I’ve found myself drawn to several musical performances online this week during our troubled times. Most are covers — where musicians perform works by other musicians — and while the date of the originals range across centuries, most of the versions that have touched me were recently recorded. While some are instrumentals, knowing the lyrics to the songs has given me a context to hear the music in new ways. I want to share with you a few of my favorites from this music for troubled times.
“We’re not doing my original songs,” Rhiannon Giddens says in her recent NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, before she and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, launch into an old spiritual, “’cause with these kinds of emotions, the old songs say it best.” The set list for the 20 minute mini-concert, filmed at Turrisi’s home in Ireland in late May, goes back to “the origins” as Giddens says, and includes Black As Crow, Spiritual, and the tune set Carolina Gals / Last Chance. While all are wonderful, the haunting vocals and lyrics of Spiritual (at the 9:16 mark of the video) seems especially meaningful for this time:
“I’m gonna tell God of all my troubles, when I get home / I’m gonna tell God of all my troubles, when I get home / I’m gonna tell God of all my trials, my hardships, my self-denials / I’m gonna tell God of all my troubles, when I get home.
I’m gonna tell God the road was rocky, when I get home / I’m gonna tell God the road was rocky, when I get home / I’m gonna tell God the road was rocky, and my heart it is so heavy / I’m gonna tell God the road was rocky, when I get home.”
The Cranberries 1994 song Zombie is covered in a beautiful piano and cello interpretation by the Brooklyn Duo. Pianist Marnie Laird and her husband, cellist Patrick Laird, have built quite the following on YouTube with classical interpretations of popular songs. With Zombie — inspired by the IRA bombing in Warrington, Cheshire, England on March 20, 1993, where two children were killed — you have a song that Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan wrote as a cry against man’s inhumanity to man. The original video — with its stark depiction of both British soldiers and Irish children — was both effective and controversial. As one commentator wrote, where the original version conveys the anger against the inhumanity, the Brooklyn Duo’s version conveys the sadness in the song.
“Another head hangs lowly / Child is slowly taken / And the violence, caused such silence / Who are we mistaken?
But you see, it’s not me / It’s not my family / In your head, in your head, they are fighting / With their tanks, and their bombs / And their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are crying / In your head, in your head / Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie / What’s in your head, in your head / Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie, oh”
Aoife and The Jacobsens brings together the beautiful musicianship of Aoife O’Donovan with her husband, the cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen, and his brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen, for a cover of Bob Dylan‘s Not Dark Yet. As Dylan said in 1997, “I try to live within that line between despondency and hope,” and this poignant song about the end of life certainly falls in that category. The beautiful and complex instrumental support on violin and cello — including the insertion of Franz Schubert’s An Die Musik (“To Music”) — is a great complement to Aoife’s timeless vocal.
And to come full circle, let’s return to Rhiannon Giddens singing a beautiful version of one of my favorite songs — Wayfaring Stranger — accompanied by the haunting sound of her fretless banjo and the mournful accordion played by Phil Cunningham of Silly Wizard fame. This version is from a 2017 BBC Northern Ireland program also called Wayfaring Stranger. With one of the most expressive and powerful voices in music today, Giddens transports us to a deeper spiritual place, no matter our beliefs.
More to come…