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Heard It In A Song 12 min read

Heard It In A Song

The joy of finding a new song, plus national trauma, Nazi hunters, Elon Musk, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

Last week, I had the wondrous experience of discovering music at its source. 

My sister and brother-in-law came to Columbia to visit, but probably more importantly to see Charles Wesley Godwin in concert. 

I wasn’t familiar with Godwin’s music, and despite my sister sending me links to songs here and there before they arrived, I never really checked it out. I wasn’t concerned at all about whether I’d enjoy the concert; it was enough for me to go with them to something they were excited about. 

But then something truly impressive happened: through two acts and roughly 3 hours of live music, I wouldn’t have skipped a single one of them. Nolan Taylor, the opening act, was fantastic, and when Godwin finally took the stage and started, it was a somewhat disorienting experience if you’re used to only going to concerts in which you know all the songs: Everyone was singing, drinks held high, and having a great time. They had membership in a club I was quickly learning I wanted to join.

I could have pegged my burgeoning fandom to any of songs that made me bob my head and nod, in appreciation of music and the groove, to the good feelings that washed over me from those cardholding members of the club as I played catch up.

It wasn’t those happy songs that got me, though; it was the one that left me standing among hundreds of strangers with tears running down my face, no bob of the head, just paralysis at the lyrics.

It was a song about his dad. His West Virginian roots inspired the word play that was oblivious to me in the title when you only hear it spoken: “Miner Imperfections.”

I can’t remember if he introduced the song with words about his dad; I feel like he must have because I knew immediately how the song was going to affect me.

Then again maybe it was the song’s first line:

Wasn’t one to talk much when we pulled off to school
I could never tell what’s running through his mind

Sounded like my dad: While he was blessed (or cursed) with the same gift of gab for which I’m now known, he wasn’t going to talk about something if he didn’t want to. Parents can always seem a mystery to their kids, and I don’t think I grew any more confident discerning what he was thinking as I got older.

By the time the chorus rolled around, I was frozen:

He’s got miner imperfections
Blame it on his roots
Callouses on his hands
Coal dust on his boots
He’s not one for conversation
When there’s work to do
Papaw said get paid in cash
Company’s script’s a noose
And city folks would shame him if he’d let ‘em
But he’s proud of his miner imperfections

A tiny squeeze from my girlfriend. I saw my sister turn to look at me as I listened, surely knowing what the lyrics were doing to me before she noticed the tears on my cheeks.

The second verse, though, is the one that really got me. If I’d ever stood a chance of making it through the song without crying (for the record: I didn’t), it was shattered by these words that captured my dad perfectly:

The years went by and I grew up
His brown hair faded white
He somehow picks up every time I call
Moved me in and bailed me out
And shared all he knows about
Like how to pair a diamond to a girl
His hard edges cut me deep
When I was just a boy
I saw his face light up
When those grandchildren were born

Standing there in Columbia, with my sister and brother-in-law, I thought of how they were the first in my family to come visit a place that, until then, only my dad had seen. The last time he moved me in

I thought about how later this week, I’ll be on a bachelor’s trip to celebrate my little brother, who’ll get married at the end of the year, and how he told me, standing graveside on my dad’s birthday where we’d met up to open a bottle a Blanton’s and toast the man we missed, that he was going to propose.

I thought of my sister, sneaking glances at me, giving my dad perhaps the greatest gift of his life: a granddaughter. 

The song wrecked me in the best possible way. The tears weren’t the tears of song forever ruined for me; they were tears I’d seek out (and did the very next day, when I looked up the video included above). I’ll carry it with me, not just for the words, which fit so well, but for the time at which it found me, and where, and in whose company.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. At the concert, Godwin introduced a song called “The Flood” by saying it was inspired by his mother’s attempt to drive across a bridge after a terrible storm and the resulting flooding. When I read Ana Marie Cox’s latest in The New Republic — “We are not just polarized. We are traumatized.” — I was struck by the similarity of Godwin’s West Virginian story and the historical facts that gave way to the concept underlying Cox’s thesis: collective trauma.

The origin of the academic study of “collective trauma” has been credited to Kai Erikson’s 1977 book, Everything in Its Path, an account of the aftermath of the Buffalo Creek flood in Logan County, West Virginia, five years prior, which killed 125 people and destroyed 550 homes in a small mining community. In the book, Erikson writes of grappling with “thousands of pages of transcript material, whole packing boxes full of it,” that confounded him “not because the material is contradictory or difficult to interpret but because it is so bleakly alike.” He found respondents echoing one another to a frustrating degree, so much so that “a researcher is very apt to conclude after rummaging through these data that there is really not very much to say.” Eventually, however, he came to believe that the uniformity itself was meaningful; the damage done at Buffalo Creek was something more than a mere collection of individual harms.

Cox applies the concept to everything that we’ve been living through for years now, and that we, the American people, are in the midst of a collective response to what is, in essence, an ongoing trauma. I’m reflexively reluctant to extend to title of “trauma” to any of the elements of my own life, for fear of diluting the power of the word. Cox seemed to know there were people like me out there, as evidenced by this passage before she got too far into her argument:

So, what if the reason so many people identify as trauma survivors is that they are? What if the horrors of the last seven years do translate into a nation that is suffering more than mere political dysfunction? What if the polarization, paranoia, conspiracism, and hopelessness that bog us down have a more holistic origin than structural malfunctions or individual malfeasance?

What if our entire national character is a trauma response?

Before you say “bullshit,” remember: Cynicism is a trauma response.

