World Debut: Got Your Six

Video Debut: Click Here to Watch Got Your Six

This month we are excited to debut the video for "Got Your Six," from my new album Rifles & Rosary Beads.

I wrote "Got Your Six" with two female veterans, Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad, who served in the army in Iraq. It was my first veteran co-write, at a retreat center outside of Austin, Texas. I watched as the two women sat next to each other, whispered in each other's ear, and occasionally held each other's arm. They were very close, and I could see that they were family to each other.

I asked them to tell me about their friendship. Did they serve together? Were they battle buddies? They looked at me and said, "We have each other's six."

"What? What's that?" I asked. They were suprised I'd never heard the term. "You know," one soldier said, without emotion. "I've got her back. She's got mine."

"On the battlefield," she explained. "12 o'clock is in front of you, 6 o'clock behind you. To have someone's 6 is to have their back."

To have someone's 6 means you'd die for them. When the full weight of that hit me, I knew I was entering another world, one I knew nothing about.  In their world, people die for one another. I understood quickly that a part of their deep bond is survivor's guilt, the aching memory of those they've lost. They carry the weight of that, daily.

They talked, and I listened, watching their body language, and noting the rise and fall of their voices. I took in the stories they told, as well as the ones they could not fully articulate. We sat together for a couple of hours. I took notes. When it got late we called it a night, and I went to my room and tried to mold what they said into a song. I did my best to make sure it conveyed what they felt and believed.

I played the song for them the next morning. They liked it, but pointed out a couple spots where my words were not exactly right. We kept working. They added new ideas. After a few changes, we had it.

When I played their song for them from start to finish, both of their faces opened. Their jaws dropped. Watching them become wide-eyed and filled with wonder hearing their song for the first time, I shared in their delight. We laughed and we high fived. We resonated. We were in sync. We'd written a song that reflected some of a soldier's deepest feelings.

I love this song! Special thanks to Meghan and Britney for being brave enough to share their story!

 

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Behind The Song: Drag Queens In Limousines

Mary Gauthier

(by Mary Gauthier and Crit Harmon) I hated high school and prayed it would end. The jocks and their girls, it was their world, I didn't fit in Mama said, "Baby, it's the best school that money can buy, Hold your head up, be strong, c'mon Mary, try."

I stole mama's car on a Sunday and left home for good, Moved in with my friends in the city, in a bad neighborhood. Charles was a dancer he loved the ballet, And Kimmy sold pot and read Kerouac and Hemingway.

Drag Queens in Limousines Nuns in blue jeans Dreamers with big dreams All took me in

Charlie and I flipped burgers to cover the rent And Bourbons at Happy hour for 35 cents One day before work we got drunk and danced in the rain They fired us both, They said, "Don't ya'll come back here again."

Drag Queens in Limousines Nuns in blue jeans Dreamers with big dreams All took me in

My dad went to college, and he worked for the state He never quit nothing and he wanted me to graduate. My brother and sister both play in the marching band They tell me they miss me, but I know they don't understand.

Sometimes you got do, what you gotta do And pray that the people you love will catch up with you

Drag Queens in Limousines Nuns in blue jeans Dreamers with big dreams Poets and AWOL marines Actors and Bar Flies Writers with Dark Eyes Drunks that Philosophize. These are my friends.

This song came out of half-baked gig in NYC, a gig that ended before it began because nobody came except the two friends whose apartment I was staying at in Manhattan. Yes, it was a bummer, but my two friends offered to take me out to a New York diner to cheer me up, the night was ours to do with as we wished. They decided to take me to their favorite late night eatery The Midtown Diner, right outside Times Square.

As we approached the diner, I noticed the parking lot that horseshoed around the front of the restaurant was filled with limo’s and black cars. It looked impressive—all those fancy cars lined up and parked there. The chauffeurs were inside, engines running, drinking coffee, some of them eating out of takeout boxes, waiting for their next job. My friends told me they park there because there are not may places to park in NYC, and the restaurant lets them hang out between their fares if they buy something to eat.

We made our way past all the limousines, walked in, sat down, got our menus and ordered coffees. I sank into a bit of a funk, feeling sorry for myself, wondering if or when the tide would turn for me in NYC, if I would ever find an audience in the big city. As I sat there brooding, a door swung open in the back and two drag queens in full makeup, high heels, sparkly dresses and big, big hair strutted in, ordered coffee to go, and stood at the counter, talking loudly and laughing in that loud drag queen “look-at-me” tone. They got their coffee, loaded them with sugar and milk, and walked back through the swinging door, styrofoam cup in hand. All that was left of them when the doors swung shut was their perfume.

It was kooky, but no one except me even turned their head to look at them. Turns out the staff and customers were used to drag queens runway-walking through the restaurant, but I wasn’t, and I looked at my friends in amazement. They were New Yorkers, they did not react, and I was beginning to feel pretty small town, sitting there in that booth with my mouth open. I laughed and said, “C’mon guys, isn’t this a little surreal? Don’t you think this is just a little amazing?”

My friends smiled, nodded and said, “This place is great. We love it here—its always Drag Queens and Limousines.”

BINGO! The whole trip to NYC was worth it, just for that moment, hearing those words rang out loud and true to me as a song title. Getting humiliated for a single night in Manhattan was turning into a blessing. The next day I drove back home to Boston where I was living at the time, and started the song.

As I worked on it, “Drag Queens in Limousines” became an autobiographical story song about coming of age as a gay kid in the South. It’s more or less my story, but over the years it’s become an outsider’s anthem. The song speaks to the outsider in all of us, though when I wrote it I had no idea that people of all persuasions from all over the world would relate to feeling like an outsider. Often times when I am singing it I look out into the audience and I see folks who look a whole lot like insiders wholeheartedly relating to the outsider in this song, singing every word. I’ve learned that insiders feel like outsiders sometimes, and high school was hard for an awful lot of people, not just the gay kids.

Songs are amazing, and so often the songs I write become my teachers. When I am in Texas, I look out in the audience and I see heterosexual he-man cowboys singing along to this tune. In Scotland I’ve seen middle-aged lorry drivers pump their fists to this tune. In Norway, the Vikings love it. All over the world, over and over again, this song has shown me that I have no idea what’s going on inside a person’s heart, that judging people by how they look is a really bad idea. We all feel outside of something sometimes, and sooner or later we all have to make decisions that are scary, knowing someone we love is not going to see it our way. We all need a group to fit into, a tribe, and no one wants to be alone.

For me, I found acceptance as a young person among those who, like me, did not fit into socially acceptable roles. The artists, gays, rebels, geeks—these were the people with whom I found refuge. They took me in when my family tossed me out, and became my patchwork family early on.

I haven’t changed all that much. Today I am still drawn to the people who break rules, who dare to stand out in a crowd. The people who create something out of nothing, take risks and stand bravely outside the group because they have to, who do it their own way because they have integrity.

This song won me my very first music award—Best Country Song/Best Country Artist GLAMA Award, 1999. I think the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards created the category in honor of my little homemade self-released Drag Queens In Limousines record, it was the first year for a Country Category at that particular award show. Today, 16 years later, the idea of a gay country artist is still out there. I mean, C’mon, in Nashville, it just ain’t done. But guess what? I came here in 2001, got a publishing deal in 2002, and a major label record deal in 2003. I also got to play the Grand Ole Opry on live television, then again 4 times at the Gaylord Opry House, the first openly gay artist to do so. No closet, no hiding, no apologizing, no kidding, no problem. Nashville, The Opry, Cowboys, Vikings, these are my friends. Isn’t life interesting?

