Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home, ANTI-Records
Mavis Staples and the late Levon Helm recorded the songs on Carry Me Home at Helm Studios in Woodstock in the summer of 2011. It was to be one of the final recording sessions for Helm before he died the next year.
The pair are icons of Americana and roots music, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of the Band, and Mavis Staples, celebrated gospel and blues singer and civil rights activist. Both performed their music for more than 50 years, from the early sixties on through the heydays of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues.
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year.
“It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other,” says Staples. “He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…
“…we hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held on to him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go.”
But even aside from that, this is simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. The music, powered by Helm’s and Staples’s combined bands, is compelling, with everyone sounding like they are having a fine old time of it.
The album kicks of with a Curtis Mayfield’s This is My Country, a protest song from 1968, deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement:
I’ve paid three hundred years or more Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back This is my country
Staples sings it with considerable gusto and passion, several years in to the Obama presidency with the right beginning to flex its muscles. More than ten years on, the song still sounds relevant for America – more’s the pity. Musically, as the album’s opener, you know you’re in for a treat, with horns, organ and ooh-ooh-oohs from the backing singers ushering you into things.
Trouble in (My) Mind is a rockin’ version of the old blues standard, Staples’s raw vocals and the bluesy piano driving things along. After This is My Country, this feels like another defiant assertion that no matter how bad things are and might be in America, there are surely better times ahead – “sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”
Staples performs Farther Along, an old gospel song, unaccompanied, apart from some gorgeous harmonizing by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams and others. It’s another poignant one, with the lyric “When death has come and taken our loved ones” coming with slow-tempoed clarity.
It’s a song of faith, however, and despite the song musing on loved ones passing while “others prosper, living so wicked year after year,” it asserts “we’ll understand it all by and by.” Staple’s faith led her to comment about Helm, “Some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Faith shines out of this album. Nothing frothy or glib; but faith that has been tested and tried and remains defiant. That’s been Mavis Staples’s experience – remember, she was once arrested at gunpoint by the police after a racially charged incident at a gas-station in Memphis and has lived the recent history of black America from the Civil Rights movement on.
The songs, even when packing a punch like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, have a positive, upbeat feel, as if the very force of Staples’s faith and positivity would make all the changes she longs for. The horns, harmonies and Mavis’s vocals, combined with the gospel chords, make for a thoroughly uplifting listening experience.
There are a couple of songs regularly performed by Levon Helm, When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River to Cross have a thoroughly traditional feel about them and fit right in to the set. In the latter, the lyrics seem to have a dual meaning, referring to both the individual journey of life and the struggle for equality that Staples has been engaged in for so long –
I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on… I’ve come a long, long road but still I’ve got some miles to go I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross.
There’s a great version of You’ve Got to Move. The harmonizing vocals and Larry Campbell’s guitar work is superb and once again the two-sided nature of the lyrics becomes apparent. As a traditional gospel blues song, it’s about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you gotta move,” in, as another song has it, “that great gettin’ up morning.” But whether you’re “high or low”, there’s a hope for the present as well that the Lord might move things in the right direction.
The penultimate song is Bob Dylan’s gospel classic, Gotta Serve Somebody. It’s fitting of course, to include a Dylan song, given Staples’s history with him (she has said Dylan was “the love that I lost”). Staples adds her own faith assertion to the song – he’s (God is) my doctor, he’s my lawyer, he’s my friend.” “Whether you got faith or you got unbelief,” as Dylan might have put it, the song has always been a powerful one, and Staples does it more than justice, making it her own, as she sings convincingly, “I got a royal telephone and the line is never busy.”
Mavis Staples pretty much handles the vocals throughout, with Levon Helm adding colour here and there with harmonies. His drumming, however, is stamped all over things. Helm does weigh in on the final song – fittingly The Weight. Mavis Staples, of course, had shared the vocals with Levon Helm when the Staples Singers accompanied the Band for the song in the Last Waltz in 1968. Staples’s voice is a little deeper and raspier, but it’s still powerful and more than capable of sending shivers down your spine. There’s a quirky, but rather wonderful what sounds to me like a tuba solo in the middle of the song.
