Now to Recall
Some songs are prompted by a phrase you think or hear, or a chord progression you like, or fully formed statements you want to craft into lyrics. Other songs are puzzles–narratives you want to piece together, loosely connected observations you’re convinced fit together, or points you want to work your way towards. This song was a gesture, a spontaneous movement of the mind, saying something I needed to hear.
It didn’t take much time. It started with a satisfied sigh–the first I’d expressed in ages–and ended in quiet gratitude.
Finding What's Enough Your hands warm in your pockets— A nickel and a dime Left over from a conversation With a friend wrought out of time. The trees stain the sidewalk As their leaves give up the ghost In an afternoon spent lost Finding the long way home. There might be a message Under every stone, And if you leave it for your children They’ll never be alone. 'Cause the story in the soil And the story in the bone Are woven by the sinew Of the will to grow. So, if you hold your lover Later on tonight Don’t be afraid to give her all that You’ve ever held inside. That small act of courage In the arms of one you love May be all there is to Finding what’s enough.
Yielding is timeless. Every other song on this EP drew from a definable historical element. This one came from the stones–the things we don’t have to know or control, things we are better for leaving–and accepting–as they are.
Zach was the friend in this song with whom I had a long conversation, catching up on a decade of life in a few hours. I wrote this song after a meal at a diner. I pulled it out shortly before a gig we had, and I knew when he added the keys it was done.
After I write a song it doesn’t take me too long to get to the point where I can barely stand to hear it again. That hasn’t happened yet with this one. I think it’s the beautiful piano part at the end. Take a listen to Zach’s playing on this one–isn’t that enough?
Depression. We talk about it like it’s a hole, a swamp, a muddy trench. The “slough of despond,” the “pit of despair,” a “ditch” we fall into. For me, in 2018, depression was an all out war, and I was losing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in the trenches and it’s not likely to be the last, but it was real and devastating. And I know that others are there, in that same place now, too.
I walked a lot that year, as I had for several others. It was part of my job growing plants: checking row after row, house after house. Watering here, scouting there, repairing this or that, refilling and applying nutrients, planting tray after tray after tray of seeds.
Plants don’t make great conversationalists, and as I rarely found myself working alongside other sentient beings I took to thinking a lot, and listening a lot.
Audiobooks, music, podcasts. I listened for hours.
During that time I happened across a history podcast called Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. For about 25 hours one work week I immersed myself in the story of WWI while I went about my daily tasks.
I hadn’t written a song in months. I couldn’t muster the will to give voice to anything. It was all I could do to simply stay.
There was something in the misery of that first World War that gave me a way to think about my inner war.
In it the past met the future. No matter how gallantly a young soldier may have ridden his horse into battle, he was not made for a new war built on freight trains of metal–metal in tons–bullets per second, and poison gas.
The nihilism that seeped from the WW1 trenches felt like my own in that depression.
“What can it mean? Is there a reason for anything? The dead have a glory fit for altars and for flames.”
Feeling is elusive then. Meaning is oppressively absent. Glory is an obscenity. There is not even grief–there’s…nothing. Life feels like no more than a cruel game we’re all forced to play.
“There’s no room for grieving in all of this noise, there’s no room to bury the soul with the joy. This war’s just a game, this life’s just a game, it’s a cruel kind of game that we all have to play.”
In those deepest moments it felt like the best I could do was nothing. Not anything…just don’t do anything.
No Man’s Land was the space between the trenches of WW1. The space a person went only once.
From the misery of a trench soldiers would hear the delirious ramblings of the injured in No Man’s Land. They had to listen to their desperate cries, and they could not forget the sound.
There was only one way out of the hell of No Man’s Land, and there were times when the misery of the trenches made that way out seem like a gift.
I am thankful that my mind is better as I write this today. I can offer no prescriptions to the hosts among us, like me, who fight in such a war–my pain is not theirs, is not yours. I simply acknowledge that the struggle is real, and I sense today what I could not sense then, that the glory of living is not obscene.
Then it sounded like a cannon. I flinched at it. Hid from it.
It felt like the mud I could never clean off.