Order a copy of Live at Blue Rock HERE.

P.S.: I made a Video for the It Gets Better Project, using Drag Queens In Limousines as a theme. Find out more about the It Gets Better Project.

Behind the Song: Your Sister Cried

Mary Gauthier Fred Eaglesmith

(by Fred Eaglesmith) I stared out of the windshield into the rain so light I turned on my dims and somebody flashed me their brights And I reached over and turned the radio way down low Your sister cried all the way home

Lightening crashed and the road shone like a mirror A dog came out of the ditch then he disappeared I remembered a conversation we once had on the phone Your sister cried all the way home

I’ll never know how you got into such a mess

Why do the bridesmaids all have to wear the same dress? Everybody said you looked real good But I think you looked stoned Your sister cried all the way home

This song floored me this first time I heard it, with its brilliant combination of humor and sadness. The dialogue is fantastic; we don’t know who is speaking, or to whom they are talking, but it works perfectly- against all odds. This song is a true rule breaker. It has so much mystery in it!

Who is saying your sister cried all the way home?  Who is the  “your” in your sister? We can’t know, and it doesn’t matter because we are right there with him/her anyway. It could be anyone, a family member a, friend, insert any two people in that car talking to each other and the dialogue words works beautifully. Amazing. Insert yourself into that story, and watch the genius of the writing become become clear. This seemingly simple song is the work of  a master.

Who just got married? Is the bride in trouble, or is it the groom? For that matter, are there two brides? Two grooms? No way to know from the lyrics, but the songs work brilliantly for every scenario you insert. Doesn’t seem possible to wrote a song like this, but Fred Eaglesmith has a way of pulling rabbits out of his hat. Most of us have been to a wedding where we wondered if it was a such a great idea for the couple to be tying the knot, and this song captures that queasy feeling of "I hope I'm wrong about this, but....."

This is brilliant songwriting- a fantastic song. Fred Eaglesmith is a master songwriter and story teller, and if you've not heard his songs before, I encourage you to check him out. His mastery of the craft in undeniable. He has been a mentor to me for over a decade, and I have recorded more of his songs than anyone else's other than my own.

I love this one!

 

Order a copy of Live at Blue Rock HERE.

Behind the Song: Blood Is Blood

This is a picture of orphaned babies in St. Vincent's from the New Orleans paper, 1962. Such a bizarre thing to call us orphans—our parents were alive and well, just not married to each other, thats all. The truth is that we were not orphans, but we were orphaned. Back then, unmarried women were shamed and often forced by their families into giving their babies away. I am the baby way in the back, the circled baby is my adoptive cousin, adopted at around the same time as me.

Blood Is Blood

(by Mary Gauthier and Crit Harmon)

Clouds are spreading like bruises on the evening sky I walk the streets alone again tonight It starts to rain still I search each passing face Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away

When I was a child they told me she loved me too much She didn’t keep me ‘cause my mama loved me too much She left without a trail she left without a trace But blood is blood and blood don’t wash away Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away

I got a heart that’s ripped I got a soul that’s torn I got a hole in me like I was never born

Blood is thicker than water Blood is bound by God I don’t know who I am I don’t know who I’m not I don’t know my name I can’t find my place

Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away Blood is blood and blood don’t wash away I walk the streets alone again tonight

When I began writing songs I heard a whisper, way in the back of my mind, that someday I’d be called to write a record called The Foundling, and explore in a series of songs what my deepest inner world felt like. Creativity is prescient in that way, it seems to be one step ahead of me at all times, and I’m always just trying to catch up.

My life story was aching to come out of the shadows, and my subconscious was guiding me to it, to begin healing and reconciliation with truth, through my work as a songwriter.

See, I was adopted.

I feared losing my family if I asked my origins. I did not dare ask to ask where I came from. This is not an uncommon fear among adoptees. Many of us decide wait till our adoptive parents are dead to search for our original families, our original identities. The fear of losing our adoptive family, and of appearing ungrateful or disloyal keeps us from searching earlier, from asking hard questions.

But my subconscious was busy trying to help me put the pieces of my fractured past together as best it could. I needed to claim my truth to fully grow up, to be a whole, integrated person, to become truly real—and let go of the weight of not knowing, walk lighter, and be useful to others.

As hard as it is to explain, I deeply believe in this mysterious impulse for the mind to heal itself. Following it has led me down beautifully twisted roads, led me to the songs I sing, and given me this creative life I love so much.

As hard as it is to believe, the truth of own story was not available to me until I wrote the songs on The Foundling. Writing helped me make sense of things that had haunted me from the day I was born.

It took me a decade as a songwriter before I was able to tackle this project. It took me another two years of focused writing to complete the songs. It was by far the hardest work I’ve ever done as an artist—hard emotionally, physically and spiritually. I had to come face to face with some damn scary monsters. I had to make myself sit at my desk for 10 to 12 hours at a time, week after week. I had to research trauma, childhood trauma, and adoption trauma, and come face to face with my own denial of the effects of what had happened. But the inner work I was doing in therapy coincided with the work I was doing as an artist, and The Foundling songs crept up and out, cracking the floorboards of my fear, one at a time. I kept walking, and writing.

The truth of my life and the truth in my work collided.

What I learned was that my relinquishment by my birth mother on the day I was born, my year-long stay at the orphanage on Magazine Street in New Orleans, and my subsequent adoption into a family I never fully attached to were all traumatic events. And trauma needs to be dealt with.

The time was right for me to put the pieces together, as I wrote The Foundling song cycle I began to heal from the inside out—a classic case of art healing the artist. I look back on it now and wonder how I did it, or rather, how it did me. The mystery remains intact, even as I try now to explain.

The song “Blood Is Blood” is the centerpiece of The Founding cycle. It vibrates with the intensity and angst of an adoptee in full-blown identity crisis. Using John Lennon’s Mother as a guide, I let the muse walk me to the edge of my knowing till I faced the abyss, the dropping off place—the place I’d tried to avoid for 46 years.

With the muse guiding me, John Lennon’s courage encouraging me, my work in many years of therapy steering me, and my adoptee friends holding me, I found the strength to face what happened when my mother left me behind forever, on that frightful day, the day I was born.

Seeing it, knowing it, becoming aware of it, owning it—this is where all healing truly starts. And after a while, telling it moves the healing outward.

This song started with a couple of lines and a melody sent to me by my co-writer. Both the title and the repeated riff were in the clip he sent me, and I knew something great was there when I heard it. I just needed to carry it home.

I’d been reading a lot of books on adoption and trauma, and had become saturated in the work of Betty Jean Lifton, who to this day is my favorite writer on the psychology of adoption. BJ was an adoptee herself, a brilliant thinker and writer, and married to Robert J Lifton, Professor of Psychiatry at both Harvard and Yale, and the foremost expert on the psychological effects of war. He is the author of several groundbreaking books on the subject, including The Nazi Doctors.