This is simply a glorious album of songs to challenge, encourage and inspire. It’s a fine tribute to Levon Helm, and another reminder of the immense talent and force that is Mavis Staples. I saw her perform in London just before the pandemic and it was an evening that left me with a smile on my face for a week afterwards. At 83 she’s on tour again, along with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, and if they are anywhere near you, don’t hesitate. And get yourself a copy of Carry Me Home – you won’t regret it.
Kenny Meeks makes great bluesy sounding Americana music. He has worked extensively alongside artists such as Sixpence None the Richer, Buddy and Julie Miller, and Al Perkins, and has four albums to his credit over the past 12 years or so. He’s a great guitarist and gritty singer – and an accomplished songwriter. His new album, New Jerusalem, which we had in our Best Americana list for 2016 is a very fine collection of original songs, all with a gospel flavour. Down at the Crossroads has the opportunity to talk to Kenny recently, and he was gracious enough to be very open and honest in response to our questions –
DATC: Kenny, congratulations on the new album, New Jerusalem. It’s great – chock full of very cool bluesy Americana songs, with unmistakable gospel content. Tell us a bit about how the album took shape.
Kenny: Thank you very much Gary. What got these songs flowing, and this record, was the suicide of an elderly neighbour who was a bit of a grandfather-figure to our kids (especially my boys) – which impacted our family deeply. Also, the sadness of the sudden death of my brother Paul was pretty rough.
These events stirred something in me that became a response to suffering, pain, and isolation. As I began writing songs, a little bit of my history came out. I wrote all but one of these songs through this season of grief and reflection. Also, it’s a bit of a legacy record for my progeny……a peek into my soul and my story. I’m not sure I’ll ever make another record this personal again. It’s not just about those topics, but that’s what got things going.
DATC: Tell us about the title track, New Jerusalem – what is that all about?
Kenny: It’s about the afterlife. I do believe in it, in a biblical way. I wanted to sing about it. I wanted the song to be a celebration and a proclamation. It’s also about a vision of greater unity among followers of Jesus. The absence of schisms, and unity, in Heaven. It’s for me as much as for the listener.
DATC:Mercy Pays the Toll is an interesting song. It talks about “when pain moves in to stay,” and “when this world wears us down…and leaves us tired and sore.” It sounds like there’s some personal experience in there. You ask the question – “how do we live?” What’s the answer, in your experience?
Kenny: This song is in response to the pain I was seeing around me. I’ve certainly had – and caused – my share. But people live with chronic pain, chronic poverty, chronic sadness, post-traumatic stress, or mental impairment. I don’t think I necessarily ask the question looking for an answer. I think the question is meant to be a meditation. How can we share burdens of others? Some so heavy, they think their only way out might be to take their own life?
But, I think the answer is to always love. If only love could be my default response to every situation….. and when it isn’t, we have mercy. Maybe “How Do We Love” would have been better said?
DATC: There’s a bluesy feel to your music, but it’s never downbeat. How have the blues as a genre influenced you and your music?
Kenny: Maybe the blues has been misunderstood as a sad genre. It’s not. I mean, life is sad, and the blues are certainly about life. But, I hear a lot of joy in blues music. But…there is the presence of a yearning in all music, and certainly in the blues. So, I think you’re right in a sense.
I read in a Time article about Delta music history, that lyrics like ‘I’m gonna leave you baby’ were sharecroppers speaking in code that they were going to leave their landowner for a better deal. That was the author’s take. Dunno if there’s any truth to it. But, allegory has always been very present in African American oral tradition and music.
American blues music shaped me early, through a trip to a family farm in Horse Cave Kentucky, where I wandered to the sharecropper home next door. I was real little. The neighbour was on the front porch, playing a dimestore electric guitar through a little amp with a jack-knife slide. That’s where they found me, slack-jawed, standing in front of that porch. This instantly became the music to which I would compare all other. It’s still in my mind like it happened yesterday.
