The Places I Once Knew: Meeting Sundown Songs
a musical chance encounter
“Lingers in your soul. It’s singin’ and it’s lingerin’ in your soul, lingerin’ in your soul and I wanna sing along…”—from “Glory Gone” by Sundown Songs
As we grow older, the experiences we choose to remember lose their factual significance. It’s the telling and retelling of a specific story, and the emotions that this fantasy shepherds, which solidify its truth within us. This, to me, is the essence of human life and ultimately of folk music. Folk music, which literally means “people’s music,” is the exchanging and passing down of stories through song. When we hear these songs we think, “hey, that sort of thing happened to me once…” The words, the melody or only a single chord may bring this on. In my own experience, a chord-change from major to minor is a guaranteed low-swing right to the gut. It is a resurfacing of feelings from where I may not remember, but the music reminds my body. In this way, the folk tradition of sustaining music and story is akin to how we each catalogue and retell the memories of our daily lives.
My retelling of a certain memory begins on the cobbled, humid streets of New Orleans, Louisiana. It was my second time in this beautifully madcap city, filled with the rhythm and whine of an ancient being. It seems trite to speak of the “spirit” of New Orleans, but the city really did feel alive with a strange kinetic energy—one of invitation and appreciation.
The old danced with the new. There were dilapidated antique houses with three or four generations of the same family still living in them. Old jazz swung out from the doors of one bar, while new hip-hop bumped loud from the next. Men frequently tipped their hats to me as I passed them, wanting nothing more than a smile of recognition for their chivalry. In fact, the entire city often seemed as if it were tipping its hat in my direction.
The way I remember this story, the way I tell it now, it was early evening and my companions and I were strolling down some side street downtown. We were a good distance off from the neon-saturated, Sex-On-the-Bayou-dollar-shots and overwrought country cover singers of Bourbon Street. We were on a quiet street with mostly big old houses renovated into new apartments or gift shops. In my mind, the scene was sprayed with a dusty blue color, like walking through Van Gogh’s Absinthe-fogged Paris, or a dreaming sea. Suddenly we came upon five or six musicians sitting on the steps of what looked like a boarded up café. This was definitely not uncommon on the streets of New Orleans. There were as many buskers on every street corner as there were five-dollar fortunetellers. What intrigued me first were what seemed like homemade instruments many of the band members were playing. My mind recalls a bass and guitars made of household appliances and gadgets—I even vaguely remember an oil drum.
My second attraction was to the voice of the female guitarist. The entire band looked like a pack of wandering circus rodees in disheveled 1950s getups. The face of the female lead singer looked wan and scrubbed clean, and there was a timeless look in her eyes. She was in a paisley, farmer’s daughter dress, with half of her shambolic hair collected at the back of her head. I was stunned by her ethereal vibrato, how unassuming it was, but with such force and purpose behind it. It would materialize among the deep, slightly hoarse registers of her throat, then make a sustained climb up the scale with soft determination. Sometimes it would swoop right up to the highest note, cracking earnestly mid-flight, like the palpable breaking of a whippoorwill’s heart.
We may have stayed for two or three songs, but my friends eventually wanted to keep moving. They weren’t as awestruck as I was by this band and their singer. The band was selling its CD for ten dollars, which was packaged in a paper lunch bag with a photocopied drawing taped on the front of a man on his horse ambling off into the sunset. “Far From Home” was the album; Sundown Songs was their name. I gave them a twenty for it.
During this second stay in New Orleans, some underlying tension within the group had begun to emerge. I had also begun having heart palpitations a few nights before, each episode lasting longer than the previous one. This trip to New Orleans seemed like a waste in comparison with the music and booze-filled adventures of my first. However, my encounter with Sundown Songs gave inarguable meaning to my trip. I couldn’t wait to get back to my room, slip this mysterious little disc into my Walkman and nod off into another world.
Later that night I curled up on my hard hostel mattress and proceeded into a rare musical possession. The sweet hiccupping banjo riff, which opens the first track “Here It Comes,” pelted down on me like rainbow raindrops. I was suddenly overwhelmed with both a great sadness and an upward-spiraling joy—the music felt as if it were jumping out of my skin, up out of my veins. When the bass is finally introduced in the song and the whole band of banjo, guitar and some kind of drum kit get going, everything is being plucked with such intensity it feels like they’re reaching right down into my chest and thwacking back the strings of my heart. The female singer sings:
“Well, if the water rises higher
I think I might just have to swim.
