This is the last of the bits I wrote for the Midrash class. I apologize for its length, 2,800 words. It was my final paper. The Biblical story tells us nothing about Jepthah’s daughter: not her name, nor her upbringing (Jepthah was an outlaw, remember?), nor what went on while she and her maiden friends were in the wilderness. I have to admit to liking happy endings. I’ll only say that she does not get sacrificed. Follow the link above to find out how that happened.
This morning I looked up the Rolling Stone interview with Pete Townshend. I found it revealing & illuminating. Who’d have thought such things of a rock musician? Connections to eastern religions are often acknowledged. But understood as god working to salve the pain of humanity and rectify injustice, the interview casts writing & lyrics in a whole new way:
Pete Townshend is a seminal figure on the rock & roll scene. His band, The Who, have been around since the mid-1960s. I heard on the radio that Townshend told the Rolling Stone Magazine the song “Love Will Open Your Heart,” was conceived as Jesus singing to us. Consider the lyrics “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free. That’s My love.” Rock & roll was often depicted as “the devil’s music.” Words, lyrics, can open us to different ways of being. In the following excerpt, Townshend speaks of the spiritual connection, background, and origin of several songs:
“A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up f***** standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”
Poetry and song can allow us to address matters too far beyond the pale for society to swallow. This was true for the prophets, it is true today. Townshend continues:
“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.
“It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the f****g words, they scare the s*** out of you.
“Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!
“And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated.”
I don’t necessarily aim to scare the hell out of anybody. Much of what I have to say may make others uncomfortable. The softening effect of music, poetry, and lyrics is a form of accommodation. Writing is, and has always been, a powerful tool for social change. Accommodation, as Townshend observes, allows otherwise unpalatable realities to be heard.
I wrote this when I was in my late teens. Much of the stuff I wrote in that time seems to be lost, but Liz copied the poem & decorated the margins with fall leaves. It hung on the wall in my attic bedroom until recently. The ink faded. In places it was only a shadow on the paper. “Trapped in cold concrete” refers to the community college I was attending at the time. “Paint crew reds and greens and blues” is a reference to stage crew. I helped build sets for high school & summer theater plays. See if you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love.
It’s to be sung to a traditional blues tune. I don’t read music, but I do whistle & have a pretty good ear. I’ll see if i can do a recording of it & get that posted.
The Lizzo Blues (ca. 1975)
Well I’ve been runnin’ all the morning
I’ve been runnin’ all the night
And you know some people tell me
Such cavortin’ ain’t too bright
But I’ve got the blues
I’ve got those rotten stellar blues
They get down in your pocket
And you’ll spend your time a-wishin’
You’d see her once again
So you’re working all day
And talking all night
Your parents been away
You’ve never known such delight
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got those far out Lizzy blues
And just one free back scratch
Can take away those blues
Well you wonder how she does it
Now just how she stays so pure
‘cause once you’ve been trapped
There ain’t no man-made cure
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got the flea-bitten, Lizzy-lookin’ blues
And though I feel like shit
I just know I’ll never quit
So here I sit just writin’
Entrapped in cold concrete
The wind and snow a bightin’
But ol’ Lizzie makes me feel so neat
I’ve got the blues
Oh Lord, I’ve got the blues
I’s s’posed to go to sleep last night
But Lord I’ve got the Lizzy blues
I’ll sleep some more tomorrow
And I’ll stay inside tonight
A wonderin’ ‘bout ol’ Lizzy
I’ve got to figure what she likes
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got the paint crew reds and greens and blues
But I know that if I fall in love (heaven forfend)
My mind’s gone down the drain
Now I’ll write you one more verse, dear
I’ll write you one more line
‘Cause I know by now you must be
Feelin’ really fine
But I’ve got those blues
Those ? far out Lizzy blues
I can’t explain why I love you (reason to be found)
Your father will grow old and die, as will you and I.
And our children….
‘Tis best to make peace while peace can be made.
When he’s curmudgeonly, ornery, contrary or just plain cussed,
Picture a sign on a strand of hairy binder twine around his neck,
The sign laying against his chest
Jagged letters by infirm hand scrawled, that say:
Just keep in mind that it really means
“God, I need your love
now more than ever”
Hold me tenderly in your heart
Allow me dignity
As I sing my final song
No one knows the last line. ###
I’m not obsessed with death. This & “Back to Iowa” reflect what’s going on in my life. My in-laws come over for Sunday dinner. My wife was struggling with her dad. I wrote this for her on Christmas morning as I sat in the silence of Meeting for Worship.
To see her mother, to see her friends, to see the land, to return
To gravel roads. Flaxen hair, riding beside her father
As they cruised the prairies looking for jewels.
On gravel roads high-crowned, deep-ditched
So they blew clear when the blizzards came
Wild rose. Indian paintbrush. Dwarf lupines. Meadow Larks. Blue birds
To the grocery & mercantile Uncle Willie ran in town
Nestled beside the apple barrel
While she read of fantastic places
I Married Adventure. Fifty Years Below Zero. Kipling. Sandburg.
Her mother died 45 years ago
Friends dropped away one by one.
She is the last one standing.
The county said she couldn’t live alone.
She could have a live-in nurse or go to a “home.”
She wanted neither.
When I visit, she says with pleading in her papery voice
Please don’t take me back to that place.
Where’s Bob? Husband. And Robert? Where’s Em and Peg? Three of her 7 children.
She doesn’t ask about the twins. Two of her children.
I haven’t heard from Mother in a long time, it seems like
I need to take care of some things at the farms, she says.
Century farms, their fate unclear after she’s gone.
The kids never got bitten by the farming bug.
The grandkids were all born in the east
They see the beauty of the place in its physical presence
Its place in her soul is a mystery to them
Union Slough. Reedy grasses. Herons, green and blue.
Red-winged blackbirds scratch their chick-a-ree call.
The sky in all its moods
From cerulean peace to tornadic wrath
Gridwork roads. North-south. East-west.
Tall grass ruffled into waves by the prairie wind.
Corn and beans and beans and corn.
Trees confined to the creek-bottoms.
I wonder why they always grow on the south bank, she wondered one time.
Life was always, prairie was always, a place of wonder, awe, beauty.
When can we go, she asks.
I want to go to the farms
Poor health or not, independent as a hog on ice (as the saying goes)
She’ll make the pilgrimage, no longer annual
Back to Iowa
One. Last. Time
Note: Eleanor Melville passed away April 3, 2016 about 60 days short of her 97th birthday. Though she moved to the Washington, DC area in 1963, her heart always remained in Iowa. She will be buried in Burt, IA, her home town. She was an extraordinary woman who lived a complicated life with grace and strength.
While the sting of separation is strong, she is still with us if not in spirit, at least in the lives of those she touched: in caring and compassion, in our family’s love for words and history and those fantastic places. Peace, friends.