“I could wrap myself in the warm cocoon of a song and go anywhere. I was invincible.”
— Johnny Cash
It was the late singer/songwriter David Berman’s birthday this week. I have been listening to his last record, Purple Mountains, over and over. It seems to me a plague album the way Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a 9/11 album: both feel like prophesies, when really, like many works of science fiction, they were the products of sensitive souls describing our pre-existing conditions.
Friends in NYC and the northeast were posting photos of snow on Instagram while I was listening to “Snow is Falling on Manhattan”:
Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines
“Songs build little rooms in time” reminded me of John Berger’s “Some Notes about Song,” collected in his last collection, Confabulations. (You can also hear Berger read the essay in this BBC radio feature.)
A song, when being sung and played, acquires a body. And it does this by taking over and briefly possessing existent bodies….
A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. When it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song while filling the present hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further. Without the persistence of this hope, songs, I believe, would not exist. Songs lean forward.
The tempo, the beat, the loops, the repetitions of a song construct a shelter from the flow of linear time: a shelter in which future, present and past can console, provoke, ironize and inspire one another.
Berger thought of songs as being forms of possession: they are hauntings, in a way. “In every song there is a distance,” he writes, and also an absence. “Absence is what inspired them and it’s what they address.”
Flamenco performers often talk about el duende. Duende is a quality, a resonance which makes a performance unforgettable. It occurs when a performer is possessed, inhabited, by a force or a set of compulsions coming from outside her or his own self. Duende is a ghost from the past. And it’s unforgettable because it visits the present in order to address the future.
(Here I’m reminded of a line from Longfellow: “And at last we hardly distinguish / Between the ghosts and the guests”)
Elsewhere in the essay, Berger wrote, “Much of what happens to us in life is nameless because our vocabulary is too poor.”
Berman had the vocabulary. He wrote us these songs. He built us these temporary shelters to step inside.