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New to You Music in 2015: Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown

I said at the beginning of the year that I’d listen more to new music and write about it. I did that once so far.  I was a little overwhelmed with all the different new things I should be listening to.  Then in the freshmen colloquium course I taught this semester, we had a class session where we read and listened to protest songs–Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Rage Against the Machine.  We talked about what makes protest songs work as protest songs.  In the next class meeting, students were asked to bring in their favorite protest songs.  To get things started, I offered my own: Anaïs Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall.”

The Song By Itself

This song captures the self-contradictory logic of closed communities, communities that define themselves by what they exclude.  The song is sung in a call and response structure with what sounds like an older man doing the calling and a younger, almost childlike, more female chorus responding.  This approach makes the song into something of a catechism through which the beliefs of the community are taught and declared by the next generation.  (Here I recall in my youth memorizing the first question of Westminster Shorter Catechism: Q: What is the chief end of man?  A: To glorify God and serve him for ever.  Or, as an impertinent classmate said: his butt.) The questions progress so that each question builds on the answer of the previous one.

So it goes something like this (there’s some repetition and many references to “my children” which I’ve left out to show the back-and-forth, but they add the effect of forming the community in affirming this account):

Q: “Why do we build the wall?”

A: “We build the wall to keep us free.”

Q: “How does the wall keep us free?”

A: “The wall keeps out the enemy.”

Q: “Who do we call the enemy?”

A: “The enemy is poverty.”

That the wall keeps out the enemy, sure.  That the enemy is poverty is a little surprising.  It could go two ways.  We could be talking about “the war on poverty,” and that might seem like a move of the haves to help the have nots.  But no.  It’s not the poverty, but the impoverished the wall keeps out — the wall protects the haves from the have nots.  Here, a break in the routine doubles down on this view.  Instead of asking a question, the caller extends and clarifies the answer.

Q: “Because we have and they have not.  Because they want what we have got.”  Which the chorus then repeats.

Q: “What do we have that they should want?”

A: “We have a wall to work upon.  We have work and they have none, and our work is never done.”

It’s like Anaïs Mitchell has put into the mouths of the haves the schoolyard taunt: naah-naah-na-naah-na.

We have and they don’t.  So they want what we have.  What do we have that they don’t have?  This wall.  This wall which we have in order to keep them out because they don’t have what we have which is the wall.  So we need the wall because we have the wall.  We need the wall because we have the wall.  This, I believe, is the logic of having a border.  We need to establish this as a place that they–those others–do not have.  And we are then able to assert ourselves as those who have by keeping out others who want to also be able to assert themselves as those who are able to keep out others who want to be able to assert themselves as those…and so forth.  Not only do we have this wall that keeps them out, we have work and they don’t so we need to protect our work from them.

Is this not the logic of the Mexican-American wall, the Palestianian-Israeli wall and the dozens of other walls going up around the world between those who have and those who have not?   What do we have?  The power to exclude and the power to improve ourselves.  That power has worth because we have it and they do not.  And we export that desire so that it gives more power to our power to exclude — they want what we have got because they don’t have it.

The call and response structure to the song mimics the logic of the wall: we build the wall because they want the wall but we have it.  We ask this question to affirm that this is the answer and we offer this answer to justify this question (like all catechisms).  It also points to the way that ideology is a call-and-response.  Keep answering “Freedom” to “What are we fighting for?” because it is a tenuous case to make.

The Album Hadestown

So on that alone, you should want to hear more of Anaïs Mitchell.  Right?  But it gets better.  I learned over the weekend that this album is a folk opera (full libretto can be viewed here) that tells the story of Orpheus set in Depression-era America, though the album’s political resonances are no less applicable to this moment than to the 1930s, a time “when the chips are down” – the title of one of the songs on this album (James Skinner reviews the album and discusses the tour that accompanied it at “Drowned in Sound).  The guy singing that song “Why Do We Build the Wall?” is supposed to be Hades–the head of Hadestown, the name of the album.  So the song is not just amazing, it’s about ancient Greeks!

