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Music meme 2: A song you don’t mind having stuck in your head when you’re having a midlife crisis: Buddy and Julie Miller — Rock Salt and Nails

September 21, 2015

I’ve written here before about my frequent possession of earworms. Everyone gets them sooner or later, but for me it is often the status quo. I regularly get tunes stuck in my head for days at a time, often because there’s something in them that I’m trying to figure out.

Last night’s rehearsal was a blast. I never knew that I always wanted to be in a band until I began to play occasionally with this group a few months ago. I started off at my friend S’s apartment, where we ran through the fiddle duos ahead of the main rehearsal while sitting on her couch, figuring out new harmonies, cracking up every time we crashed and burned and whenever we’d land on an especially dissonant chord. After a while, we packed up our fiddles and walked up to the bench on the corner to wait for the accordion-player M to pick us up. As we drove to the guitar/dobro/harmonica-player’s house for rehearsal, M an S told stories about a house concert they’d been to the night before where the performances were, shall we say, a little uneven.

House concerts are big around here, maybe because finding public venues can be difficult and expensive, but maybe just because it fits with neighborhoods that likes organic produce and backyard chickens, Maker Faire and Brooklyn Flea. But we are not playing a house concert. We are playing in a bar. We are coming with mikes and amps and cables and lots of instruments. We are closing the festival. And we had come to rehearse.

I’m playing on just three songs, which meant that I had the pleasure of listening to what others are doing. I’ve played with them before, so I know most of their repertoire pretty well, but I haven’t played with them in a while, so it’s nice to hear it again.

One of my favorite songs that they do is one called “Rock Salt and Nails.” I’m particularly fond of this version by Buddy and Julie Miller (2001). It’s also the one that is most similar to the way the band does it:

The song’s been around for a few decades. It was written by Utah Phillips, whom the Washington Post described in his obituary as a “folk singer, rabble-rouser and anarchist,” which might explain the sort of shocking last line of the song (the one that gives it its title).

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

On the banks of the river where the willows hang down
And the wild birds all warble with a low moaning sound
Down in the hollow where the waters run cold
It was there I first listened to the lies that you told

Now I lie on my bed and I see your sweet face
The past I remember time cannot erase
The letter you wrote me it was written in shame
And I know that your conscience still echo’s my name

Now the nights are so long, Lord sorrow runs deep
And nothing is worse than a night without sleep
I’ll walk out alone and look at the sky
Too empty to sing, too lonesome to cry

If the ladies were blackbirds and the ladies were thrushes
I’d lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes
If the ladies were squirrel’s with high bushy tails
I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails

What makes this song work, is its heavy reliance on standard tropes of bluegrass/americana/country. It’s packed with cliches of the genre “On the banks of the river,” “where the willows hang down,” “down in the hollow,” “too lonesome to cry,” etc. By the time he brings up the ladies in the last verse, you think you know what this song is about because you’ve heard it before. And then you get to the last line. Um, maybe not. At least, I wasn’t expecting it. Lucky most versions repeat it, so you get a second chance to hear that yes, in fact you were right about the lyrics. Possibly the most bitter song ever written.

There was a different singer at last night’s rehearsal. Last time I played with them, this was the singer:

Last night’s singer/guitarist had a much lighter voice, so the song sounded quite different, but still just as wrenching. And of course they played it through several times and then the first and last verses a few times so the dobro-player could make sure he had time to get all his finger picks on and grab his slide — no mean feat.

I might have had this song stuck in my head anyway, but after hearing it several times, there was no shaking it. There are some people who, when they get tunes stuck in their heads, try to chase them away by playing something else. I am not one of those people. I approach earworms more like exorcisms. I have to burn them out by listening in So today, I piled a bunch of versions onto my iPhone and spent the day listening. Here are a few of the most noteworthy (in chronological order):

Rosalie Sorrels (1961) with Utah Phillips. This is the original:

Bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (1965):

Joan Baez (1969). I love Baez and I love her voice here, but somehow she doesn’t quite seem to have caught the spirit of the song:

There’s a beautiful version by Kate Wolf and Don Lange from the 1970s (released 1994) here.

And there are a dozen or so more recordings. Want to explore some more? Find a list here.

As for me, I keep coming back to the recording by Buddy and Julie Miller. Either that or the recording in my head from the living room of a neighbor, my fiddle laid out on a lace-covered dining table while I listened and wished I were playing too. I came home feeling like I’d had more fun than I had in months, maybe years. It carried me through the day. And tonight, when I pulled out my guitar, it was the first thing under my fingers.

What songs do you not mind having stuck in your head?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2015 3:52 pm

    Danny Boy. We’re playing an arrangement by Grainger at the end of each week’s symphony rehearsal, and I don’t mind humming it the rest of the night.

  2. October 10, 2015 5:29 pm

    Don’t you dare have a midlife crisis! I’m older than you (okay, only by a wee bit) and I’m not going to bother with one.

    ‘Everything is Awseome’ — from The Lego Movie, which Himself and I watched the other night so we can keep up our status as the Cool Aunt and Uncle at the next FaceTime with The Nephew.

    I would poke sharp sticks in each ear if I though it would help….

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