Robert championed BJ as she did her own groundbreaking work on adoption trauma, and to this day her work on the psychology of adoption remains unsurpassed. She is an adoption reform hero, and I never could have written The Foundling without her. I got to meet her once when she came to a show I played at Joe’s Pub in NYC with the songwriter and fellow adoptee Diana Jones, who was her close friend. It was an honor to hug BJ Lifton—she was a kind, beautiful, brave and brilliant woman.

In addition to her work on adoption, she wrote many other wonderful books, including The King of Children, a biography of Janusz Korzack, the Heroic Polish Jewish Doctor who ran an orphanage during the war, and died with his orphans at the hands of the Nazis at the Treblinka extermination camp.

The song “Blood Is Blood” tells the story of the existential hole left inside of an adoptee after the loss of original family and heritage to the crucible of closed adoption. This loss is traumatic, but it is not yet generally understood. Often times, we adoptees don’t even know the loss/trauma is there because of a split in our psyche’s that shuts us out of entire rooms in our brains. Trauma is fundamental in adoption (especially closed adoptions where adoptees are given no knowledge of their heritage), but we’re just beginning to understand the ramifications of it. Certainly there is a direct link between childhood trauma and addiction as well as a variety of attachment disorders and other struggles, but we are in the infancy of understanding how this all plays out.

“Blood Is Blood” is both my story, and the story of closed adoption, an in-your-face song railing against the pain, secrets and lies of closed adoption. I’d say it’s probably the angriest and most angst-ridden song I’ve ever written.

It amazes me that in America, to this day, adoptees by the millions are denied access to our own original birth certificates. In fact, whenI was writing this song in 2014, only 6 states had opened or partially opened birth records. Think about that! Millions of adopted adults in America are denied access to our own birth certificates. They are sealed documents, locked away from us forever in the name of protecting us from…our identity?

I was told as a child that my mother loved me so much that she gave me away. I was told she “loved me too much to keep me.” A child cannot make sense of this, but even as an adult it makes my head swim. Loved me too much to keep me? I know my parents were trying to tell me that my mother could not care for me for reasons we never got in to, that she was so unselfish and generous that she gave me away so that I might be better cared for. The problem with this (aside from the fact that it’s probably not true) is that it forever equates love with abandonment, and the fear of abandonment has haunted me my entire life.

The antiquated laws that permanently seal birth certificates desperately need to be overturned, but the going is slow and the opposition is well funded. The fight for truth and justice in this arena continues. I hope this song helps, somehow. It sure helped me.

Order a copy of Live at Blue Rock HERE.

Behind the Song: The Last of the Hobo Kings

(By Mary Gauthier) Steam Train Maury died last night His wife Wanda by his side He caught the Westbound out of here Hopped the high irons to the by and by They say he jumped ten thousand trains Rode a million miles for free Helped out at VA hospitals and penitentiary’s Dandy Dave, Rusty Nails and Sweet Lady Sugar Cane Dead Eye Kate and the Baloney Kid raise their cups tonight in Steam Train’s name Senators, congressmen, puppets on a string Among the windswept vagabonds Steam Train was the king The last of the hobo kings, the last of the hobo kings

Now bums just drink and wander round Tramps dream and wander too But a hobo was a pioneer who preferred to work for food He knew how his nation’s doing By the length of a side walk cigarette butt Born with an aching wanderlust Embedded in his gut Hounded, beaten, laughed at, broke Chased out of every town With a walking stick scepter And a shredded coffee can crown The last of the hobo king, the last of the hobo kings

The last free men are hobos Steinbeck said, and he paid cash And the stories that he bought from them Helped him write the Grapes of Wrath But boxcars have been sealed for years And trespassers do time Railroad yards are razor wired And hoboing’s a crime So here’s to you Steam Train Maury Hold that Westbound tight As you ride off into history The last hobo, the last ride The last of the hobo king, the last of the hobo kings

I wrote this song in a hotel room in Amsterdam, in late November of 2006. A long string of shows in Europe had just ended, but I decided  to stay in Europe a little longer to and try get some writing done. I wanted to go home, but I had not written a new song in a long while and I figured the solitude of being in a hotel alone for a while would kick in the old writing process. I'd written two songs at the Schiller Hotel in Amsterdam’s Rembrandt Square on my previous tour, so I decided to linger a while longer and see if I could repeat the process. As homesick as I was, I changed my flight, added a week to my stay, and started reading poems in the old café, filling my head with words written before, during and after the liberation of Holland.

I'm glad I did.

The hotel and café were once owned by a painter by the name of Schiller, whose wife was a cabaret singer who performed in the square on the weekends. Mr. Schillers Cafe was a meeting place filled with lively conversation, after show parties, and a place where artists of all types gathered to share their work and their lives. The Schiller's endured the German occupation of Amsterdam during the war and were indentured to Nazi soldiers in their own hotel for period of time. Mr Schiller's paintings still hang in the hotel.

Captivated by the deco lighting and the timeworn original wooden floorboards that Nazi boots had walked before me, I sat there for hours, reading and daydreaming as tourists shuffled in and out of Smokey Joe’s, a giant marijuana coffee shop next door. It was a wonderful place to sit, ponder, and write.

I was in the café atrium sipping Dutch coffee one morning when I saw a headlined obituary in the International Herald Tribune newspaper for Steam Train Maury Graham, the Grand Patriarch of the Hobo Nation. I’d never heard of him, but I read his obituary and it grabbed me, he grabbed me, and I knew I’d found the thread of the song I should write. My attention fully engaged, I started poking around on my laptop for the more of Steamtrain’s story. The first thing I found was the website for the funeral home where he was being laid to rest. I clicked on his name, landed on a message board and read all the messages posted there from people who loved him, mostly other hobos. I kept poking around, digging up hobo treasures and gathering hobo stories from all over the web.

Maury Graham was a folk hero and legendary figure in his community, thus the headlined obituary in The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune paper. I traveled deep into the vernacular and history of hobos in America, and time flew by. I learned about the hobo jungles and the hobo gatherings, the annual King and Queen elections, and the hobo lifestyle. It was a wonderful journey into a world I’d never visited and I emerged a few days later with the song in hand. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

P.S.: One of the many oddball things I learned sitting there in that café for a week—Did you know that Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked ate some of the ashes of Old Joe Hill? Well, yes, they did.

Order a copy of Live at Blue Rock HERE.

Behind the Song: Cigarette Machine

Mary Gauthier Fred Eaglesmith

(Fred Eaglesmith) Stumbling past your house baby At the break of day I thought I saw your silhouette Dancing cross the shade And I went down to the mission I called and called your name Till an angel with a face like yours Came down and let me in 

Thought I saw your reflection in a cigarette machine In a bottle in the gutter In a window on the street In a storefront in a picture on an old broken TV I swear it was you staring back at me

I heard soldier’s voices by the city gate There were junkies lying on the ground They made me look away I spilled you in a mirror I chopped you into lines Over some old kitchen sing I swore I’d let you die

Thought I saw your reflection in a cigarette machine In a bottle in the gutter In a window on the street In a storefront in a picture on an old broken TV I swear it was you staring back at me 

Old radios and broken mirrors Dogeared things I read Worn out movie stars In faded limousines I stumble through my own charades Coffee cups and clowns I can’t keep up with parades I keep falling down

Thought I saw your reflection in a cigarette machine In a bottle in the gutter In a window on the street In a storefront in a picture on an old broken TV I swear it was you staring back at me

Listen to a clip of the song:

[audio mp3="http://www.marygauthier.com/MG2012/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/04-Cigarette-Machine.mp3"][/audio]

 

“Cigarette Machine” is the story of a haunted but lovable fellow whose pain I can feel, and whose skin I am comfortable inhabiting on stage. He is haunted by lost love, haunted by sorrow, haunted by failure, haunted by the ghost of his former self, and trying make a life in a world that no longer makes sense to him.

