now extinct.

I must assume there's no cemetery for any of these people, who were driven away from their homelands, and then dwindled away somewhere else.

If you take in the details along the road there is always sadness to be found. And lots of other things too.

At some point in the journey I declared the highway a living metaphor. No wonder there are so many songs about it. Maybe because it is one way to experience Time as it really is -- that is, fluid, elastic, flowing. Not fixed at all. It is possible to experience past, present, future, all on the highway, and all at once.

Maybe.

It sure felt that way at times.

As I drove the last 60 miles into Santa Fe, New Mexico, the sky reflected just such a concept. Piercing sunlight, layer upon layer of grey and white clouds, shimmering rain, distant lightening, of course a rainbow...I felt my past was dancing with my current self; it was strange and not at all comfortable. There were things I didn't want to see, or remember. But I did. I couldn't look away from the highway after all. It demands your full attention, especially under such conditions, in such unfamiliar terrain. There were things to mourn, and let go of; things to retrieve, and reclaim.

That glimmering, slippery two-lane was just the beginning.

From Sedona's magical stone-scape, softened by lush green valleys with creeks and towering trees, to the panoramic "painted desert" highway I took through the the Four Corners region, up the winding roads to the high elevation Colorado mountain towns, through the vast, endless plains of Northern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle -- each landscape had its own mysteries, each region was its own world. Essentially of course, I was passing through as a stranger, a traveler. But in all those miles alone behind the wheel I never felt lonely. I never felt not welcome. There were places that imparted a desolation, places that felt almost sorrowful. Also places that seemed to be forgotten by everyone else in the world.

I did not ask for the land to tell me its secrets. I hoped to honor it by noting its fierce beauty. The perseverance of Mother Nature, you could say, is always present, and to me that in itself is a majestic thing. The constant spaciousness of land and sky began to inhabit my mind, breathing new life into my own visions. Surely I can see further than before, I thought out loud.

The performances I had booked throughout this journey also yielded much to me personally. After being away from the musician's life for some time now, being on tour and walking up to stages alone in front of unfamiliar faces had the potential to be a little nerve-wracking to say the least. The kind of situation that could make me question everything all over again: Why I am here? What am I doing? Is it too late to start over again?

Instead, the overall warmth and receptivity I encountered from sharing my songs was a sort of nourishment not taken lightly. I've carried it back here to Nashville and it's helping fuel the plans for finishing a new EP and also getting back out to tour again as soon as I can.

For a few days after my return I felt strangely disoriented, like part of me was still moving out on the road somewhere. Just another transition I suppose, which seems to be a major theme for so many of us right now, in so many different ways.

Now I seem to be in the midst of what happens after you first step away from the crossroads. Unless you suddenly sprout wings, you have to keep walking the path you chose for some time...trusting you made the right choice, the destination still unclear.

In fact one of the many gifts I came back with from this journey is the memory of feeling guided, even when entirely alone, even when uncertain, worried, tired...I chose to keep trusting I would "get there", and I did. I chose to keep believing this whole endeavor of being open -- sharing what I have to share, letting myself receive in return -- is worth it. Now sometimes in the morning between sleep and waking I feel certain colors and shapes around me, I'm drawn back to a liminal place under the Western sky. The sensation will linger throughout the day, stirring up an unnamed longing.

I guess the highway isn't through with me quite yet. ~

 

Photo: Sam McKay

Wild Unknown

David Curtis

Through the storms of life we cannot help but seek shelter. We long for home, especially after getting lost.

Of course, when we walk the web of our life back to its center, we cannot know what new story we are spinning.

I’ve always considered myself lucky to be from a place that is dear to me, and where my family still resides. A place I can go back to. For the last seven years I have taken advantage of that fact, living back on the farm where I grew up. It is hard to express just what an education it is has been, to fully immerse myself in the rural culture, traditions, wisdoms – life in general – that I largely missed out on in my youth. And I was able to become deeply rooted in the natural world around me, which is something I have always craved and depended on, something that can be a real struggle when you reside in an urban landscape and world.

For the most part I have felt like going home again saved my life. But sometimes that sort of heavy gratitude can obscure the changing dynamics of a situation…It has taken me a while to remember, fully understand, that nothing stays the same. Everything is always changing, even the nature of our nearest and dearest relationships.

Indeed, a central part of my “education” during these last seven years has come from being acutely aware of the cycles of life and death, each season’s dance of coming and going, all these endless circles. I have learned to pay attention to the smallest of things. I have learned to respect the presence of the unseen world of spirit, dwelling in the details of every shred of creation.

In that light, it can be impossible to ignore the unwieldy feelings of restlessness, longing, desire. It seemed the more I acknowledged these forces inside me, layers of my life fell away. There were periods of deep mourning for not being able to keep some things around me, there were moments of harsh regret for things not being the way I had wanted; there were times I felt I had nothing to show for being here on the earth so far. Goals and dreams that had been buried or neglected made their presence known again. Eventually I realized I had earned a sort of freedom that should not be squandered. Perhaps it could be seen as a two-edged blade that must be handled with care and precision. I realized I did not want to be reckless with this freedom, but I did want to see where it would lead me.

