Murder Ballad Monday: Hurray for the Riff Raff

In the category of problematic faves, murder ballads shine an ambiguous light on intimate partner violence. The best songs honestly mirror this reality more than they glorify it, but the artist can never control how the listener receives the message. Is Johnny Cash repentant or bragging in “Delia’s Gone”? What is the nature of my enjoyment of the stone-cold amorality of Lyle Lovett’s “Lights of L.A. County”? I can participate in the man’s revenge fantasy, and somehow at the same time feel relief, from a female perspective, that the artist has acknowledged the constant danger under which we live. The song does not force me to choose.

Modern country-western divas have started talking back to the genre by writing murder ballads about battered women’s revenge. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” are the comedy and tragedy masks hanging over this theater. However, flipping the gender of songs like “Banks of the Ohio” is an individual solution to a collective problem. Male-on-female murder ballads take place in the context of men’s violent entitlement to women’s bodies and attention. It’ll take more than a girl with a gun to even things out.

This week at the entertainment website A Beautiful Perspective, Noah Berlatsky, one of my favorite pop-culture columnists, profiled singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her innovative songs draw on on her Puerto Rican roots and the populist political tradition of folk music. In 2014’s “The Body Electric”, Segarra responds directly to “Delia” and “Banks of the Ohio”, not with a revenge fantasy of her own, but with a new narrative of female solidarity and survival. The gorgeous video shows a woman of color resurrected from the drowning river like Botticelli’s Venus, and a time-reversed sequence of a shower of bullets being gathered up and transformed into a baby in her arms.

What Country Is This?

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, I woke up to the news that a racist, sexist demagogue would be the next president of the United States. My world quaked and settled off-kilter. It reminded me of the day after 9/11, when realities I’d taken for granted literally crumbled, and I no longer felt I could predict what it meant to live in America. This time, though, the threat comes from within. I am frightened to realize that a large percentage of my fellow citizens are either prejudiced against minorities and women, or indifferent to our survival.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, this Episco-pagan has never felt more Jewish. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in a non-religious but culturally Jewish family, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about the Holocaust and the pogroms. We watched “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof” as history, not just entertainment. My mother got me a passport when I was born “in case we have to emigrate to Israel” and always reminded me that our host country could become hostile overnight. Now, going to Israel is not a win, either in terms of safety or social justice (I don’t have the right to displace the Palestinians!), but the mindset endures. I’ve read too many books about assimilated, well-off European Jews who refused to believe that their neighbors would turn on them. This racial memory needles me when I read Christian thinkpieces (usually by straight white men) about how we need to rise above our political differences and come to the communion table with our enemies.

This morning, in the bluest of blue states, when I opened the door to my 4-year-old son’s room, he greeted me with his thousand-watt smile. “I’m a butterfly!” he exclaimed, jumping on the bed and waving his arms to demonstrate the yoga pose he learned at his Montessori school. I want to live in an America where my son will always be safe to be a butterfly. His best friends are the children of single moms, lesbian couples, and a Muslim-American family. His birthfather is a Central American immigrant. He’s never had to worry about the people he loves, or even notice that they’re different from the “norm” that many voters yesterday were determined to enforce. I struggled with whether to leave him in this state of innocence, or to inoculate him with a little of the rational paranoia that is my birthright. Jewish again, I went with the latter.

“Mommy and Daddy and Grandma are sad today because we don’t like who is going to be in charge of our country.”

“Why?” asked the Young Master, echoing the morning-after cry of Democrats everywhere.

“Some people are very angry because they don’t have enough money for food or going to the doctor. And it’s okay to feel that way. But sometimes when people are angry, they blame the wrong person, just like when you’re upset and you throw a toy even though the toy didn’t do anything wrong. But don’t worry, we will always keep you safe.”

The Young Master, absorbing perhaps 10% of this, drummed his feet against the bathtub and growled to show me what “angry” looks like. We had breakfast and walked to school. I looked at the graveyard across the street, where I had planned to be buried after living the rest of my life in this house, and tried to practice non-attachment.

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

I’m still here.

A Song for All Saints’ Day


I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.


They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.


(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.


Holiday Videos: “Joel the Lump of Coal” and More

It’s beginning to look a lot like…whatever winter holiday you celebrate! Here are some videos to get you in the mood.

This Hanukah song and dance medley is joyful and stylishly performed. I was almost certain I recognized the location as midtown Manhattan, but the YouTube credits say Daley Plaza in Chicago. No wonder I always felt at home in the Windy City.

Contemporary glam-rock band The Killers, better known for singing about obsessive love and murder, made this goofy yet ultimately profound video, “Joel the Lump of Coal“. This might be my favorite Christmas song of the year. I dislike the child-shaming moralism of the Santa myth, which has taken over a holiday that’s supposed to be about God’s forgiving and transforming love. The ending of this song made me think of Jesus’s words, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Celtic folk band Nowell Sing We Clear performs their signature song “Chariots” in this video, a rousing welcome for the Prince of Peace. Lyrics by John Kirkpatrick below.