He is an addict.

On the surface, “Cigarette Machine” tells the story of a lost romantic relationship, but underneath, the deeper meaning of the song is an exploration of the horrors of addiction. A major loss can break a person down and be the driver of addiction and mental illness, it can suck the hope out of a human heart.

Fueled by denial and trapped in the hell of powerlessness, the crushing grip of active addiction howls throughout this song. We all know the story, we’ve seen it before … swearing it off and five minutes later, picking it back up … I’ll quit tomorrow, the mantra of the addict.

All of this is implied here, the words beautifully framed by circular chord changes that just go endlessly round and round, like addiction itself—chained to a merry-go-round in hell.

Many of us intimately understand getting caught up in a person or a substance that’s not good for us, and starting to spiral downward from the wrongness of the attraction as we refuse to let go of our pursuit of what we want. Most will let go before the behavior becomes insanity (insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results). Repeated long enough over time, compulsion can become addiction. The chase then becomes relentless and starts removing things from a life, greater and greater losses will continue to enfold, but the addict is no longer able to control the compulsion and keeps sinking further down into deeper water.

The character’s life in this song has spiraled completely out of his control. He is haunted, troubled and lost, having hit any numbers of bottoms but still descending blindly into the hole he is digging for himself. This is the nature of addiction, falling into the self-dug hole. The hole will get deeper and deeper, (unless and until the addict puts the shovel down and quits digging), but the soul sickness of addiction abhors admitting bottom. It can’t even see that it’s digging a hole—the addict does not know, cannot see, that he/she is sick. Addiction blames, lies, denies, and will eventually kill unless the compulsion is broken. One must hit bottom, and bottom is simply putting down the shovel. Simple, yes, but not at all easy—in fact, many say it takes a supernatural intervention to truly break addiction.

The character in this song is in terrible shape, but he doesn’t know it. Much like the guy in the song I wrote called “I Drink,” this character is delusional but lovable—and we root for him, we feel for him, we want him to find his way back home.

I particularly love the lines: “I can’t keep up with parades, I keep falling down.”

It brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard this—I felt compassion for this guy’s human frailty, and ultimately, compassion for everyone else’s frailty (including my own).

Yes, I’ve been where this guy is. It was a long time ago, but I remember it as though it was yesterday and I don’t ever want to go back there again. Lord willing, I won’t have to.

This is a truly great song. Thank you, Fred. You keep hitting ‘em out of the park.

Order a copy of Live at Blue Rock HERE.

Behind the Song: Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars

Mary Gauthier

(Mary Gauthier) Our Lady of the Shooting Stars Was that you last night? Did we dance a whispered waltz Did I hold you in my sight? When morning came with open arms She lifted you from me, Sunlight burned my eyes away And now I cannot see.

Our Lady of the Shooting Stars As I face the early light All that I can think of now Is joining you in flight But I have followed gypsies, girl Lost my way back home Held the phoenix to my chest And ended up alone. 

If I move to you Will you move to me? If I move to you Will you move to me?

Our Lady of The Shooting Stars Teach me how to know I want to feel my thoughts go dark And rest inside your flow. I'll awaken without fear And breathe the cool clean air, Your words upon my lips Your will becomes my prayer

If I move to you Will you move to me? If I move to you Will you move to me?

Our Lady of the Shooting Stars Look what you have done You led me to the water's edge, Running from sun. Are you in the briny mist? Do Seagulls scream your name? Wings suspended by your love, Or do I reach in vain?

If I move to you Will you move to me? If I move to you Will you move to me?

The words to this song are poetic—they have many layers of meaning, all of which would be destroyed if I try to explain it away in an essay. So I’m not going to try and decipher what the song means, that’s not something I could not do anyway. Ultimately, I have no idea! The artist does not know much more than the listener when it comes to poetic songs, we are just the lightening rod, not the lightening. The mystery remains intact, as new meanings appear over and over again over time. But I can, and will, explain how the song came to be.

It came from a failed gig, a gig early in my career that was a wipe out. No one came. No one at all!

It was to be a legendary place, The Wintertide Coffeehouse on Martha’s Vineyard, and I was hired to headline. It was my first big gig, my first headlining show, and I was thrilled. I drove from my home in Boston to Hyannis, took the car ferry over to the island, and got very excited when I pulled up to the club. It felt like finally, after years of open mic’s and playing for free, I was on my way to a brilliant and successful career in the music business. I went in, did a sound check and put my one CD on the merchandise table, then sat down and waited for people to come. Then I waited some more. But no one came.

No audience appeared. As I waited, I started to wonder if I was making a very big mistake chasing this crazy dream of mine. I wondered if I should quit this childish chase and just go home before it got any worse.

But I was on an island, there were no boats out till morning, and I had nowhere to go. There were no options, I had to stay, and I had to play. I had to get on stage and face the empty room with my guitar. I could not slip out the back and act like this was not happening. So I did it, I played to 150 empty chairs, and 2 people--one was the opening act, the other was bartender. It rattled me, unnerved me. It embarrassed me. My high hopes for the show were crushed. The show was a complete wipe out.

I still owned and ran a couple restaurants in Boston at this time, but I wanted out. I wanted to be a professional songwriter, not a chef. I was in the process of walking away from the restaurants to be a full time artist. I’d already notified my investors that I wanted to sell my shares back to them. I wanted out.

As I stood on stage and played for the bartender that night, I wondered if I was making a huge mistake. I was terrified of falling on my face in front of a lot of people who were going to tell me I told you so. I was 38 years old, I’d been to hell and back a few times by then, but I’d also been successful in many ways-- three restaurants under my belt, a condo, a house, health insurance, a new car every few years. I was walking away from success to try and become a professional musician at damn near 40 years of age, without any training or prior experience.

People told me I was nuts. My business partners literally laughed at me when I told them what I planned to do next. I knew I knew in my heart I was being called to write songs, to play music but what if I was delusional? What if the “calling” was just my tendency towards being a malcontent, always wanting something I didn’t have?

I was new in the business of music, but I’d already seen many, many delusional people chasing it with gusto. People who in all other areas of their life were sane, who believed that they had a shot in the music business when it was more than obvious to the entire world that they did not have the goods. Was I one of them? Had I finally lost it? Terror made my blood run cold on stage that night.

The early years are tough for all artists. The beginning requires a belief in your own work without an empirical evidence to back it up. No fans. No applause. No press. No gigs, No money. No idea-- if you suck or have talent. Some artists live their entire lives never getting that external validation, doing their work in earnest, committed to their calling, living in poverty. I did not want to be that kind of artist. I wanted to make a living making music. To this day, that is my definition of career success, to just make a living as an artist.

On the ferry returning to Boston the next day, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was filled with self-doubt and wondering if I should throw in the towel before strayed too far down this new path I’d chosen for my life. Should I give up now? Before this craziness got out of hand?