I also really liked Dixieland music as a 9-year old trumpet player. My dad took me to meet Al Hirt at a record store. But, when I bought my first guitar with paper route money at 12, it would most certainly be manipulated with a jack-knife slide. When my mother passed away that same year, the blues became important to me. But, beyond sadness, maybe yearning? Some folks equate tempo with …you know – fast = happy, slow = sad. Man, the slower the better for me. And sometimes the real slow stuff is downright joyous!
DATC: How come the blues, with some of its associations with the crossroads and the devil and so on, can be a vehicle for gospel music?
Kenny: As for the ‘deal with the devil’ I kinda see the “Crossroads” legend, as we know it, as a deal for fortune and fame, not specific to the blues. I’m fairly certain the music we consider to be the genre called the blues was uniquely born from the music of the African American slave population in America. And if their spiritual music wasn’t the birth mother, it certainly was the midwife. So, I think the blues have more kinship with the music of the African-American church than any other genre. It seems really natural to me, in an organic kind of way. I’m not fond of obvious “repurposed” blues-Gospel music. But Rev. Gary Davis …man… that is the absolute loveliest stuff ever!
DATC: Who are the blues and other artists that have influenced you most, either musically or lyrically?
Kenny: Robert Johnson. Ray Charles (my desert island artist…just Ray…all I need…ha!) I love John Lee Hooker. I love Taj Mahal. Jimi Hendrix. Aretha Franklin. Ralph Stanley. Leon Russell. Grant Green. Les McCann and Oscar Peterson. Bob Dylan. John Prine. Rev. Gary Davis. And Duane Allman. I could go on and on (laugh). If you go back, listen to some of Robert Randolph’s mentors in the Sacred Steel tradition…oh boy. I know I’m forgetting some real important musicians that have influenced me, sorry!
DATC: Tell us a bit about yourself, Kenny – first of all, your website mentions your “migratory childhood, and blue-collar upbringing.” Explain that and how that plays into your art.
Kenny: We moved to Dearborn Michigan from Henderson Kentucky when I was 7. It was like a foreign country. So, exile, longing for the familiar surroundings of home. And the music I was hearing through this time kinda changed from country music to Motown, plus British invasion stuff and psychedelia. So the migration to Detroit brought lots of new music into my world. The blue-collar aspect is simply that my dad was a working guy. He was a brilliant mechanic, and he could fix stuff that other guys in the shop couldn’t figure out. I miss him. [Kenny’s father Alvis passed away in 1992].
DATC: You’ve been performing and writing songs for nearly 30 years – how has your music and career evolved over that time?
Kenny: Thanks!…Actually, about 40, but who’s counting? (laughs) Ummmm, pretty much same ol’ Kenny (laughs). I’m trying to learn how to learn better. And learning how to unlearn stuff I’m supposed to forget! I try to make honest music; hopefully that comes through. I think my songwriting has improved a bit. And, I learn from my kids and all the younger people I work with.
And, I’ve always really loved playing with other artists too. That hasn’t changed. I have made music with insanely talented people. Pretty humbling. If I started naming them…well, I’d leave out someone. But you know, it’s very humbling. As for my artist career, I mean, my friends know I always say “why would someone come to see me when they could stay home and listen to a Ray Charles record?” These days I sometimes play guitar for a very special lady named Sandra McCracken, whose music just takes your breath away. We’re going to play with Liz Vice next week. I’m really looking forward to that.
DATC: How do you find audiences at your shows react to the gospel feel of your songs – people, perhaps, who don’t share that faith?
