Monday, January 3, 2011


I went back by rented Cadillac and company jet,
like a newly orphaned refugee, retracing my steps,
all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead.
They said, 'You'd better look alive.'

Four Winds, Bright Eyes

I don't have any particularly warm feelings about Florida. Disney World is nice and all, but I doubt I'll ever want to live in a place where the average humidity is a steamy 91% in July and alligators could chomp down my dog/child/leg like a Kit Kat. So why begin my journey here? I started this blog by making a list of each state and then listing the songs I could think of, just off the top of my head, that spoke about it. Some, like the painfully un-rhyme-able Hawaii, remain blank for the moment. Florida, surprisingly, hit upon two of my favorite artists-- Bruce Springsteen, who name drops the state in 1984's 'Working on the Highway,' and Bright Eyes (the sometimes stage name of Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst), who penned the lyrics above for 2007 album Cassadaga.

As much as I love The Boss, 'Four Winds' prevailed because it says so much about what I too want to say about America as I write. But we'll get there soon-- some background on the song first. 'Four Winds' was the first single from Cassadaga, an album named for a small Floridian community of psychics. The track itself is replete with Oberst's beloved literary references and SAT vocabulary. (Check out the full lyrics: here). Broadly, it's a song about American cultural diversity, but the concept doesn't get the same laudatory treatment it got in your high school history textbooks. "She breaks, she breaks, she caves, she caves," is the song's final line. Four Winds is about cultures failing to mesh, oil on water rather than a melting pot.

Florida is a great place to begin because it was one of the first places were cultures brushed. Ponce de Leon's expedition of Spanish explorers in search of gold and youth landed in Florida in 1513 and Europeans in all parts of the Americas wasted no time in obliterating, intentionally or just carelessly, the native cultures they found (with the exception of the stupendously hapless Cabeza de Vaca, who really deserves a minute of your time on wikipedia). 'Four Winds' suggests that we haven't made much progress since Ponce de Leon and his contemporaries blazed through pre-Columbian America. "Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe/ There's people always dying trying to keep them alive," Oberst begins. America is a nation founded on taking risks, accepting the possibility of death, to keep your beliefs and your culture alive. But this isn't a song about the American dream. The next verse begins: "The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute/ If you burned them all together you'd be close to the truth," dismissing the value of the traditional religious beliefs that so many Americans hold dear. Oberst isn't very hopeful about America in general. "There's bodies decomposing in containers tonight/in an abandoned building where/ squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl..." Multiculturalism, sure. But squatters and decomposing bodies too.

'Four Winds' isn't a song about the American dream, and this blog isn't about that either. What surprised me most as I looked over that song list was how many tracks reflected what Oberst says so beautifully. There's a darkness to America that seeps out through its music; there's glamor, and hope, and beauty-- but there's something richer, too. A sense that sometimes the spiral is unwinding, the seams are splitting because there's so much underneath. I considered the possibility that this just said something about my music taste, but the spectrum of musicians that voiced similar opinions was remarkably broad. 'Four Winds' is a song about the processes of convergence and divergence that we face in such a vast nation. Cultures don't blend like they might; they're blind, deaf, and mute to one another. The titular winds never converge: they ruffle the hair of the Mexican girl, "cry" and level stands of trees. There's pressure from all sides, and Oberst isn't sure we can stand up to it.

Expansion, another key aspect of the American dream, isn't the answer either. (This theme will come up over and over again as I write.) The notion of a frontier is one of the earliest aspects of American literature, extending back to Sir Walter Raleigh's travels "to seek new worlds, for gold, for praise, for glory” after being slighted by Elizabeth I. Traditionally a symbol of attainment and success, the frontier in modern music remains present but becomes less tangible than it was for early explorers. In 'Working on the Highway,' the young couple at the center of the song reach their frontier-- a new life in Florida-- but aren't allowed to stay. Their motivations weren't so valorous anyway; they ended up in Florida to escape disapproving parents. Oberst's description of himself as a "newly orphaned refugee, retracing [his] steps/all the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead" suggests that he doesn't place much faith in exploration either. He and the psychics of Cassadaga seek belonging among a group that is no longer even on Earth, never mind in Florida. Is it because he doesn't feel there's any place for him among America's living population? Because that population is so lacking in cohesion that there's no way to identify it and decide if he could belong?

That's what America is about, after all. People seeking a place where they can belong. In this blog, I'll explore the way musicians belong to their places, or come to the conclusion that they actually don't.

Florida is a place we go at the beginnings and ends of our lives, softened in memories with a humid haze around the edges. As children we take a spin in Walt Disney's magical teacups, and when we're old we retire there to bask in the enveloping warmth of tropical sun. It's a place to escape from what happens in between these two poles of existence, apart from Springsteen's seedy romance and Oberst's bitter dismissal of our cherished national identity. A place at the fringe of our country, for people on the fringe of society like Cassadaga's psychics. A place to visit, but not to stay. So let's go on.

Working on the Highway
Four Winds
The Killers' fantastic Four Winds cover

No comments:

Post a Comment