I got out of my car and went to the side of the boat and leaned against the railing. I watched the water churning behind us as we made our way out to open ocean. There were gulls, hundreds of them, following us there, as well as along the sides of the boat as we pulled out of the harbor.

As we set sail for Boston, I became mesmerized by those sea gulls. They followed us out into the open ocean, right next to the boat, hovering beside us, further and further out. They soared beside us like living kites, without ever flapping their wings. They stayed with the boat as we went further and further out to sea. They did not turn back! It seemed they were floating-- riding the wind, escorting me home. It was an amazing sight, all those birds gently gliding on air currents next to the boat. They rode regal, on an invisible stream, soaring freely with open wings. They gave me hope that painful morning. I could not put it into words, but they were telling me something about flow, something about faith, about staying with it.

They screamed as they soared next to us, and I was completely taken.

They could have been screaming for joy because people began tossing muffins and donuts out to them, or they could have been screaming for love, for life, for beauty, for God. Whatever the cause, their joyful screams came to me at a time when I needed them most. The images of those Gulls stay with me, and this song remains a snapshot of that day.

At about this time, I was reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and one of the characters in the book said a prayer to Our Lady of the Shooting Stars. The playfulness of that prayer captured me. I made note. I went to Catholic school for years, (even got kicked out of two of them), but never heard of a Saint called Our Lady of the Shooting Stars. What a beautiful name. If she’d actually existed I might have stayed in Catholic school a little longer! But alas, she came from imagination of the author, and the name stuck in mine. I remembered it. It became the title of this song.

When I got home from my little trip to the Vineyard, and sat at my writing desk the following week, the synthesis of all these experiences came out sounding like this:

Our Lady of the Shooting Stars Look what you have done You've led me to the water's edge, Running from sun. Are you in the briny mist? Do Seagulls scream your name? Their wings suspended by your love, Or do I reach in vain?

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Behind the Song: The Rocket

The Rocket - Behind the Song

(by Fred Eaglesmith) Son, could you help me on this platform? I’m not so good at climbing stairs I brought me a drink and some sandwiches I want to just sit and watch the trains

I come down here almost every Sunday My grandkids, they used to come too Now they drop me off at the front gate I guess that they got better things to do

Number 47 she’s a good one Number 63 sings like a bird Number 29, that’s the one they call The Rocket Hey, that’s the saddest train I ever heard

Son, I’m decorated veteran I fought in what they called the Great War I used to believe in everything it stood for I don’t believe in much anymore

Number 47 she’s a good one Number 63 sings like a bird Number 29, that’s the one they call The Rocket Hey, that’s the saddest train I ever heard

Son, you look just like my boy He stood here almost 40 years today He looked so good in that brand new soldier’s uniform But that Rocket never brought him back again

Headaches and heartaches and all kinds of pain, these are the parts of the railroad train. Trains are one of the great metaphors writers use to shine the light on the far reaches of the human heart—to demonstrate the comings and goings of love. There are hundreds and hundreds of songs that use trains to tell the stories of the hearts’ travels, and “The Rocket” is one of the best.

It is written from the perspective of a man who has experienced a loss so devastating he cannot fully transcend his sorrow, so he has ritualized his grief in order to deal with it. He’s compelled to visit and re-visit the site where he last saw his son alive, the place where he sent him off to war 40 years prior—the eponymous train station. He is an old man now, bent over with regret, and he has lost most—if not all—of his faith.  His body is also failing him, he has trouble with the stairs, and is forced to ask strangers to help him make his way up and down the flights for his weekly pilgrimage.

The utter brilliance of this song lies in the fact that old man does not choose to visit his son’s grave on his weekly pilgrimage. Instead, he chooses to visit the departure site, the place where he sent the boy off to war. It’s as though he is engaging in a penance for his actions, trying to make some kind of atonement for what he believes he did. We also get the feeling that the old fellow sits and stares at the trains trying to understand the enormity of what’s transpired, hoping somehow that if he stares long enough and hard enough, he might change the ending of the story.

His grandkids drop him off at the station, but they don’t join him there to watch the trains anymore, he’s left on his own to talk to the strangers who help him navigate the stairs ( and the emotions). He is compelled to tell his story each time, perhaps finding comfort in the telling. The universal human reaction to tragedy, to grief, is the need to tell and re-tell our story, it helps us move through the sorrow. But this old man is trapped in his pain, and he cannot find his way out of the maze. He feels responsible for his son’s death, and as we witness his pain, we feel compassion for him.

Nationalism and patriotism carried to their ultimate conclusions have repercussions, and this man has paid a high price for his devoted love and defense of his country—suffering both the loss of his son, and the loss of his faith. We assume the man is an American, but this is not necessarily so. This man could be of any nationality, and the pain would be the same. This song captures the essence of disillusionment through the old mans voice, the voice of the old soldier. We see the high cost of war through his eyes. This is not a protest song, or a peace song. It does not instruct us emotionally, it does not tell us how to feel about what has transpired. It only tells the story of one old man’s grief ritual. We take from it what we will, and draw our own conclusions. This is a story song well written, and the brilliance of story songs well told is that we  write our own endings and thus personally connect with the universal truths they reveal.

When I was a child my family was dealt a devastating blow during the Vietnam War when my cousin Phillip was killed. I was far too young to have any true understanding of what had happened. I can only remember the adults telling the story of the soldiers pulling up to my aunt Dot’s house to tell her that her child was gone, and her profound emotional reaction to those soldiers at the front door. They spoke in whispers, but I heard them, and tried to take it all in.

My father served in Korea, but he did not ever talk about his years there. When we lost Phillip I could see in his eyes some of what he must had gone through when he was a soldier. His wartime experiences suddenly showed, the weights hung in his eyes revealed themselves, they were weights even a child could see.

In those cold hard months following Phillip’s funeral, my daddy didn’t talk much at all, which was very out of character for him. We’d go sit with my aunt, and just sit there—for hours. The adults drinking coffee, the kids playing in the back, quietly, knowing to keep it down. Feeling the sorrow too, in our child hearts.

My cousin’s picture, taken in his soldier’s uniform, hung framed in the living room of my aunt’s house, above the table next to the TV. Over the years, I’d stare at it when we’d go visit, trying to understand what it meant to be killed in a war in a foreign place, a place we had seen only on a map. I can still see that picture of him in my mind, though I have not laid eyes on it in 40 years. The young soldier, looking strong and brave at the camera, hair buzzed short, hat tilted slightly sideways on his head, a serious look.  Phillip’s death was my introduction to mortality. His loss had a profound effect on my family, and though I was too young to really understand, I still carry the weight of it. Perhaps we all carry similar experiences, memories of our introduction to mortality.

“The Rocket” captures an emotional universe. It speaks for millions through the eyes of a single old man. This song is a classic, and Fred Eaglesmith is one of the best songwriters writing songs today, writing songs that will endure the test of time.

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Behind the Song: Karla Faye

Karla Faye

(By Mary Gauthier and Crit Harmon) A little girl lost her world full of pain. He said it feels good so she gave him her vein. The dope made her numb and numb felt like free. Until she came down down down to a new misery

A junkie a whore living for the next high She'd lie cheat and steal she forgot how to cry. Wide awake for two weeks shooting heroin and speed, When she killed in cold cold blood all she felt was her need

CHORUS It's an eye for an eye, Now you're gonna die A tooth for a tooth, It's your moment of truth. There's no mercy here Your stay is denied You better pray pray pray There's Mercy in the sky.