It reeked of decay; of ends, not beginnings.
Now it is quiet.
It is new growth.
Now it buds and blooms.
I know it was there all along. Somewhere. But I also know I could not see it as such.
I grieve for those who suffer, though I could not then. To be well is possible.
It is. Some scars may remain for a time, but life renews. Hope can return in time.
May we care for each other, even in this war, when all seems naught. Even more than our own ambitions. May we care. There are more people in those God-awful trenches than we may see.
Depression is not sadness. It is something else entirely. And to those who would suggest that it is a feebleness of mind or will, or a moral failing, I say nothing.
But inwardly I wish that you would be silent. Sometimes silence is best. You don’t need to say anything. You don’t need answers. And if you think you have them… you. don’t.
Sometimes it’s best just to listen, be present, and wait.
The World Was Naive The world was naive in 1914. All glory and gallantry muzzles and manes. The horse and his rider, all red in the rain meet man’s big achievement in metal and pain. The soldiers march on, no one quite knows why, while the war to end all wars illumines the sky. And the mud in the trenches, the dead in the trenches The fear in the trenches digs into the mind. What can it mean? Is there a reason for everything? The dead have a glory Fit for altars and for flames. I’ve been naive and I’ve tried hard to please the major above me who looks out for me. But I slipped and faltered the day that I found My brother’s torn body alone on the ground. There’s no room for grieving in all of this noise There’s no room to bury the soul with the joy. This war’s just a game, this life’s just a game. A cruel kind of game that we all have to play. ‘Cause only the dead Can ever reach the end. And, when life thrives on stealing all of the living that’s been spent I listen to the cries in no-man’s land And consider whether I should lift my head. I listen to the cries in no-man’s land And consider whether I should lift my head.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Luke Carton was eighteen years old in 1848; a young man in a world of revolutions: “The Springtime of the Peoples.” Likely born in Wexford, Ireland around 1830, the spirit of the age took hold in Luke’s life as more than nationalism uprooting an old order and replacing it with a new–his entire life was rootless.
When an unforeseen potato blight eviscerated Ireland in the late 1840’s, those that didn’t die of starvation or sadness took to the sea to find a new life in a new world. In 1851, at 20 years old, Luke did the same, boarding the Samuel in Dublin, bound for New York.
He and the hundreds of other Irish aboard endured an Atlantic autumn on the Samuel, and arrived at Ellis Island on November 25th.
He found work as a laborer in Duchess County, NY, and in 1857, at twenty-six, met Eliza Eagan, a young single mother from county Cork, Ireland. In her late twenties, she suddenly found herself a widow, caring for two young children. She couldn’t read or write, but she could undoubtedly see Luke’s interest in her.
She was a faithful Catholic her entire life, and when she feared she was pregnant, she married Luke at the local parish. Rev. Denis Sheehan, himself an Irishman from county Cork, and a strong advocate of temperance, officiated at St. Mary’s in Channingville, later known as Wappingers Falls.
In September of 1857, well into Eliza’s pregnancy, Luke was arrested and charged with assault and battery–a portent of things to come. On December 14th, however, only three months into his sentence, he was pardoned. His first son, James, was born that month.
The restlessness of the world had touched the young United States by then. America was on the edge of a fissure that would rend its union from head to heart, pitting brother against brother and north against south.
In 1861 America was divided, and soon after the first shots on Fort Sumter, Luke and Eliza were battling their own disunion. Luke’s grandchildren much later recalled their parents speaking of him as a “belligerent drunk,” and the records don’t seem to dispute that.
On July 4th of that year Eliza gave birth to a boy. As the story goes, Luke, believing her to be unfaithful, lashed out two weeks after the birth. In his perhaps drunken rage he threw enough black pepper in the infant’s face to cause suffocation.
After his arrest and trial, Luke was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Sing Sing in March of 1862.
Eliza endured, taking in boarders for income and raising her children in times that would have been hard for anyone. When she died many years later, in 1904, she was mourned by a wide circle of friends and all her living children.