O Shepherd O shepherd come leave off your piping
Come listen come learn come hear what I say
For now is the time that has long been forespoken
For now is the time there’ll be new tunes to play
For soon there comes one who brings a new music
Of sweetness and clarity none can compare
So open your heart for the heavenly harmony
Here on this hill will be filling the air

With chariots of cherubim chanting
And seraphim singing hosanna
And a choir of archangels a-caroling come
Hallelujah Hallelu
All the angels a-trumpeting glory
In praise of the Prince of Peace

See on yon stable the starlight is shimmering
And glimmering and glistening and glowing with glee
In Bethlehem blest this baby of bliss will be
Born here before you as bold as can be
And you’ll be the first to hear the new symphony
Songs full of gladness and glory and light
So learn your tunes well and play your pipes proudly
For the Prince of Paradise plays here tonight

Bring your sheep bleating to this happy meeting
To hear how the lamb with the lion shall lie
It’s mooing and braying you’ll hear the song saying
The humble and lowly will be the most high
Let the horn of the herdsman be heard up in heaven
For the gates are flung open for all who come near
And the simplest of souls shall sing to infinity
Lift up and listen and you shall hear

The warmonger’s charger will thunder for freedom
The gun-maker’s furnace will dwindle and die
And muskets and sabers and swords shall be sundered
Surrendered to the sound that is sweeping the sky
And the shoes of the mighty shall dance to new measures
And the jackboots of generals shall jangle no more
As sister and brother and father and mother
Agree with each other the end to all war

As a candle can conquer the demons of darkness
As a flame can keep frost from the deepest of cold
So a song can give hope in the depths of all danger
And a line of pure melody soar in your soul
So sing your songs well and sing your songs sweetly
And swear that your singing it never shall cease
So the clatter of battle and drums of disaster
Be drowned in the sound of the pipes of peace

Murder Ballad Monday: Beatlemania Edition

We all remember those moments when a work of art opened our eyes and ears. Those “I didn’t know you could do that!” moments fill us with an uncontainable, restless excitement to respond in some way with a creative outpouring of our own, only we don’t yet have the words to express what we’ve encountered.

I felt that way when I first heard The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on my mother’s record player in the late 1970s. It was wicked, enigmatic, mesmerizing — a taste of adulthood’s forbidden knowledge. Since I still don’t understand the lyrics, it holds much of the same magic for me today.

My mother was a snob about popular music, for the most part. The Beatles were the only rock ‘n’ roll group she would tolerate among her LPs of Tchaikovsky and Broadway musicals. This made me a social outcast in middle school until I acquired my own portable radio in 1983, on which I listened secretly to Prince singing “Raspberry Beret”. Perhaps that’s why it took me until last year to figure out that “Octopus’s Garden” was a metaphor for the female anatomy.

This week, fans commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ American TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show. That makes me feel old, but this song makes me feel like a rebellious teenager all over again.

Murder Ballad Monday: Baby Jesus Edition

I recently finished Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a superb historical mystery by Wesley Stace about British composers and music critics in the World War I era. The main characters are aficionados of folk ballads, traveling the countryside in the manner of the Brothers Grimm to record the “pure” versions of these oral traditions before the advance of modern technological culture sweeps them away. I’ve enjoyed combing YouTube and Spotify for recordings of some of the songs referenced in the novel.

One quirky and somewhat seasonal example is “The Bitter Withy”, which imagines young Jesus as rather a discipline problem for his longsuffering mother. You can read a plot summary, historical notes, and several versions of the lyrics at the Mainly Norfolk folk music site, a source that I expect to be mining for future posts. I like this performance by Lisa Knapp.

Wednesday Random Song: Macklemore, “Same Love”

Rapper Macklemore is best known for his comical music video “Thrift Shop”, which went viral this year. But it turns out his awesomeness goes way beyond an ode to my favorite pastime. His song “Same Love” provides the soundtrack for this heartwarming 7-minute movie in support of gay marriage.

And he wears your granddad’s clothes.

(Hat tip to blogger Dannika Nash. Read her post about why young Christians are leaving the church to stand on the side of love.)

Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Abuse in 2 Minutes (With Music!)

Forget Ariel, Belle, and Tiana. For me, the supreme Disney princess is Rapunzel from Tangled (2010). Underneath the lush colors and catchy songs, this retelling of the fairy tale is a profoundly serious and truthful depiction of a young woman’s escape from a cult-like family system.

From the IMDB summary: “After receiving the healing powers from a magical flower, the baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from the palace in the middle of the night by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel knows that the flower’s magical powers are now growing within the golden hair of Rapunzel, and to stay young, she must lock Rapunzel in her hidden tower. Rapunzel is now a teenager and her hair has grown to a length of 70-feet. The beautiful Rapunzel has been in the tower her entire life, and she is curious of the outside world. One day, the bandit Flynn Ryder scales the tower and is taken captive by Rapunzel. Rapunzel strikes a deal with the charming thief to act as her guide to travel to the place where the floating lights come from that she has seen every year on her birthday. Rapunzel is about to have the most exciting and magnificent journey of her life.”