Alone in her cell no dope in her veins The killer had become the little girl lost again She fell to her knees she prayed she would die On the cold cement floor she finally cried

And love came like the wind love whispered her name. Love reached through and held her and lifted her pain. 14 years on death row her faith deeper each day Her last words were "I love you all," Good-bye, Karla Faye.

Now it's an eye for an eye, And you're gonna die A tooth for a tooth, It's your moment of truth. There's no mercy here Your stay is denied You better pray pray pray There's Mercy in the sky

This is a song that explores homicide, redemption, vengeance, soul sickness and bureaucratic murder-- played out to their fullest in the life and death of Karla Faye Tucker, the Texas woman executed by lethal injection in 1998.

Prior to her execution, Karla’s plight received massive publicity around the world, probably because she was an attractive woman and a born-again Christian, who committed a crime that was horrific in its violence. Also because, at that point, the US had not executed a woman since Ethel Rosenberg, (in 1953), and Texas had not executed a woman since 1863.

Karla Fay Tucker was born to a drug-addicted prostitute and became one herself when she was very, very young. She was a doper by age 8, and a junkie on heroin before she hit her teens. Her mother regularly got high with her when she was a child, and her mother’s boyfriend showed her how to use the needle when she was 11 years old. She immediately became a needle freak. Her mother showed her the life of a prostitute, showed her the way to make money with her sex, teaching her that was the thing she had thats was of most value.

Her inevitable spiral to the bottom didn’t take long. By the time she was 23 she’d sunk to the depths. With her boyfriend at her side, she participated in a break-in and double murder, and in a drug induced state of junkie bravado, even bragged about it. She said she “got off on it.” It made for great newspaper copy, a pretty woman “getting off” on committing a double murder with her boyfriend.

In prison, Karla experienced sobriety for the first time in her life, and had a conversion experience within weeks of getting clean. She had a life changing spiritual awakening, and for the next decade moved deeper and deeper into her faith. She married the prison minister Reverend Dana Lane Brown (behind the glass, of course, they were not allowed to touch), and studied Christianity and the bible. She became a minister of sorts herself, to all she came in contact with. A moving and amazing account of Karla’s journey can be found in the writer Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over, a beautifully written synopsis of her death row visits with Karla that spanned many years.

When it came time for Karla Faye Tucker’s execution, many world leaders pleaded with then-Governor George W. Bush for a stay, including such luminaries as the Pope, the Italian prime minister, the conservative speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, and the TV Evangelist Pat Robertson. It was not to be. Karla was executed Feb. 3, 1998, and there were literally hundreds of people outside the prison celebrating, some in pickup trucks, music blaring, fists pumping, windows down yelling, “Give her the juice!” Governor Bush even mocked her in an interview with Tucker Carlson after her death, having refused to intervene in her execution.

I was absolutely stunned.

I’d learned of Karla from television—she was all over the cable new shows: Larry King Live, Geraldo Rivera, Charles Grodin and so on. It was a riveting story, one of a supremely messed-up girl who’d gone straight in prison only to have to face the death chamber 14 years later. Though I’d not met her—her tragic story resonated with me. I remained glued to the TV, hoping against hope that there would be a way to save her.

I’d been sober about 8 years at that point, and was learning about how addiction destroys souls, how it pulls addicts down roads so dark that they/we become unrecognizable to ourselves and those who love us. It was at a time in my life when I was starting to deeply reflect who I became when I was in my own addiction. I was taking an inventory of my past actions, and I was also beginning to get a clear picture of who I was now that I’d been sober for a while.

I could clearly see that there are at least two very, very different people inside me, both of them real. The sober woman bears no resemblance to the active addict. I’d stayed sober long enough at this point to have the ability to see the profound dichotomy, and to also start to take true responsibility for what I’d done as an addict—and do my best to make amends and atone for it.

And the songs were coming. I was writing like crazy. I never wrote a single song until after I was sober for a few years.  Then, boom. The muse came knocking. I had become a vessel for something else, something better.

The writer in me was completely spellbound by the tragedy of Karla Faye Tucker as the clock ticked down the hours before her date with the death chamber.

I began to hope and pray there would be a commutation of her sentence to life in prison given the change in her after her spiritual awakening on death row, her spiritual conversion to sobriety and a life of service to the other prisoners. Watching her in the interviews and in the cable news videos of her in the prison community, I saw a gentle woman who was no longer the person who’d committed the murders. I could see the transformation in her, from the drug addicted soul-sick murderer whose mug shot was taken 14 years prior, that picture looked like a different person; a terrifying person. But that person was long gone. The person we saw on TV—she was not the person in the mug shot. There were at least two people inside Karla, too—the sober person, the person the creator made, and the sick addict who committed the crimes, who was capable of profound and horrifying darkness.

Here’s what I think, and here’s why I wrote this song: I believe that the Karla Faye Tucker who was executed by the State of Texas was not the murderer. That woman—the murderer—had been redeemed. Redeemed in such a way that I think the state of Texas literally killed the wrong person. The Karla that was executed was of benefit to the other women on death row. She helped them, counseled them, taught them what she’d learned in her study of the Bible, in her study of Christianity.  She was no longer filled with darkness, with hate. She was filled with light—she was filled with love. We did not rid the world of danger with her execution—all we did was commit another murder, a bureaucratic one, filled with vengeance. Redemption is not something the law allows, but it’s something the world’s religions allow. In fact, without redemption, what would be the point of religion?  But when the death penalty gets on a Texas roll, it’s virtually impossible to stop. Governor Bush had nothing to gain by asking the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant her a stay, so he didn’t. And he went on to be elected president of the United States.

Karla’s last words were “I love you all.”

Karla Faye Tucker’s story is a story of redemption, despite the vindictive ending to her life. Karla had found her way home long before her execution. She found her way home before she was even sentenced. She’d found peace after spiritual conversion, that conversion that she’d experienced a few weeks into her incarceration and sobriety.  Karla’s is the story of the lowest of the lows, and the resilience of the human spirit to triumph, against all odds. As I play this song around the world, people are amazed by the life and death of Karla Faye Tucker.

And so am I.

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Behind The Song: I Drink

Mary Gauthier

(by Mary Gauthier and Crit Harmon) He’d get home at 5:30, fix his drink And sit down in his chair Pick a fight with mama Complain about us kids getting in his hair At night he’d sit alone and smoke I’d see his frown behind his lighter’s flame Now that same frown’s in my mirror I got my daddy’s blood inside my veins

Fish swim birds fly Daddies yell mamas cry Old men sit and think I drink

Chicken TV dinner 6 minutes on defrost, 3 on high A beer to wash it down with Then another, a little whiskey on the side It’s not so bad alone here It don’t bother me that every night’s the same I don’t need another lover Hanging round, trying to make me change

Fish swim birds fly Lovers leave by and by Old men sit and think I drink

I know what I am But I don’t give a damn Fish swim birds fly Daddies yell mamas cry Old men sit and think I drink

I am often asked how I came to write this song. People wonder how in the word I came up with it. Well, as is so much of my work, this song is semi autobiographical. Not totally, in my mind the character in the song is male, but my experiences appear in there, for sure. Here’s a bit of my backstory, to set the context for the creation of this one.