Luke, however, served his two years in the state penitentiary, where he evidently became caught up in the spirit of Irish nationalism voiced by the Fenian Brotherhood–a not-so-secret society set on compelling the British Empire to grant Irish independence by attacking Canada.
If it sounds like a tenuous plan, it’s because it was. The movement would ultimately fizzle out by 1880, but in 1864 when Luke came out of Sing Sing, it was the movement of the Irish underclass–a populist rallying cry that gave hope for a free Ireland and a better future.
Luke no doubt felt little reason to return home right away after prison. He found a branch that he could carve into a suitable traveling cane and, departing from Sing Sing in NY, rode the ever-extending rails of newly-industrialized America.
In the towns he visited he doubtlessly found other disaffected Irishmen casting their lot in with the ambitions of the Fenians. He made an effort to preserve these travels–whether for himself or posterity–by carving the names of each town and many railroads along the shaft of his cane according to the years he visited them.
In 1864 he recorded more than 26 names, including many critical cities to the Fenian project.
By the winter of 1864 he had returned home to Eliza. Why they reunited is a mystery. Did Luke convince her? Did he need money and a place to stay? Did she want him back? Whatever the reason, young Henry Carton was born in August of 1865.
Henry died before his first birthday, in November of 1865. This was a tragedy all too common in the 19th century world, and one which then, as always, disproportionately afflicted the lower class.
Two months later Eliza was pregnant with another baby boy who would be born John F. Carton, October 1866.
1865 was a year of roving for Luke. He logged the names of 9 railroads and 14 cities, mountains, towns or boarding houses along his cane, including the picturesque Crawford House in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
It’s quite possible that, when the Fenian Brotherhood held their convention in Chicago in 1865, Luke was there. At the very least he was almost certainly traveling among like-minded Irish nationalists who shared the hope of inflicting a wound on Great Britain great enough to loose their homeland from imperial subjugation.
Was this his new identity, his new defining ambition: a fighter for the Irish cause? He’d left a crippled home at 20, worked as an underclass laborer through his prime years, and killed an infant (his?) in a drunken rage at 27. Had he now found a purpose? Was this cane a record of his resolve?
There were few more important cities for Fenian ambitions in North America than Buffalo, NY, Niagara, NY, and ultimately the city of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. In the spring of 1866 they would attempt a series of raids into Canada which engaged as many as 7,000 Fenian Irish who had ridden the rails north to mount their attack along the border.
The 1866 invasion was a failure for the Fenians. The US federal government, which had, up till that point, enabled the Fenians to gather steam, and gone so far as to sell them arms and munitions, now foiled their plans under the leadership of Generals Meade and Grant. The Irish were repelled by both the Canadians and the Americans, their arms were confiscated, the border was effectually closed, the leadership was arrested, and the bulk of the remaining hopefuls were sent back on the same rail-lines they’d ridden north.
The 1870 Census finds a 40 year-old Luke Carton, a “laborer” from Ireland, “insane” in the Utica Asylum. There he would likely have been confined to the euphemistically-dubbed “Utica Crib.”
After the failure of this new-found purpose, did he find no more reason to live? No more reason to stay sober?
In 1875, Eliza is 45 and as strong as ever. She owns her home, has three children in the house, and, for the first time, she is listed as widowed.
I would not have learned any of this were it not for the cane, which my father inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Carton, the daughter of Luke and Eliza’s son, John F. Carton.
Now, I should say that the Fenian association is all my theory of Luke’s three-year travel project. I’ve gathered a lot of data that makes a strong case, but as yet it is all circumstantial. There’s a possibility that the cane could have belonged to someone else, but no candidates have emerged, and the personal nature of the cane makes it more likely to be an heirloom that stayed within the family.
Nevertheless, I see this cane as potentially central to the last meaningful project of Luke Carton. There’s no doubt that he is an anti-hero in this story, but the cane remains a vestige of an obscure corner of a time ripe with historical significance.
When I wrote the song, “The Cane,” I had almost no knowledge of the family history surrounding this cane aside from the notion that it belonged to some distant relative on my dad’s side.