And if the river grows wider
I think I might just throw myself in,”
Before the lyrics even begin the increasing gallop of the rhythm is already becoming the river, growing stronger and deeper. The song began pulling me along with it like a rogue current, and I just threw myself in.
Immediately, I recognized the sweet warbling voice of the woman from the street as the lead singer. ”Here It Comes” is sung to, then from the point of view of a woman who’s been waiting for her man to return home, but the river around her is swelling. Everyone’s telling her to forget her man—“Honey, why’d you wait so long?”— and save herself, but she is stubborn—or dedicated, however you wish to see it—and stays put in her rocking chair:
“If the rocking chair don’t get me,
that old colt liquor will.
And that turtle dove,
she’s gunna guide me,
till my body is just a shell.”
The song is seemingly about triumph, with her man finally returning to her, but in what form? This was what was so haunting about this song to me when I first heard it. The woman is defiant in her choice to wait, “told you that my man would come home!” but there’s so much allusion to self-sacrifice and suicide in her words. Like a captain who must go down with her ship, the woman is willing to die waiting for her man. And then there’s the repeated line: “Oooh-oooh, here it comes. Ooh-oooh here he comes,” which seems to be about the river and her man simultaneously, as if the return of either will most certainly be the death of her.
With all that I had going on during this time in New Orleans, Sundown Songs felt like it had sifted down like a fleck of an angel’s wing into my open palms. I was moving through insecurity in my life, and the raw line: “til my body is just a shell” was unbelievably close to my own truth. I felt my own need to detach myself from the river–to empty myself of all expectation and ego, but I also understood my inevitable submersion back into reality.
For the rest of the trip, any time I could be alone I put my headphones on and fell back into that music. Sundown Songs felt ageless; the voices and melodies sowed over again and again like plowed ancient mica.
I strongly attribute the ever-expanding journey I am still on with American Folk music to my discovery of Sundown Songs. At the time I only knew the word “bluegrass,” but couldn’t connect it to anything. My friends and I grew up singing the songs of the Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but I only knew to call that “country.” I began singing blues songs at sixteen years old, turning up the muddy stones of their histories. But it wasn’t until encountering Sundown Songs that I began to investigate the old-time and folk singers behind Brother, Where Art Thou? like Alison Krauss and the Stanley Brothers, and even farther back into the 20th century American appalachian and Irish ballad recordings.
Now in the music of Sundown Songs I can hear a Woodie Guthrie attitude and a Barbara Dane tenacity; the murder ballad and the wayfaring rambler; the lurid flow of the Mississippi and the lapping of the bayou. The influence is everywhere.
“Far From Home” is an album I regularly come back to, whether it’s to practice a certain chord progression on guitar, or to use a song as medicine for something deeper inside. Sundown Songs has also become a binding passion between a dear friend and me. We have revisited and referenced these songs to each other through many different periods in our lives—moving between cities or states; beginning an infatuation or soothing a heartbreak.
The healing properties of Sundown Songs have never lost their magic, which is partially due to their current enigmatic state. After an event posting on their MySpace band page in 2008, and a grainy fourteen-second YouTube clip of them jamming on the street somewhere in New Orleans in 2009, they are absolutely untraceable. Every so often it comes over me to Google them, check their band page, search for any signs of movement or sound, but with no avail. Strangely, they come up in other ways, whether it was my stumbling upon a New Orleans musician, Sam Doores, who is credited with playing guitar on one of their albums; or a New Orleans-native customer at my work mentioning them in conversation. Everything about the band is a quintessential folk song, from my hazy memory of finding them with handmade instruments and selling their album to me in a paper bag, to their mysterious disappearance with only remnants of their existence. They seem to only live within the stories of their own songs and in the stories I tell of them.
However accurate my account is of my encounter with Sundown Songs, what is most important is what their music has given to me since then, and how I choose to share this with others. My friend and I have a fantasy to take a recorded road trip down to New Orleans, find Sundown Songs and play and sing with them. This comes from a deeply seeded need within me to connect with the creators of such words and music, which when I first heard them made me feel completely alive and moving with the universe. I said “Hey! That same sort of thing happened to me …” and it made me want to tell my own story the only way I can remember it.
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/142435342″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”150″ iframe=”true” /]