I became an addict early on, and full on. I tend to think I was born this way. I have no memory of ever taking a "social" drink. I went to my first drug and alcohol treatment center when I was 15 years old, and spent my 16th birthday locked inside a place with an onerous name: The Baton Rouge Adolescent Chemical Dependency Unit. Yikes! What a way to spend my Sweet 16. I completed the program and was shipped off to a halfway house in Kansas. I relapsed in the halfway house after about a year, and spent my 18th birthday in jail. (I was caught stealing a bottle of pills and some 8-track tapes out of a car that I drove through the carwash I working at in Salina, Kansas. It was 1977, remember 8 track?) Well, I was sent back to Louisiana, I tried to go back to High School (that didn’t work), and ended up back in the treatment center and back to the halfway house. I couldn’t stay with the program and I ran away when I found a running buddy willing to take off with me. Her name was Kelly, she was a dancer, and I write a song about her called Evangeline. But I digress....

I tried to put it all behind me, the treatment stays, the halfway houses, all those meeting and big blue books....but I was a mess, and I got way worse as I went deeper into relapse. It got very, very dark, and I am simply lucky to have survived those years. In all fairness, I should be dead.

I eventually got sober when I was 27 years old, when I found myself back in jail again, this time for drunk driving. I started writing songs in earnest at around 32 years of age.

Funny thing, this songwriting journey. Looking back through my song catalogue, my songs sing like an autobiography, or a memoir. My guess is that many songwriters could say that, that their songs are their story; no real need for an actual memoir.

For me my songs and stories stories started after I got sober. I looked back- in song- on my crazy years. I found my voice in recovery; I didn’t find much at all when I was out there swirling further and further down. I never wrote a single song under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I couldn’t do it, even though I tried. I simply couldn’t finish anything. My brain was out of focus in the truest, deepest sense. My eyes could see, but I had no vision.

But here’s the beautiful part … I could not have written “I Drink” if I was never addicted. Writing “I Drink” required a perspective that an active alcoholic is not capable of, and a non-alcoholic cannot fully comprehend. I needed to go through what I went thorough to write it, and today I would not change a thing even if I could because for me, inside the curse--- lives the blessing. The wisdom, vision and compassion that comes from taking a stroll to hell and back cannot be obtained any other way. I was lucky enough to find my way through to the other side of addiction and into recovery, and I continue to receive many, many blessings from all that has transpired in my life. Songwriting is one of the greatest blessings of all, and writing “I Drink” stems from recovery. Ain't life interesting?

I wrote this song when I was almost five years clean and sober. There’s no way I could have seen this character’s plight if I had not lived it, I would not have the perspective to understand the dire situation this character is in until I stepped out of my own downward spiral. Just like it was for me, the character in this song is in full-blown denial, can’t see the real problem, and doesn’t know the cause of the tormenting loneliness and isolation that’s driving the compulsion to self-medicate. The character is classic alcoholic, a garden variety drunk, believing that drinking is the solution and not the cause of the suffering. The character has become resigned to living this way, resigned to drinking, mostly alone, till the bitter end.

As I wrote this song, I tried to imagine myself still active in my own addiction, slowly growing old and sinking in an illness that was killing me. I imagined staying blind, asleep, unaware of the nature of the illness, and unable to see my own hand in creating the problem. Essentially, the song is about who I would have been had I not gotten sober. As I wrote, I turned myself into a guy alone in a room in a cheap apartment in Central Square, in Cambridge, MA. (I knew a guy like that, a wonderful country singer and songwriter, who died of alcoholism in just this horrifying, predictable, boring and sad way). I let myself become him, and the song came out of my imagination and experience.

Fast forward 7 years.

“I Drink” became a very big song for me, a door opener. People began to sing along with me to it everywhere I went. Ireland, England, Norway, Holland, Sweden, Italy-you name it, people came to the shows knowing the words to this song. Sometimes I pull back and just let the audience sing the chorus. It's been amazing to stand on stage and watch people sing these words. once again...ain't life something?

I Drink became what they call a career song.  It’s the song that got me a record deal on Universal/Lost Highway, a publishing deal at Harlan Howard Songs, and a spin on Bob Dylan’s radio show, with Bob reading my lyrics on the air  and telling his audience a little bit of my life story. (Episode #3, Drinking)  It’s a song that keeps on giving. As they say in the business, this song’s got legs.

So no, I don’t drink, but I drank. And then I didn't any more. And from that came so much, so very much.

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Behind The Song: Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane Burning

(by Mary Gauthier and Catie Curtis) Mama said she don’t give a damn what those people say Cane smoke can’t be good for you day after day Every year at harvest time when the black smoke filled the sky She’d pick me up and take me home and make me stay inside

From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air dirty laundry dirty money dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning the sugar cane

Christmas on the bayou, midnight come and gone Driving past the sugar mill and all the lights are on The parking lot is full of trucks I can see the furnace glow Everybody’s working overtime, it’s a good job, even though

From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air, dirty laundry, dirty money, dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning the sugar cane

First came the sugar cane then came Thibodaux Cane sugar built this town cane sugar paved these roads They burn the leaves to harvest cash, money for the company Money makes the world go round money money money

From Thibodaux to Raceland there’s fire in the fields All the way up the bayou from Lafourche to Iberville Dirty air, dirty laundry, dirty money, dirty rain A dirty dark at daybreak burning, burning

The soot and ash are falling like a dark and deadly snow The air is full of poison to the Gulf of Mexico Dirty air, dirty laundry dirty money dirty rain A dirty deal with the devil, burning the sugar cane

I am a Louisiana kid.

Born in New Orleans, raised in Baton Rouge, and lived for a few years in a little Cajun town of 15,000 souls called Thibodaux. Thibodaux sits next to bayou Lafourche, and it is a hot, humid and slow moving little place. People have a unique accent down there, a Cajun French accent, with plenty French slang thrown in. I went to a couple years of High School there, before I decided High School was not for me.

Down in Thibodaux, sugar cane is a big cash crop, and it’s been that way for a long, long time. 16% of the sugar grown in the U.S. comes from the cane fields of Louisiana. I grew up around the sugar cane fields because both of my parents are from there, and the fields always seemed a little haunted to me. Spooky. Turns out, in Thibodaux, they ARE haunted.

There was a violent labor dispute and racial attack of whites against black workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. The fight was about the money paid to the workers of the cane fields. I'd never been told the story of the Thibodaux massacre, and when I lived there I had no idea that this occurred in my little town, but I felt it in my bones somehow. Something in me knew there was blood in those fields. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I guess the ghosts of the Thibodaux Massacre still linger in the humid air, though no one ever talks about it. There’s a conspiracy of silence around things like this in the South. It's not pleasant to talk about unpleasantness, and so for the most part, people don't.

Though the true number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 and as many as three hundred workers were killed, making it one of the most violent labor disputes in American history. All of the victims were African American. I learned about the history of the sugar industry in Thibodaux through reading books,  years after I’d left Louisiana. Like I said, no one talks about this stuff down there.

The sugar game was, and is, about power and money. It always has been. Sugar is an addiction, and addiction always makes for big, big business.

Sugar cane is harvested by burning the field, and then cutting down the cane stalks after the burn. It’s a messy, ancient way of gathering sugar, but it requires less manual labor than any other way of harvesting, and for people living down there the smoke and soot and ash are just part of a way of life. The sugar industry jobs are good jobs, and people need the work.