The most important life-line I have had through this time of transition is the act of creation. Writing every day, even if just in my journal, keeps me going. New songs have come through as well. It is the thread that has brought me to where I am at this moment, and connected and reconnected me to people and places that are currently in support of this new chapter of my life.

Now I am in the city of Nashville for a spell – a place I’ve been arriving to and departing from for the last twenty years. I’ve learned a lot from this place, and I’m back to learn again. It feels right to be here, working on plans for a new record with this recent batch of songs that keep coming. In August I leave for a little solo tour out west – a dream I’ve had for a while. Those dates will be posted soon and I hope to chronicle much of that journey here, as I go.

And…a dear friend recently gifted me the THE WILD UNKNOWN Animal Spirit cards. The creator of this deck, Kim Krans, has such an enchanting yet practical way of illustrating and explaining these powerful archetypes (the Spider card in photo is from her TWU deck). Spider’s symbolism has been brought to my attention over and over throughout the years. In many Native American traditions the myth of Grandmother Spider has to do with weaving our own destinies, using creativity in a constructive way, and realizing that we are infinite spirits ourselves here on earth. I continue to be grateful for such guidance, no matter where I happen to be.

To make the connection even better for me, on The Wild Unknown website Kim tells her own story of bringing her creations into existence. It turns out one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, Isis, was a crucial inspiration. She quotes this part of the song – a great place to end, for now:

“So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away, to the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong”
-Bob Dylan

www.thewildunkown.com

Pine Ridge, 2015

David Curtis

Oct 26, 2015

I love nothing better than when it feels like Life and Art are converging without contrivance. And I love it when I am so involved in the present that afterward I can remember (or seem to) every single thing that I saw or experienced.

My trip this past summer to Lakota Sioux country has stayed with me in this way. Below are a few images and a short essay I wrote about being along for the ride.

The Lakota Sioux have a two-word prayer that has become well known in modern times, "Mitakuye Oyasin". It translates to "All My Relations". At its most basic, it can be said to describe the way the Sioux see themselves in the world, in the cosmos even -- as one part of a greater whole that is all interconnected. And not just connected, but related...Feeling a kinship to the soil, water, trees, sky, animals, insects even. It can be said also that the prayer helps us understand that we are not greater than nor less than others, and that we are brothers and sisters in both good times and bad times, happiness and suffering. 

I was somewhat familiar with some of the historical spiritual concepts of the Lakota Sioux before going to South Dakota with my uncle John Niceley this past June, and I wondered if it would be possible for that kind of outlook to survive in the current scenario of reservation life. What I found during our stay there confirmed to me that the prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin, is alive and well, thriving in the hearts of a people caught inside a cauldron of historical trauma, modern contradictions, and very real daily struggle.  

Staggering statistics tell a story of the Pine Ridge Reservation today: an unemployment rate of over 80%, drop-out rates of over 70%, a youth attempted suicide rate estimated at 7-10 times greater than the national average...Meanwhile History paints a glorious picture of their past, of the Oglala Lakota becoming one of the greatest warrior tribes of all time after adopting the horse into their culture. What I witnessed existing between these two extremes was kids, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, adopted family members too, that care about NOT becoming a statistic, and deeply care about connecting to the parts of their history and culture that still mean so much to them. This was clear from day one at the small arena in Porcupine, where we stayed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The extended family of the fine folks who let us use the arena and grounds were horse people who were obviously happy to play a strong role in the community in general. They had invited many of the young boys who showed up with lots of energy and curiosity to John's Colt Starting Clinics. 

Some might say I am biased because he is my uncle, but I truly feel that John has a gift not only for working with horses, but with any person, kid or adult, who makes themselves vulnerable enough to get in that ring with him and an "unbroken" horse. Watching him work with two equally apprehensive creatures like that it appears at times he can almost make himself invisible, which is actually not accurate -- his energy is powerfully direct and purposeful the entire time. It's a sort of precision that is so natural he makes handling a young colt that has hardly been touched by a human hand look easy and nearly effortless.  

Watching him explain his philosophy of Natural Horsemanship, what it means on a basic level from day one in starting a colt, I was struck by how nothing he said or did came from a "male ego" place. He would explain to the young boys in particular how the young horses, even one who had acquired the nickname "Killer", was simply scared. The horse was acting out and putting the human in danger because he didn't understand what the human wanted from him.

"We have different languages" he would say. "How can we expect the horse to just be born knowing what we want him to do?" He explained that we can build a much safer and successful experience working with a horse when we try to use a language the horse understands. This kind of relationship is based on mutual respect, and has no place for aggression, violence, or cruelty of any kind.  

Of all the young boys who got in the ring, and I noted that every one of these had been brought by someone other than their own parents, each had their own "victory" in that they got to experience a sort of harmony with a young horse they had previously viewed as wild or dangerous or unapproachable. I think it was also important that these victories were witnessed by some of their peers and family members. The kids that didn't get in the ring watched intently the entire time. Some of the older boys and many of the adults who attended came to us with support and enthusiasm and promised to try and get more youth involved if we are able to come again next year.

