David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 29: Lucinda Williams (Soldier's Song)

May 25, 2020

I never intended this series to resort to gimmick. Mother's Day came and I didn't try to find a song that would be about mothers, or look for something that made me think of my mother. In the end, a song emerged from the tapestry of what I had been listening to and that seemed to provide the most cohesive post for the day. Even then, with "Persephone," I did find an indirect connection to Mother's Day.

As I thought last night about today being Memorial Day, I did question which of several nearly finished blogs would be the best one for the day. I didn't want to present anything that might be outright inappropriate on a day we honor our fallen servicemen, so the best I had come up was a rather fun one featuring The Who. This afternoon, as I contemplated posting it, I still found it incomplete. Typical for me, I put the songs on the computer on random and worked for an hour to get The Who entry to a place of satisfaction.

Satisfied, I hit save, shut down my website, and then started listening more closely to the song playing: Lucinda Williams' "Soldier's Song."

And, shit, I wonder if there really is no such thing as coincidence. Recognize that I have 3356 songs on the computer, and they were being randomized. Even with the collection that is Lucinda Williams, "Soldier's Song" had a 1% chance of being played.

So now an hour after finishing The Who's post, I wrap up a very quick homage to one of the loveliest, most honest songs ever written about fallen servicemen. I am not even going to pretend to do much justice to what simply should be the song playing in every household today. If I could, I would just post the lyrics and the link and let it speak for itself. But there are too many distractions, even on a holiday, so I will say a little bit. For one thing, it is off of Williams' 2011 CD, Blessed, no title more appropriate for someone picking it up to see what all the fuss is about.

Williams is an amazing song-writer because the structures are always so simple. For "Soldier's Song," Williams presents nine stanzas with alternating lines capturing two concurrent lives. First line comes from the perspective of the soldier, the next line depicts what his loved one is doing back home. Third line, soldier, fourth line, loved one. In her relentless way, Williams captures the horrors of war contrasted over and over with the normalcy of home: "Enemy shot two of my buddies down/Baby rides the little one on the merry-go-round."

Killing gets contrasted with loving; violence contrasted with caring. As Williams frequently does, her songs are tenacious: "Today I shot my enemy/Baby gives the little one a hug for me/Both my buddy's legs got blown off/Baby tends to the little one's cough." Gentle guitar strumming and the distant thumping of drums and bass provide the recurring musical motif, providing enough depth to what is already one of music's greatest voices.

Quickly the narrative turns bleak for our soldier: "I stare down the barrel of a gun/Baby's going out to have some fun/I hear ringing in my ears/Baby's face is all wet with tears." When the soldier dies, "Today I took a bullet through my heart/Baby's going have to make a brand new start," the instrumental bridge turns elegiac, multiple lovely guitars both soaring and grounding.

And then the instrumentation recedes to the soft background and Williams returns with the opening stanza, repeated word for word, as the next nameless soldier moves up (or maybe down) the line. The song ends with a devastating silence after "Baby rides the little one on the merry-go-round." The light has gone out.

One of the great myths about writing (not just songs but anything) is that you have to write about what you know. I am pretty sure Williams has never known the life of a soldier, but her catalog of songs shows she has known a lot about pain, loss, and hurt. Ultimately it is called empathy, and on this Memorial Day, I trust that Americans can find that empathy in the loss contained within all of us, servicemen families and friends or not.

"Soldier's Song." Blessed. Lucinda Williams. Lost Highway. 2011. Link here.

Day 28: The Killers "When You Were Young."

Day 30: The Who "You Better You Bet." ->

See full unfinished list here.