A conventional kids’ film would have the villain accomplish her ends through showy displays of force and magic. Mother Gothel uses a more insidious method: professional-grade emotional abuse and brainwashing. Watch and learn, my friends:

In just two minutes, the song “Mother Knows Best” conducts a whirlwind tour of the techniques that an abusive parent, partner, or cult leader employs to isolate and confuse her victim. Notice how Mother Gothel interlaces apparent compliments (you’re precious to me, you’re too innocent and fragile for this dangerous world) with self-esteem destroyers (you’re clumsy, you’re naive, you’re not pretty enough to make it out there). Her lavish caresses are punctuated with subliminal flashes of menace–so quick, it’s almost possible for Rapunzel to block them out.

Dizzied by this personality-switching, Rapunzel feels uneasy and ashamed. Something doesn’t seem right, but it’s too scary to realize that her only caregiver doesn’t really care for her. Only later, when she finds an alternate source of support in Flynn, is she ready to recover her memories of her real identity and parents. (Yes, a kids’ film about repressed memories! How radical is that?)

Besides this song, I particularly love the scene where Rapunzel first escapes from the tower, aided by Flynn. Her mood swings are so true to the joy and self-doubt that an abuse survivor goes through when she begins to emerge from brainwashing. “I’m free! I’m free! I’m a terrible person. I’m free!”

Libby Anne, who blogs at Love Joy Feminism, has written eloquently about how Tangled resembles her upbringing in a Christian patriarchy cult. This film is validating for anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship, secular or religious. It’s also a great teaching tool to help your children recognize and avoid mind control.

Monday Random Song: “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails”

Oh, right, I have a blog? Apologies, constant readers, for the infrequent posting. I’ve been keeping my number-one resolution for 2013 to re-start work on the Endless Novel, as well as writing the occasional schmaltzy poem and nurturing the Young Master.

Since traditional children’s music makes me think of murderous clowns, I lean heavily on the Episcopal hymnal and Christian pop songs to entertain us while we are working on our pureed peas. Often, I wind up pondering and/or questioning the theology behind the catchy lyrics. From time to time, I will share these reflections with you, my blog followers. (You’ll have to get your own baby food, though. I recommend Earth’s Best chicken mango risotto.)

Today’s song is the Southern Gospel classic “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails“, performed in this YouTube clip by Greg Treadway and Andy Price. In it, the speaker recounts his vivid dream of crucifying Christ, which brought home to him how great a sacrifice Jesus made for his sins. Episcopalians will be familiar with this theme from the Lenten hymn “O Sacred Head“.

I’ve always struggled with this thought-experiment of identifying with Christ’s killers. I can appreciate the need to reflect on the seriousness of my sins and the magnitude of God’s mercy. This terrible limit case — God would even forgive us for killing Jesus — shows that no sin is beyond repentance. Such a hope can lead us out of self-involved despair and into true transformation.

On the other hand, I grew up in a home where emotional manipulation reigned, where I as a child was blamed for an adult’s depression and psychosomatic illnesses, in order to control my behavior and reinforce my gratitude for her so-called unselfish love. It is hard to feel the difference, sometimes, between “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails” and the stereotypical “guilt trip”. Why does God’s goodness require my self-abasement as contrast?

As I have become more attuned to abuses of power within Christianity, my understanding of Jesus has become more this-worldly and political. Now, songs like the ones above also make me wonder: Shouldn’t we focus on our actual sins and their real victims instead of a thought-experiment about something that never literally happened?

If the “real” wounded party is Christ, and lucky us, he forgives us, we may neglect making amends in the real world. This thought-experiment carries the potential for self-aggrandizing, self-pitying guilt that puts the sinner rather than the victim at the center of the story. Identification with the perpetrator then becomes a dysfunctional way to cement the Christian community’s bonds, like a gang where one has to murder someone to be a member.

Why not imagine one’s self into other roles in the story, like Veronica and Simon who tried to help, or Peter who cut off the soldier’s ear? Or, maybe one hasn’t actually done anything nearly as bad as crucifying Christ. “Sin inflation” creates a false moral equivalence that prevents the church from taking abuse seriously. It instills excessive guilt in people who then can’t speak up about wrongs done to them.

As I remember it, St. Paul exhorts us to imagine ourselves as crucified with Christ, a lot more than he recommends the perspective of the crucifiers. And when he does the latter, it’s because he actually did persecute and kill Christians, and was forgiven by his human victim, Stephen, not only by God.

I would love to hear from my readers about where the “I crucified Christ” trope originated. Is it Biblical? Where do you find support for it in Scripture?

Not Your Average Christmas Videos

This Christian puppet-show takeoff on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” wins the 2012 Reiter’s Block award for best holiday video. Hat tip to John Shore.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a Reiter’s Block award for holiday videos? Well, send in your suggestions and maybe you will win fabulous prizes. Or eternal damnation. Depends on the video.

In case you’re more in the mood for a Blue Christmas, I’m re-posting this video by The Pogues. There’s a certain kind of sadness that one can enjoy in New York City, and “Fairytale of New York” expresses it perfectly.