Reviews & Recommendations

Storytelling Through Music; Exhibit: Josh Ritter

“While the audience may not be in the room with a novelist, they still demand the same kind of attention as they do from the performance of a song. They ask that you give them your full attention, that you are generous with your time and that you don’t over stay your welcome. They give you their trust, and if they can tell your efforts have been for the right reasons, they’ll give you the room for whatever flights of imagination you’re willing to take them on.”
– Josh Ritter, on how songwriting is like writing a novel or story.

Josh Ritter has been known for a while for his story-based folk songs, so it should come as no great surprise that his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” will be released sometime during the summer of next year. Apparently, the novel came about as the natural extension of the songwriting for So Runs the World Away, his most recent album – and one I highly recommend.

Of course, folk music has long been influenced by, and been a product of, great storytelling. From the earliest days that Americans played music around campfires and on banjos, up to the days of Guthrie, Cash, Dylan and beyond, it is a genre birthed by good yarns and tall tales, stories of the rough and tumble and the down-and-out. And Josh Ritter, a longtime student of folk art himself, is on the verge of securing his own place within the pantheon of those greats. Like other folk artists who created a lasting place for themselves, Ritter has done so through his mesmerizing stories and spot-on, know-it-all, literary references, through his ability to turn a phrase and create a character.

From lovers in bomb shelters to adventure seeking cowboys (and now resurrected mummies who fall in love with archeologists), his stories have always been just a little out of the ordinary, as one would expect from a songwriter who cites the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Phillip Roth, Stephen King, and Daphne Du Maurier as his greatest influences. But through them, and certainly like them, Ritter has always managed to capture something deeper than just entertainment or humor or romance, or even something catchy and whimsical. His stories are full of mysterious worlds that, despite being firmly locked within the flesh and blood world we all live in, seem unreal, as if haunted by ghosts – which they actually sometimes are. Like a great fantasy story or a beautifully haunting epic poem, they draw the listener/reader in, and away, and appeal to every listeners base, but powerful, desire for adventure and quest.

His songs are often about journeys, even when they are love songs, and they are always about longing, about some deeply sought after yet always elusive thing. Often they end with that longing hanging in the air like pollen, not quite met, for character or listener alike.

And, like the best storytellers, he is not didactic, instead simply revealing the finer points of his characters and plots without any kind of extemporaneous explanation. As they say, he shows instead of telling.

Consider the following haunting tracks from So Runs the World Away.

ANOTHER NEW WORLD:

The leading light of the age all wondered amongst
themselves what I would do next
After all that I’d found in my travels around
the world was there anything else left?
“Gentlemen”, I said, “I’ve studied the maps”
“And if what I’m thinking is right”
“There’s another new world at the top of the world”
“For whoever can break through the ice”

I looked round the room in that way I once had
and I saw that they wanted belief
So I said “All I’ve got are my guts and my God”
then I paused,”and the Annabelle Lee”
Oh the Annabelle Lee, I saw their eyes shine
the most beautiful ship in the sea
My Nina, My Pinta, My Santa Maria
My beautiful Annabelle Lee

That spring we set sail as the crows waved from shore
and on board the crew waved their hats
But I never had family just the Annabelle Lee
so I didn’t have cause to look back
I just set the course north and I studied the charts
and toward dark I drifted toward sleep
and I dreamed of the fine deep harbor I’d find
past the ice for my Annabelle Lee

After that it got colder the world got quiet
it was never quite day or quite night
And the sea turned the color of sky turned the color
of sea turned the color of ice
‘Til at last all around us was fastness
one vast glassy desert of arsenic white
And the waves that once lifted us
sifted instead into drifts against Annabelle’s sides

The crew gathered closer at first for the comfort
but each morning would bring a new set
of the tracks in the snow leading over the edge
of the world ’til I was the only one left
After that it gets cloudy but it feels like I lay there
for days maybe for months
But Annabelle held me the two of us happy
just to think back on all we had done

We talked of the other worlds we’d discover
as she gave up her body to me
And as I chopped up her mainsail for timber
I told her of all that we still had to see
As the frost turned her moorings to nine-tail
and the wind lashed her sides in the cold
I burned her to keep me alive every night
in the lover’s embrace of her hold

I won’t call it rescue what brought me here back to
the old world to drink and decline
And to pretend that the search for another new world
was well-worth the burning of mine
But sometimes at night in my dreams comes the singing
of some known tropical bird
And I smile in my sleep thinking Annabelle Lee
has finally made it to another new world

FOLK BLOODBATH

Louis Collins took a trip out west
And when he returned little Delia’d gone to rest
The angels laid her away
Louis said to Delia, That’s the sad thing with life
People always leaving just as other folks arrive
The angels laid her away
When the people heard that Delia was dead
All them gentlemen they dressed in red
The angels laid her away

The angels laid her away
Laid her six feet under the clay
The angels laid her away

Louis went downtown for a new suit of clothes
Gonna dress up for Delia like a fine red rose
The angels laid him away
He brought a ten-gallon stetson it was oxblood red
Then Stackalee shot Louis in the back of the head
The angels laid him away
Stackalee said to Louis, Oh now, don’t you grieve
I’m sending you to Delia you won’t ever have to leave
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away
Laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

The judge was a mean one, his name was Hangin’ Billy Lyons
He said, You’ve always been a bad man, Stack, you’re gonna hang this time
The angels laid him away
And the jailer said to Stackalee,What’s the problem with you?
Oh, jailer, Louis Collins ghost brought Delia’s with him too
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away
Laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

They buried little Delia in the churchyard deep
Louis Collins at her head, Stackalee at her feet
The angels laid them away
And out of Delia’s bed came briars, out of Louis’ bed a rose
And out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost
The angels laid them away
And I’m looking over rooftops and I’m hoping that it ain’t true
That the same God looked out for them looks out for me and you
The angels laid them away

—-

What are your favorite examples of Josh Ritter’s storytelling and/or your favorite of his lyrics?

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