Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Just finished my reading for a while. Feels good. I'm drinking a beer to celebrate. (I'm also drinking because I started slipping into a loop of anxiety earlier today when I realized how little time we have left. I'm freaked.) Also to celebrate, I just took out the guitar. I sounded truly awful. But I found myself playing the song, "The Golden Vanity," an amazingly beautiful song about a ship sailing on the "lowland sea." The crew fear they're going to be overtaken by the "Spanish enemy." But a brave cabin boy steps forward and says to the captain of the ship: "what would you give to me if I swam alongside of the Spanish enemy and sank her in the lowland sea?" The captain promises him riches -- and the hand of his daughter. That's good enough for the cabin boy, and he jumps overboard, swims alongside of the enemy ship, and bores three holes in her side with his auger. She sinks. He swims back to his ship, but the captain won't help him out of the water -- he regrets his promise. Finally, the boy makes it around to the port side, where his messmates are. They pull him up, but it's too late: he dies on the deck. His messmates stitch his body in the hammock, and lower it overboard, where it drifts with the tide before sinking.

I wish I could write story-songs. And there's something about that song and story... For some reason, the tragedy of it is so human, so recognizable. It just feels like something you've seen in your life before, somehow. I was thinking while I was singing that a younger me probably found great significance in the class dimension of the story: the captain of the ship on one side of the boat, the messmates on the other; the captain letting the boy, wh's just saved his life, sink into the lowland sea. I'm sure there's a lot of truth to that, if I'm receptive to it. But this time, it was something else about the story that was hitting me, I think it had to do with the futility of the boy's heroism, and the sense that, in the end, there was nothing anyone could do about the tragedy. The messmates pull him up, and he dies. The sew his body up, and they let it drift on the ocean. There's something about the last couple lines:

His messmates pulled him up, but on the deck he died
And they stitched him in the hammock, which was so fairly wide.
They lowered him overboard, but he drifted with the tide
And he sank into the lowland sea.

The word "but" in that second to last line -- I might have added that myself at some point unintentionally, I haven't heard anyone but myself sing this song in well over ten years -- anyway, it just adds so much pathos. They lowered him overboard, hoping, I guess, that his body would just sink and he'd have some peace. But instead, he drifted with the tide. No one could do anything about it -- he was buffetted by circumstances even in death. And his messmates had to just watch from the ship as his poor body, stitched in the hammock, drifted. I mean, that's some incredible shit.

And it's interesting to think that the word "but" might have just crept in accidentally at some point, and yet I can find so much significance in it now. I often think about how art might or might not have some intended meaning, but the person experiencing it frequently finds some personal meaning in it. It isn't necessarily the meaning its creator intended, if indeed any meaning really was intended. But it can be so significant, regardless. And once you realize this -- that a song can have truth in it that no one ever put there -- you're actually able to start finding that kind of meaning elsewhere, in things that definitely don't have an intended meaning. The sound of leaves brushing against each other when the wind blows, or the way a pearl gradually grows over something abrasive that's accidentally made its way into an oyster shell.

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