Orpheus was a guy who could sing and play a lyre (Apollo taught him how).  He helped Jason and the Argonauts out by playing as they sailed by the Sirens, drowning out their seductive song.  Then he met this hot young nymph,  Eurydice, and he was happy and ready to settle down.  But of course, as with all attractive women among the Greeks, soon the gods began to notice, and well, that is dangerous.  The son of Apollo, some god who was so minor I can’t remember his name, started chasing Eurydice around and she stepped on a poisonous snake, who bit her, and she died.  Orpheus was so in love that he found a way to get into Hades through some caves and when he did get there he used his musical stylings to convince Hades to let him take Eurydice back up to the non-Underworld.  But there was one condition.  (Of course there was.)  The condition was that he could not turn around and look at Eurydice as he was heading on out.  But you know what happened?  He couldn’t do it.  Could he not trust her?  Could he just not keep himself from looking at his beloved for that long?  That’s for the poets to say.  Anyway, he looked at her.  And she was lost to him forever.

“Why Do We Build the Wall” fits somewhat awkwardly into this narrative.  In the song “Way Down in Hadestown,” we learn that Hades (sung by Greg Brown) is a bit of a tyrant in Hadestown. Mitchell tells the story as Hades seducing Eurydice (the “little songbird” sung by Mitchell), and Eurydice is torn between Hades and Orpheus in the song “Hey, Little Songbird.”  Eurydice pledges herself to Orpheus (sung by Justin Vernon, Bon Iver) but she’s still off to Hades where Eurydice has to fend for herself.  When Orpheus finds out that she is gone, he goes to Hermes (played by Ben Knox Miller) who tells Orpheus how to get into Hades.

The song where Hermes gives directions to Orpheus, “Wait for Me,” is pretty amazing.

It’s after this song that Hades explains why he builds the wall to keep people out.  Because the people in Hades have and the rest have not.  Having listened to this song for a year or so now without really listening to the rest of the album, I just thought of it as an indictment on contemporary American self-identity.  But it seems even more damning (literally) when you realize that the voice of the one justifying the wall that keeps out those who have not is Hades.

You should listen to the whole album in light of this narrative.  There are songs that pretty explicitly tell the story.  And Mitchell is an amazing lyrcists.  She writes songs that sound like political chants, as in “If It’s True,” where the chorus goes: “The ones who load the dice, always say the toss is fair.  And the ones who deal the cards are the ones who take the tricks with their hands over their hearts, while we play the games they fix.”  Or as in the “Wait for Me” above “The River Styx is a river of stones.”  My favorite songs are the ones like “Why Do we Build the Wall?” that are both about the narrative and stand on their own right.  One of these days I’ll write about an album that came out in the last twelve months.

“Don’t look no one in the eye / that town will try to suck you dry.  It’ll suck your brain / it’ll suck your breath / it’ll pluck your heart right out of your chest.  They truss you up in your Sunday best / and stuff your mouth with cotton.”  Hermes warns Orpheus of the underworld, but he could have been warning him of Wall Street.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jim McMurry #

    Trott– If I may, to bring down that unloved and unloving old wall we need to redefine what it is we have and have not. Some of us have wealth, power and luxury, while others of us have simplicity of life and a hospitable weakness that opens up our hearts to one another with genuine curiosity. Some of us have a privileged identity and position to preserve, while others of us have next to nothing and find it quite enough, along with an anonymity that secretively imparts, “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too? Don’t tell, they’d advertise you know!”
    Some of us have money in the bank, stocks and dividends and offshore accounts, and some of us realize our true wealth depends not on how much we’re appreciated but on how much we appreciate. Some of us are set for life, and then what? Some of us feel we’re too young to die, too innocent to die–to ME to die, until we learn to identify not only with all human histories past and present, not only with the apes but all the way back to the first one celled protozoans, through the gates of the six valence electrons of the carbon molecule into the inorganic kingdom of atomic and subatomic particles, past the Higgs boson . . . We’ve come a long way together. We’ll work it out, perhaps so one than we expect.

    May 7, 2015

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