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.