My favourite song is a ballad named ‘The Parting Glass’. There are many reasons to think it is the best song written in English: its quietness, subtlety and delicacy are chief amongst them. The crux of the song comes at the end of the second stanza:
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.
The speaker or, more properly (because the song really does only work sung), the singer is addressing a loved one who has died: who “should not” rise and yet accepts this with a quiet dignity, with the same inevitability as the song’s refrain. Death represents a parting and therefore the song constructs a goodbye. Yet the song is fundamentally inward looking: the eternal nature of death is channelled through the singer’s own experience of life, of everything being exhausted. The song opens:
Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
The singer refers to the “mem’ry now I can’t recall” and begins the final stanza (depending on the version we’re talking about) with:
If I had money enough to spend,
And leisure time to sit awhile,
Everything depletes: time, memory, money. The drink poured into the parting glass will soon go too. The constant references to money commodify life and time as a stock-pile of resource that is to be spent. A part of the pathos of the song is that it is aware on some level of the fallacy of this, of the artificial sense of human control over death that it creates. And yet out of this pathos it creates something truly uplifting: there’s no point leaving money unspent, leaving life unlived and therein the song finds a celebration of death. This is why I describe the song as delicate. There is little foundation to its optimistic interpretation of death, nothing physical, nothing, in the strictest sense of the word, knowable. And yet death is in a meaningful, very human sense, overcome by the song’s warm embrace.
The song bears analysis. But this does not make it complicated. Its simplicity is the reason for its success, yet few recordings of the song have been able to capture this simplicity. The best live performance of the song I’ve heard was by the Spooky Men’s Chorale, whose output is usually comedic but whose vocal abilities and base humility are hard to match amongst modern performers. Yet fundamental to the song is the integrity and singularity of one human singer. Live, a choir like this can reinstate this singularity through performance, through the human face and gesture. Not on CD. Other recordings seem to go out of their way to lose this singularity either by reciting the song as if it has no particular meaning or sticking clichéd instrumental lines underneath it, which obscure its beauty like light pollution does the night’s sky. For a combination of the two, do (or rather don’t) check out the Cottars’ atrocious attempt on their 2005 album On Fire. The version on this year’s Hannah Peel album is one of the better I can find, which although it begins with some weird sound effects, at least lets the song breath a little vocally.
The reason, I think, that this song tends to sink like a stone into the studio microphone rather than skimming gracefully across its surface is because its simplicity is at odds with the modern artistic aspirations of performers. There is a broad dichotomy between simple and complex and even when simplicity is a perfectly effective means of communicating a message, as with say the Manic Street Preachers, fans often hype up an imagined complexity that does not exist. There is a good reason for this: simplicity is associated with a corporate driven populist kind of release; complexity with ambition and deeper meaning. This is why in jazz, folk and classical music the value of virtuosity and difficulty is inflated beyond its artistic worth. Such a value system is not unimportant; but it should not be where discussion of music stops.
With regard to song writing, this begs many question. Foremost in my mind is whether any modern song writing retains the simplicity of songs like ‘The Parting Glass’. By simplicity, it must be emphasised, that I mean a specific quality rather than a value judgement. Simplicity does not prevent depth and multiplicity of meaning, but is characterised rather by a certain straightforwardness and quiet forthrightness. By this reckoning, the best songwriter writing in English today may be John Darnelle, who usually releases under the name The Mountain Goats. Their new album is out in a couple of weeks but for the purposes of this discussion I wish to explore a song on their seminal 2005 release The Sunset Tree, which documents through a thirteen-song cycle Darnelle’s experiences of childhood abuse. Two songs away from the end of the record is a tribute to the reggae singer Dennis Brown. It begins:
On the day that Dennis Brown’s lung collapsed, spring rain was misting down on Kingston.
and down at the harbor, local cops were intercepting an inbound shipment.
Just as in ‘The Parting Glass’, one should rise and another should not and life itself is the most fitting tribute to death. The death of Dennis Brown intensifies the beauty of life because each action becomes a defiant punch against death: the rain over Kingston, the cops fighting the sailors or, in the next stanza, the school children singing in choirs and the guys who jump into dumpsters behind the Chinese Restaurant.
The last lines of the song make even death itself seem like a challenge, the final dare, the final thrust of life:
It took all the coke in town
to bring down Dennis Brown.
On the day my lung collapses
we’ll see just how much it takes.
In ‘The Parting Glass’, the song’s imagery uses the expendability of life to defiantly imagine that the singer is in control of it. The same is happening here. Dennis Brown was a cocaine addict and died of it. This should be a cause of diminishment. Yet in the imagination of the song, he is a hero. He gets his heroic couplet (town/Brown) and his very defeat makes him a figure of strength, challenging Darnelle to match his greatness. Sure, the song is aware of its own artifice but that is both the source of its pathos and defiance. And, like ‘The Parting Glass’, it knows that it doesn’t need to shout.