Sugar cane is harvested around Christmas time in Louisiana, and a lot of folks associate the smell of the burning cane fields with the holidays. In other words, people think it smells good. But the soot and ash get so thick sometimes you can’t hang laundry outside. When I was a kid my mama used to make me and my brother and sister stay inside when the cane smoke filled the air, and I grew up thinking every kid lived like this. My mother used to get all worked up when they burned the fields, she used to say, “The poison in the air is going to kill all of us! No wonder they call it cancer alley down here in South Louisiana!” Most people thought she was dramatic, and a little off. They didn’t think the smoke was a big deal. They thought the sugar jobs were more important than the mess the smoke caused. It was unpleasant to talk about it.

When my grandmother was dying of lung cancer, I remember looking out of her hospital room in the Thibodaux General Hospital, and all I could see for miles around was cane fields. The enormity of that hit me, even though I was just 16 years old. She lived in Thibodaux her whole life, and died in that room, right there in the middle of the cane fields, her lungs giving out. Like I said, cane is a way of life. And Death.

They tell me they’ve found a cheaper way to harvest cane these days—a way that involves less burning, less pollution. I hope that’s true. It would mean a better way of life for the people down on the bayou, and in other places where the annual burns fill the air with smoke and soot and ash. I wrote this song hoping that one day the practice would change.

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Behind the Song: Wheel Inside The Wheel

Wheel Inside the Wheel

(by Mary Gauthier) The parade of souls is marching across the sky Their heat and their light bathed in blue as they march by The All Stars play “When the Saints Go Marching In” A Second Line forms and they wave white hankies in the wind

Satchmo takes a solo, and he flashes his million-dollar smile Marie Laveau promenades with Oscar Wilde Big Funky Stella twirls her little red umbrella to the beat As the soul parade winds its way down Eternity Street

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made of water, ain’t made of sky So, ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel And roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

Mardi Gras Indians chant in the streets at sundown Spyboy meets Spyboy and Big Chief meets Big Chief uptown They circle and sway in their rainbow colored feathers and beads They prance like peacocks, children of slavery freed

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made’a water, ain’t made of sky Ride the flaming circle wind the golden reel Roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

The Krewe of the Crossbones parades into the midnight sun They march through the fire and come out beating homemade drums While the French Quarter Queens in their high-heeled drag disguise Sing “Over the Rainbow” ‘til Judy Garland quivers and sighs

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made’a water, ain’t made of sky Ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel And roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

Flambeau dancers light the walkway to Jean Pierre’s There’s a party tonight and all the girls are gonna be there Sipping wormwood concoctions, drinking absinthe and talking trash It’s a red carpet, black tie, all night, celestial bash

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made’a water, ain’t made of sky Ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel And roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel I said, roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel Yeah, roll on brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

On the afternoon of July 20, 2002, I rolled into Greenfield, Mass., to perform at the Green River. The colorful beauty of the day had me smiling, and to top it off there were dozens of multi colored hot air balloons in the fields waiting to set sail. The weather was perfect for a music festival, sunny warm, slight breeze, and low humidity. I remember thinking this is going to be a great weekend as I entered the festival’s performer check-in area to get my credentials.  I was particularly looking forward to seeing my friend Dave Carter who was also playing the event.

Dave and I had an amazing run of festivals together (I believe we played 9 or 10 of them) the summer of 1998, and he and his partner—the wildly talented and lovely Tracy Grammer—had been on the road pretty much non-stop after that crazy summer. Yes, the summer of ’98, we were all brand new on the national scene, older than any of the other newcomers, and we were beside ourselves, so excited to be included for the first time on the Folk Festival Circuit, including the prestigious Newport Folk Festival. We bonded as friends that summer, and it was a powerful connection. We got to share the stage at many events, and we swapped songs with each other on workshop stages for the first time. I loved what Dave was up to with his songwriting—I thought (and still think) his writing was tremendous.

We’d spoken on the phone quite a bit after that first summer working together. He’d call from hotel rooms and diners and green rooms, and we’d talk about his travels and how tired he was from the long, long drives they’d have between gigs. I’d call him and tell him to quit complaining. Hell, I was jealous; I wish I had the opportunity to work as much as he was! I was still trying to find an agent, trying to get more work. But all kidding aside, their schedule was grueling, and they both were exhausted. Driving 8, 9,10 hours, then playing, then doing it again and again and again. It’s no way to live. I was really looking forward to seeing him again, and getting caught up on his travels and putting a big hug on him.

I wasn’t there in line waiting for my laminate for 5 minutes when someone, a stranger, came up to me with a somber look on her face and asked, “Have you heard about Dave?” I said nothing, frozen there, afraid of what was coming next. “Dave had a heart attack yesterday, he’s gone. We lost him.” I said, ”Dave Carter? The songwriter? Are you sure?” I had a feeling there was some kind of mistake being made. Someone else came up, and they told me it was true. Dave passed away the day before, after a morning jog, and Tracy was still holed up in the hotel room. I grabbed my phone and called her, then got back in my car and went straight over. It was an awful, awful day. I will never forget it. Dave Carter was one of the true greats, and his timeless songs will live on forever.

Nearly 15 years later, I still have a hard time believing Dave Carter is gone. He was on the brink of international fame, right on the brink of the breakthrough that would have taken care of so many of the financial worries and hard touring woes he was struggling with. But it was not to be. We lost him at the height of his powers.

After the balloon festival, I was scheduled to play in Canada at the Calgary Folk Festival. The title to the song “Wheel Inside The Wheel” came to me in a thought dream I’d had on the flight over to Alberta.  I think it came from an old spiritual folk song I’d heard Johnny Cash sing years before:

Ezekiel saw the wheel Way up in the middle of the air Now Ezekiel saw the wheel in a wheel Way in the middle of the air And the big wheel run by Faith And the little wheel run by the Grace of God In the wheel in the wheel in the wheel good Lord Way in the middle of the air

I stayed in my the hotel room,in between my sets,and  I started working on this song as I grieved the loss of my dear friend. Dave was in my heart and mind as “The Wheel Inside The Wheel” came though me.

In college I’d studied philosophy, and one of the great thinkers I studied in depth was Neitzche. The concept of "eternal recurrence" is central to his writings. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes of time circular and cyclical, and not linear. This idea, found in many eastern philosophies as well, made sense to me, and stays with me to this day. That we all just move in eternal circles, spirit moving in and out of realms we cannot understand in this incarnation. This thought is deeply imbedded in the song, and married to poetic images from the Book of Ezekiel.

My New Orleans heritage (I was born there) also found its way into the lyrics, and I couldn’t help myself but put a Second Line parade in there, throw in the famous New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, the legendary Satchmo, some Mardi Gras Indians and Oscar Wilde, just ‘cause I adore him and felt like he belonged in a song inspired by Dave Carter. Once I got going, the images in the song came into my mind quickly—it was like they lined up somewhere in the misty muse world, waiting their turn to be included in this romping procession.

This song is a bit of a Jazz Funeral in and of itself, and it is my greatest hope that the ideas of the eternal nature of the soul are true. That souls truly do move in and out this world without ever being born or dying, that we are all immortal in some form, and that we have nothing to fear from death.

On my good days, I am certain that this is true. Dave, I miss you.