Kenny: Very positive response, not unlike, maybe…a Mavis Staples audience? I think my music is non-confrontational, so the listener isn’t ‘put on the spot’. I never ‘preach’ with lyrics. Proclamation is kind of a good Gospel music method (and I guess that is a kind of preaching). Not all my music is Gospel music, but I think a song like Jesus Knows communicates that He is tuned in to you even if you’re not tuned into Him, you know?…and that’s ok. I just want my songs to make the listener feel welcome. Does that make sense? The important thing about Gospel music is to express that God loves us completely. We ARE loved. Just as we are. Nothing we could ever do could make God love us more. And there is nothing we could ever do to make God love us less. That is the grace of God.
DATC: Are your touring the album at the minute, and where will that take you over the next few months?
Kenny: I don’t have any shows coming up, but thanks for asking. I’d love to play some in the UK. I go where I’m invited, and that’s always such a pleasure. And it has been a pleasure speaking with you Gary. Thanks so much for your interest in my music. God bless you and yours.
Luther Dickinson is one of today’s outstanding blues musicians, well known for his work with the Black Crowes and North Mississippi Allstars. He’s also got a number of top notch solo albums to his credit – Hambone’s Meditations, Rock ‘n Roll Blues and now Blues and Ballads, Parts I and II. This latest release is a joy from start to finish, featuring twenty one songs from throughout Luther’s career, new songs, North Mississippi Allstars songs and old favourites – all stripped down, loose and relaxed. It’s the perfect vehicle for Dickinson as carrier of the Mississippi Hill Country blues torch.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Luther at the Blues Kitchen in Brixton, London, the third of three nights at the Blues Kitchen’s three London venues. Luther played an outstanding set of his psychedelic folk-rock blues, showing why he is renowned for his slide playing and guitar playing generally. Armed with a couple of Gibson Les Paul semis, his Martin Dreadnaught and a guitar he had fashioned out of a coffee can, Dickinson rocked the joint with a selection of songs from Blues and Ballads as well as fuelling Bob Dylan, Fred McDowell and Jimi Hendrix in his own inimitable, captivating style.
He’s a great entertainer, frequently interacting with the crowd and regaling us with stories and comments throughout. Particularly moving was his story about his father, when very ill, suggesting he record Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile, as a one-chord Hill Country blues. “There are things in life which will disappoint you,” Jim Dickinson told his son “but not Bob Dylan.” That’s about right, isn’t it?
Luther, easy-going and relaxed, greeted me warmly as I waited for him before the gig and we found somewhere quiet to have a conversation. We talked about the new album, passing on the musical tradition, the Saturday night-Sunday morning tension in American music and the enduring power of the blues.
DATC:Luther, thanks for talking to us at Down at the Crossroads. First let me ask you about your new album, Blues and Ballads, which has had a great reception and great reviews.
LD: Fooled ‘em again! It’s cool because I realized that the more casual and honest and humble the production and recording experience is, the more people like it. And that’s a good lesson to learn.
It’s very, very pared down, it’s very acoustic and it’s all live. Buddy Miller, the guitar player and producer in Nashville, he really turned me around. He told me – because we were jiving each other about working together, because he’s busy and expensive!; and I was like, come on, Buddy, just produce this, and he was like, look, just don’t overdub. And it’s so true, just commit to live vocals; and if you need a fiddle player, then call the fiddle player, and if you need background singers, then call ‘em up and wait for them. Get everyone in one room and capture a real performance.
And you know, we grew up with our father, Jim Dickinson, who was a great producer, but he taught us to make the band tracks first and then the vocals being secondary, And that’s a great way to make records too, but, it’s really been liberating for me to just commit to the live voice. It’s all about the voice.
DATC:You know I thought the vocals in this record were perhaps the best you’ve ever done. Really, really good, really noticeable on this.
LD: Thank you.
DATC:The record’s called Parts I and II. Does this imply more to come in the same vein?
LD: It’s a double album. The inspiration for the record was the song book context. I wanted to make a songbook, because I love songbooks, folk songbooks, hymnals, whatever. I grew up pre-Internet, I learned from the library, I memorized every book in the Hernando Mississippi library. My grandmother’s hymnals, the early folk songbooks, magazines. I love sheet music, and so I wanted my own proper songbook.