In preparation for writing this post, I borrowed the cane from my parents’ and began to document it and research my ancestry. In the process my father put me in touch with a distant cousin of mine without whose help I’d have been unable to piece these connections together. She has done extensive genealogical research documenting her family lineage. Where our lines overlap, her research proved invaluable.
Even without this family connection the cane still represents a glimpse into some years of American history that have much to offer the history books. I made reference to a few of these in the song:
- The spirit of revolution, both political and industrial, that characterized the mid-19th century
- “when the world was waking up…”
- steamships and riding the railroads, etc.
- “the lords of the revolution built a nation from the ground”
- Lincoln’s assassination, and the end of the civil war in 1865.
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- Tad Lincoln was the president’s youngest son
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- The nascent Christian Science movement with Mary Baker Eddy, which, ironically coincided with the assassination of Lincoln
- “Mary from New Hampshire learned to heal a wounded man…”
- Jesse James’ first robbery, which presaged his larger-than-life status as a legend of the reconstruction-era turmoil
- “Jesse James robbed a bank and he bought himself a name”
The point of the song, however, is the line:
“Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane.”
That is, the stories that loom so large in our imaginations grow by transforming fragments of truth into fictions which dwarf and consume them.
Lincoln, Mary Baker Eddy, Jesse James, the origin stories of nations and individuals–they’re often more than the truth.
Studying and researching this cane confirms that notion for me.
It almost matters little whether it did belong to Luke Carton.
The Cane Mama had a baby When the world was waking up. He left her on a steam ship Bound for North America. Where the railways Riding dynamite Made the mountains Bow on down. And the lords of The revolution Built a nation From the ground. He carved a cane of maple With the names of every town From New York to Chicago From Detroit to Portland, Maine on down. While little Taddy Lincoln Wished his Papa home again. And Mary from New Hampshire Learned to heal A wounded man. Jesse James robbed a bank And he bought himself a name. Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane. Riding the New York Railway Riding the Hudson River Line Riding the Erie Ontario Riding the Vermont Central Line Riding the Sullivan Railroad Riding the Indiana Line Riding the Northern Railroad Riding the Great Western Line Daddy was a young man When the world was waking up. It found him on a steam ship Bound for North America.
Leesburg, OH. I’ve been there in my mind only. The Buckeye State claims a host of landlocked towns which would have been home to plenty of young, overtired pioneering farmers in the 1830’s. And with the mighty Lake Erie along its northern edge, it serves as a plausible backdrop for the narrative of this song.
Aside from being very close to the historically significant Gist Settlement, Leesburg offers little to history. A young farmer there in an 1830’s spring would have been engrossed in the unending demands of working the land. That was the endless toil of life, handmade and homegrown.
Lee’s Creek is the nearest body of water. It’s small–a forgettable, winding trickle that quietly joins up with Rattlesnake creek and after a full 50 miles gives up in the nearest river, the Scioto, a rambling tributary of the Mississippi.
What might it have been like to encounter the sea for the first time if this was all the world you knew? That was the seed for “Landlocked.”
For the speaker in this song, the “rare lady” from the “great northern lake” brings with her the allure of a bigger world. A world of freedom and happiness, like the mythical holy grail.
Though we never hear her speak in this song, the lady from the north captures our speaker’s mind and heart. The power and promise of the sea calls to him in, and through, her.
It’s a call that cannot ultimately be silenced, and in time it compels him to give it everything.
What is your sea? I think, what is worth the sacrifice?