After several days of the clinics we traveled to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where the annual Crazy Horse Ride begins. The night before the commencement, we ran into a small group of boys who had come to the clinics. We let two of the boys ride horses we had brought. One boy in particular, Josh, ended up being a kind of success story with a horse that had been very troubled previously. The first day John convinced him to keep the saddle on him, but for the rest of the ride he rode him with only a blanket, as did many of his fellow riders.  

For me personally, being part of the actual Crazy Horse Ride was a tremendous experience. It is hard to describe the mixture of excitement, honor and apprehension I felt as we all started off together after the initial ceremony took place, on the site at Ft. Robinson where the warrior Crazy Horse was murdered. I was forced to face many fears during that ride. Fears of being a good enough horse rider, fears of being able to have the stamina and strength to endure it, fears of being out of place and unwelcome among a people who had every historical prerogative toharbor animosity toward me, simply for being a white American.   

But this is where Mitakuye Oyasin, the All My Relations prayer, comes in again. The second night of the ride we ended at a wide open space, just vast, open land for as far as you could see. This was our camp spot, and where the third day of the ride, "Break Day", would take place. The riders scattered out and we all made camp under the famous western "big sky". We made fires and cooked food and visited with each other. We heard stories from young Lakota buckaroos, talked with Lakota elders, and had lots and lots of fun with the handful of young boys we had first gotten to know at the clinics. Those boys were running around roping each other and carrying on until the wee hours of the morning and back up at it early the next day. One of my favorite memories is of that night, when we shared some dinner and snacks with the boys by the fire, and they asked if I wanted to learn some of their words. One would say, "Do you know the word for hawk in Lakota?"  

And of course I would answer, no. 

"Red Tail Hawk is Cheta Luta". 

And I would repeat, "Cheta Luta".  

"Do you know the word for horse in Lakota?"

"No I don't, please tell me."

"Sunka Wakan."

And I would try my best to say it as they said it, praying to remember.  

-- Jennifer Niceley 

About Birdlight...

David Curtis

birdlight-cover.jpg

I found the phrase "birdlight" in David Abram's book Becoming Animal; it refers to the edge of twilight dawn, really just before sunrise, when all the wild birds of a particular place start chiming in and singing together -- it would seem they are compelled, expressing whatever they have to express in an exuberance that crescendos into symphony. On the farm where I grew up, I live in a little former tenant house, which sits near the edge of a steep bluff that leads to the river and right by the woods...Marginal places foster wildness, and I get to hear and see more birds these days than I ever have in my life. Many mornings I have experienced birdlight, and it is always a gift.

The making of the album, Birdlight, has truly been a gift to me as well. It began with an offer from my good friend and musical collaborator Jon Estes. He grew up in Nashville and now lives there again with his wife Liz (Elizabeth Estes). When they moved into their new house last year Jon was getting his home recording studio set up, and invited to me "come make a really good record, weekend by weekend, no pressure".

At the time if felt like a lifeline, because it was the only way I could make a record at that point -- to just steadily put it together over a season or two, crossing the plateau from East Tennessee to Nashville one weekend at a time, when I could get away. I knew Jon would assemble a super-talented group of players to join us, which of course he did. Liz, who is a stellar violinist, added a great deal -- all the beautiful string parts -- plus drummers Dave Racine and Tommy Perkinson, clarinetist Steve Pardo (who lives in Boston), Evan Cobb on tenor sax, Imer Sanitago on trumpet --- all contributed such beauty and spark. Jon himself is responsible for all the arrangements and pedal steel, guitar, keys, bass parts -- something that always kind of blows me away. Jon is one of those rare musician/ producers who doesn't feel like he has to push his weight around -- for a really long time I thought he was JUST a bass player!

As for me, this time round I played my old acoustic Gibson LG2 throughout (except for on Nightbird, which I recorded with Scott Minor in Knoxville back in 2010, with Bob Deck accompanying me on guitar. On that song I was playing an old electric Harmony, a guitar with a lot of story and which was just loaned to me for the recording). Almost all the songs on Birdlight were written on my LG2, the guitar I learned to play on, and it seemed appropriate for the mood of this record.

I wrote "What Wild" when I was still living in Nashville, almost six years ago now, but the other songs came from living back here on this land that means so much to me. I think I was simply chronicling the struggle, in a way, of living in the middle of such exquisite beauty and harshness -- seeing sacredness everywhere -- as well as that relentless trail of desecration that is so ubiquitous it becomes something we ignore.

I find the outer struggle often mirrors the inner struggle, and vice versa.

We started on Birdlight in the Fall and finished in early Spring. The entire process with Jon was a pleasure and something I attribute to helping me find my way back into the heart of music in general. Making Birdlight was kind of like an invitation back into the dance. Needless to say, I am very happy to be back here!