So I re-recorded my favourite songs in a folk fashion befitting a folk songbook, and a handful of new ones, so it’s volumes one and two – and the plan is, my previous solo record, Rock ‘n Roll Blues, I would like to have it transcribed – that would be volume 3, and then have another solo record, HambonesMeditations, [an instrumental album] – transcribed as Volume 4.
And then it starts amassing, you know – it’s not like I’m going to record another Blues and Ballads anytime soon. But the plan is for the songbook to grow.
DATC:The song book is only available with the vinyl, isn’t that right?
DATC:And you’ve got a stellar cast on the album. Jason Isbell, Jim Lauderdale, Amy LaVere, Shardé Thomas, JJ Grey, Charles Hodges, Jimbo Mathus. And one of my favourites – Mavis Staples.
LD: Aw, Mavis is the queen! That was the beginning of the whole record.
DATC:She does Ain’t No Grave, which I know is a very personal song. But it’s wonderful what she does with it.
LD: Aw, man. We went to Chicago, she said she wanted to record the song, and I wanted to make sure that happened. If she wants to record one of my songs – let’s make that happen! So I set it up with my band, Amy LaVere and Shardé Thomas, and we go to Chicago and we get the track – first take – band and vocals, first take. And Mavis shows up about an hour later and we get her first take. She sits and listens and reads the lyrics, and it breaks her down. She starts crying.
DATC: It’s a very moving song. I know the context of it. [the song was written by Luther after the passing of his father, producer/singer/songwriter Jim Dickinson in 2009]
LD: My father passed in ‘09. I wrote a lot of songs when my father passed – as he was ill, and when he passed. But that one just came – I woke up one morning, I was on the tour bus and I wrote that song down before I even turned on my light, in my little bunk. It just came out, top to bottom. And at the end of the night, after the concert, I took my songbook and my guitar into the bathroom of the bus and the melody came just as easy. But it was hard to record that song, originally, for Keys to the Kingdom in ‘09. So I asked Ry Cooder to help me with that song. It was so easy to write but I couldn’t figure out the right interpretation. And Ry just played slide guitar – like the master that he is – and I went, of course, slide guitar! And once again there’s another great lesson.
That is another version of the Buddy Miller story, just to keep things simple. And Seasick Steve, he grabbed me by the shoulder and was like, you are the link, you grew up with Otha Turner and R L Burnside, and you are the link, and you’ve got to keep it primitive. He literally shook me and said, “Keep it primitive.”
And you know, my brother and I, we’d fallen prey to, you know, delusions of grandeur and over producing records, but Ry Cooder, just simply playing it on slide guitar and Seasick Steve yelling at me and Buddy Miller saying don’t overdub – these things have formed my new production aesthetic. It’s been really fruitful.
So Mavis came in and she was just first take, and that was the beginning of the record. And every other recording was just as casual. I had a handful of songs. So if I was in Memphis, I’d call my Memphis friends or if I was going to be in Nashville, I’d call my Nashville friends. JJ Grey had always liked Up over Yonder, so I knew I wanted to get him to sing on it . Because we’d been touring together. The songs are like snapshots of who we’re with, when we’re making the record.
DATC:And is Ain’t No Grave a song that you sing often?
LD: Not in night clubs. Unless it’s requested. You know, it’s a sad song about losing a loved one. I don’t want to violate the escapism of having a good time, but if people request a song…but I’m not going to sing that song over a loud crowd, or people who wanna dance.
DATC:There are a number of songs on the album with a gospel feel or theme (Up Over Yonder; Ain’t No Grave; How I Wish My Train Would Come; Let it Roll); we get that coming through in your work over the years, all sorts of scriptural references and echoes, old hymns – what’s the inspiration for this sort of material?