Landlocked She walked down through Leesburg on an east wind in spring. I had mud on my shoes, I had mud on my knees, As I stood in the low field and watched her aghast. I thought, what kind of lady in April would pass all alone? All nature needs tending and there’s no time to roam With a garden for mending and children at home. Yet I soon found she’d come from the great northern lake. She was a rare kind lady who had sailed many days on her own. Now, I’d heard of the Erie, and I’d heard of the sea, But I’d never seen more than Lee’s lonely creek. I’d been landlocked since birth—all my days: A young buckeye tree rooted in place. Love grows like a violet, creeping and frail. Its blooms appear early, when summer is pale— Like a leaf under leaves that’s starved for the light— Like I was when I heard the tale of her life on the sea. I followed her north before the grain reached my knees. My land and my home were just an anchor to me While she drew me on like the wind to my sail. Forward the world shone just like the grail on the waves. Now, I’d heard of the Erie, and I’d heard of the sea, But, I’d never seen more than Lee’s lonely creek. I’d been landlocked since birth—all my days: A young buckeye tree rooted in place. --INSTRUMENTAL INTERLUDE— I still hear her voice in the foam and the spray. I still see her face like I saw it that day— Just under the water, while the storm in my head Rages on with no mercy Drowning out all the words she had said. And I can’t explain why the waves left me here, But I’ve given my all to their service and fear. If one day they take me like the woman I loved, I’ll sail with her there on the wide-open ocean above.
Musically I tried to emphasize something of the nautical theme of the lyrics without writing a sea-shanty. I had originally envisioned strings–as in a quartet–for the instrumental “bridge” section. As I imagine it, this is the moment in the narrative where we encounter the sea for the first time.
We decided to go a different direction in the studio. Zach Sprowls, Clyde Rosencrance, and I overdubbed a bunch of vocal parts. Clyde broke out his Leslie speaker and sponge-bass, and before we knew it we were in Beach Boys territory. Zach on the Magnus Chord Organ completed the sound…
I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for listening!
In 1783 the Montgolfier brothers made the first public demonstration of manned balloon flight. The dawn of mankind in the sky had arrived, and news spread quickly. Goethe was 34 years old when this happened–the same age as I am today. He, like much of the world, was taken up in the unprecedented excitement of this new age, and he wrote a reflection on it which is now preserved in his Maxims and Reflections (no. 402).
I have been fascinated by what this may have felt like to an observer–or balloon pilot–of the time. To have seen the world from the sky–“as the bird sees it”–must have been utterly captivating.
This fascination seems like other experiences which command us for a time but cannot last–things which are to us like oxygen to flame. We consume them, and, in so doing, destroy them. But they become part us for a time, and change us forever.
Though we grow just as Goethe and his world did, and though we’re left struggling to recall just what we felt, we are none the worse for it in the end. We yearn, maybe, but we have been nourished nonetheless.
What was it like to feel love for the first time? Or hope, maybe? Can you recall–feel, describe–meeting your firstborn child? Your truest love? The divine?
In the second track on Now to Recall, “Up in a Balloon,” I tried to convey that universal feeling Goethe expressed:
“Anyone who has witnessed the discovery of air balloons will testify to the world-wide movement this brought about, what concern surrounded the navigators, what longing surged up in so many thousands of hearts to take part in such sky wanderings, long ago posited, prophesied, always believed in, always unbelievable; how fresh and circumstantial were the newspaper accounts of each single successful attempt, how there were special supplements and illustrated broadsheets, what tender concern there was for unfortunate victims of such attempts. It isn’t possible to reconstruct this even in one’s memory, just as one cannot recall the full vividness of our interest in a highly significant war which broke out thirty years ago.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Up in a Balloon It’s hard to now recall How, in a balloon, We were lifted, all, As up in a balloon. Hedged in by concern On all sides, While longing in the hearts Of thousands did rise, Just to feel a part Of wandering the sky— Long ago believed And prophesied— So hard to believe, Yet so hard to deny. It’s not possible To build it up again— Even in my mind— That feeling I would get When I was looking up. When we were looking up… --INSTRUMENTAL INTERLUDE-- It’s hard to now recall How, in a balloon, We were lifted, all, As up in a balloon.
I’d like to think that though this song is historically specific, it is metaphorically universal. I know what it’s like, for instance, to be unable to recreate or express the feeling of falling in love with my wife, or meeting my firstborn son. I hope that someday I might be able to experience those depths again, but if I never do, I still know I have been forever changed by them–for the better.
If you’d like to hear the song please subscribe to my email list, or contact me directly, or follow me on Spotify. That’s the way we connect these days. And if you want something physical, I’ll have CD’s to send your way, too. You may have to break out the old Discman you used to love…