LD: It’s when my loved ones pass away. I always celebrate them when they pass away. And it started with Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and then Lee Baker, my father’s guitar player in Mudboy and the Neutrons – he was murdered, you know. I’m a folk musician, I play loud psychedelic blues rock, but I’m a folkie at heart. And it dawned on me, like, Cassie Jones, Stagger Lee, once upon a time, these were just men that walked the earth, It was folk songs that made them legends. So I thought, I’m going to start celebrating my heroes, and sing about Kenny Brown or sing about my father, or Otha Turner, and make them my folk heroes, celebrate them in song.
And then the biblical imagery, growing up in the south, my grandmother played piano in the church. And I don’t talk religion or anything, but I love gospel music, it’s just a positive feeling, and I think a lot of musicians relate to it. But once again it’s not right to play it in the night clubs, it’s not appropriate. Maybe slip one in at the end, you know! And then the imagery – funny thing is, I’ve never studied the Bible. I mean I’ve poked around, but when you do pick it up, it’s like, oh my God, here’s this song, here’s that song. Every soul and R&B song has a biblical reference, and the blues too. To be honest, I’ve learned more from Pop Staples or Blind Willie Johnson about the Bible than I ever did reading it myself – listening to Samson and Delilah – you know what I’m saying?
Thing is, I just love the vernacular. I love the phrases of folk music and blues music and conversation with the elders, and the biblical stuff slips right in there. Bob Dylan’s a master of this, and also Robert Hunter [Grateful Dead songwriter]. Ain’t No Grave – there are multiple songs entitled that, or Rollin’ and Tumblin’ or Let Your Light Shine, or whatever – these phrases, they have weight, when people hear ‘em, they have, like, repercussions, sub-conscious repercussions. All those phrases I’ve internalized over my life, that’s the oral tradition of making it your own, and making it your own story, using the timeless vernacular of our culture.
DATC:So you mentioned Blind Willie Johnson. There’s kind of thread over the last century – from Blind Willie Johnson to Robert Wilkinson to Fred McDowell to Gary Davis to Kelly Joe Phelps, and many others. Why do you think that is, given the other darker side of the blues where some church goers felt it was the devil’s music, and the myth of the crossroads and mojo and all of that?
LD: Well, Robert Wilkins quit playing blues so he could become a preacher and only play gospel music. Son House went back and forth. Fred McDowell, he was a bluesman, but he played in his local church every Sunday. But when he passed away, they wouldn’t bury him there, because he was a bluesman. And that church is in Como Mississippi. Rev Robert Wilkins’ son is the preacher in that church [Hunter’s Chapel Church] now, and even he is a bluesman that preaches. In that culture, it’s a very treacherous line.
And it still goes on. Like, I’ve known Robert Randolph since before he was a professional musician with a career, and he and the Campbell Brothers, they don’t play in church any more. The Campbell Brothers were kicked out of church. Many, many of the sacred steel musicians have been pushed out of their churches for one reason or another. And there’s a new batch of sacred steel players playing in the church, but – they don’t know the tradition or the history, they’re just starting with Robert Randolph. So with sacred steel, the roots have been cut off and the new growth is going to be starting from scratch.
But, it’s just that American experience of church and blues. You know, Saturday night, Sunday morning.
LD: Yes, I didn’t realize how emotional that was going to be. Interesting thing.
DATC:You started off playing Just As I Am on slide guitar. Took me back to my own childhood, those were the songs I grew up with and nearly had me in tears!
LD: I learned that from my grandmother. That was one of the invitational hymns… My Mom is a huge believer, teaches Sunday School to elderly ladies. It’s very interesting, I could say that I’m well balanced, because I’ve got all the extremes. I just try to navigate it!
DATC: The blues is traditional music, with a long heritage, and were essentially the music of African Americans in the trauma of the early part of the 20th century. Why has this music endured? And why does it have an appeal beyond people whose lives were as harsh as those among whom it grew up?
LD: I think there’s a human quality to it. But as well as blues, there’s also country music, Appalachian music, and music just brings people together. It did for my dad’s generation in the 50s, rock ’n roll, the 60s, music helped transcend segregation… And with the blues, the lyrics and the melodies are ancient and they just resonate, you know, and it evolves. And what I play is not Delta Blues, it’s psychedelic folk blues rock, you know – that’s just where I am – but I grew up in Mississippi, second generation musician studying songs and blues, and I will claim that what I do is modern day blues. But it’s like what Buddy Guy says, I got ten fingers, I got two hands, I can play some blues!
DATC:Thank you Luther.
Postscript:Three quarters way through his set that evening, Luther switched from the Les Paul to his Martin acoustic. First thing he played? Just As I Am on slide guitar. This being a London audience, I was probably the only person there who recognized it. Thank you Luther!
Shelter Me Lord is a Buddy & Julie Miller song from the 2004 album, Universal House of Prayer. It’s been covered several times since then – by Tab Benoit, Patti Scialfa with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and recently by Paul Thorn – all featuring that unmistakable guitar riff that grabs you and won’t let go throughout the song. Bizarrely, the song was used as the theme to a reality TV show called Sons of Guns which focused on a Louisiana-based business that manufactures and sells custom weapons – an example of the unholy alliance of guns and religion in the US?
The song is an unabashed hymn of trust in God. The last line of each verse cries out “Shelter me Lord underneath your wings” and the chorus reinforces this, repeating the need to be hidden securely by God from the troubles and dangers of the world. The feel of the song is bluesy and it echoes the blues lament about the state of the world and the misfortune facing the singer. The storms of life are blowing, they are all around – in fact, things are such that everything that seems secure around is failing: “the walls are crumbling”, the very earth is shaking and the mountains falling, and there is a “deluge” pouring out and over the songwriter.
The apocalyptic language of the song describes well how bad things can get for us at times – trouble has a way of just creeping up on us and overtaking us at times. Sometimes it’s of our own making – we’ve been faithless, we’ve acted stupidly, we’ve allowed self-indulgence to slip into addiction. But sometimes, it just happens – we or someone we love gets sick, a loved one dies, we lose a job and plummet into financial turmoil.
The blues has always been a great medium for expressing the sorrows and woes we face – arising as they did in the face of African American suffering & oppression in the days of the Jim Crow laws. Such expression is cathartic and it’s real. As Furrie Lewis said – “all the blues, you can say, is true.”
Buddy Miller’s song doesn’t just rail at the misfortune and the bad times, however – it seeks a port in the storm, a place of refuge. Here it’s not just a matter of catharsis – there is somewhere to go, there is someone to turn to. The song is surely based on some of the Psalms where this idea of the person in trouble, in desperate need, going to God comes through most strongly.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.Psalm 27:5
Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Psalm 61:4
But the Psalm that seems to connect most with the song, I think, is Psalm 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.Psalm 91:1-4
These Psalms have always been an expression of faith and a source of comfort to people facing oppression, injustice, hard times or just the ill winds of life that blow our way. It’s faith that flies in the face of the circumstances, a defiant faith, that’s based in an understanding of God’s character and love. It reminds me of that Tom Petty song – Won’t Back Down. I love the gutsy determination of this song – “you can stand me up at the gates of Hell, But I won’t back down”. The world might be “dragging me down” or “pushin’ me around” but “I’ll stand my ground, And I won’t back down.” I love the sheer defiance expressed here – and if our faith is in God, then there’s a rational for this defiance, which is grounded in God’s providence and deep love for us.
Buddy Miller’s song moves on to an even deeper level of defiant faith – faith in the face of death:
Now on the day you call for me
Someday when time – no more shall be
I’ll say Oh death where is your sting
You shelter me lord underneath your wings.
once again, echoing an Old Testament passage, this time, Isaiah 25:
He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. 9 And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.
Which, of course, was famously taken by St Paul to round off his great chapter on resurrection in chapter 15 of his letter to the Corinthians. As Paul says, “the last enemy to be abolished is death.” At this point each of us needs somewhere to hide, a place of safety – it’s at this point we come face-to-face with the reality of our defiant faith.