I’m not entirely sure she allayed my suspicion that perhaps we, as a culture, overuse the word and perhaps rob it of its proper perspective, but she certainly got me to stop and think and reassess that mindset, which, at a bare minimum, equals a wonderful piece of journalism.
2. I was reminded of what true trauma looks like when I read Jenisha Watts’s autobiographical essay in The Atlantic, titled “I Never Called Her Momma,” and subtitled “My childhood in a crack house.” It’s a story of unbelievably hard conditions overcome, but it actively explores the notion of trauma and storytelling, and in doing so, drops a staggering reveal in the final few paragraphs of the piece that would make anyone rethink their use of “trauma.”
3. Another clear case of trauma? Pretty much anything related to the Holocaust. It crosses my mind every now and then a thought that I remember coming from Steven Spielberg (though I don’t specifically remember where or when): We were running out of time to capture the stories of those brave souls who fought in World War II. They were nearing the end, and it was a race to persevere their stories through interviews. And while that thought flitters through my brain at times, I’ve rarely considered the flip side of it: that just as surely as we are nearing the end of our opportunity to praise these men’s accomplishments and stories, so too are we nearing the end to hold the perpetrators to account. That’s what this recent story from Tom Lamont in GQ is all about: a small band of dedicated investigators pledged to find the remaining war criminals from the Nazi regime, no matter how old and brittle they might now be. It’s a riveting read, but not for some overblown action-packed movie this might have once been—think less Jason Bourne racing through European streets in a death-defying car chase and more of an elderly grandparent crossing a street on a Jazzy scooter. No, it’s riveting because it’s philosophical. Who deserves punishment for these atrocities? At what degree of remove does a participant lose culpability?
4. I can’t help but pay attention whenever The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner sets his sights on a new interview subject, usually published in the form of grueling Q&As. A recent story in the latest print issue of the magazine turned out to be a standard story format on an interesting subject indeed: The New York Times’s very own “conservative whisperer” Ross Douthat. It was a typically thorough and excellent piece of reporting, but, for as respectful as it was (much in Douthat’s own style), it seem perplexed by Douthat’s beliefs. They’re conservative, but often tolerable of dissent and reasoned conversation, which is surely how he’s thrived so long on a left-leaning opinion staff. But his faith, a staunch Roman Catholicism, and a bout with Lyme disease (and its lingering effects) seem to color outside the lines of his otherwise well-reasoned, if conservative, worldview. It’s an interesting look at the tidbits that have tinged even the most respectable face of intellectual conservatism with shades of outside-the-box beliefs:

Since the worst years of his illness—which were followed by a tough bout of covid—Douthat has been, in some ways, a different columnist. He’s written several times about U.F.O.s, and he’s made many references to Jeffrey Epstein, saying that he’s open to the theory that Epstein was a foreign intelligence asset. In one column, Douthat offered his own approach to assessing fringe ideas. “To be a devout Christian or a believing Jew or Muslim is to be a bit like a conspiracy theorist, in the sense that you believe there is an invisible reality that secular knowledge can’t recognize,” he explained. “But the great religions are also full of warnings against false prophets and fraudulent revelations. My own faith, Roman Catholicism, is both drenched in the supernatural and extremely scrupulous about the miracles and seers that it validates. And it allows its flock to be simply agnostic about a range of possibly supernatural claims.”

  1. New York magazine published a nice profile of author Walter Isaacson that coincided with the release of his latest addition to his “genius series” of biographies of “great men” with last week’s publication of Elon Musk.
  2. Pft. Great men. I loved novelist Gary Shytengart’s review of Isaacson’s new Musk book. I wouldn’t call it a pan, but Shytengart clearly has no patience for Musk’s shenanigans nor Isaacson’s prose. A sampling:

Isaacson comes from the “his eyes lit up” school of cliched writing, the rest of his prose workmanlike bordering on AI. I drove my espresso machine hard into the night to survive both craft and subject matter. It feels as though, for instance, there are hundreds of pages from start to finish relaying the same scene: Musk trying to reduce the cost of various mundane objects so that he can make more money and fulfil his dream of moving himself (and possibly the lot of us) to Mars, where one or two examples would have been enough. To his credit, Isaacson is a master at chapter breaks, pausing the narrative when one of Musk’s rockets explodes or he gets someone pregnant, and then rewarding the reader with a series of photographs that assuages the boredom until the next descent into his protagonist’s wild but oddly predictable life. Again, it’s not all the author’s fault. To go from Einstein to Musk in only five volumes is surely an indication that humanity isn’t sending Isaacson its best.

  1. I’m an easy mark for newly written material about David Foster Wallace. If I come across it, I cannot pass it up. So when I came across Colin Flynn’s essay in the L.A. Review of Books, I jumped in greedily, ready to get my fix. But the sneaky thing about the essay is that Flynn knows me (well, knows people like me), and he used that knowledge not to shame or scold me but definitely make me think twice about my habit. It’s the story of his time studying writing at Pomona College, where Wallace had been a professor when he died, and how Flynn had resented the replacements for not being Wallace or indulging his Wallacian aspirations. But it was not just some nameless, faceless replacement; it was the great Jonathan Lethem. The essay becomes more a meditation on the writing life: what it’s like to get early praise for writing and how that can warp a mindset, how little a young writer may actually know about writing, success and failure, and more.
  2. Speaking of the writing life, Lauren Groff’s got a pretty good one. And this New York Times piece clearly feels like it was written by an admirer of her work, but it paints an interesting picture of how she goes about drafting her works and how she’s able to be so prolific.
  3. On the topics of books, I have to share this quick story. Before the concert I described at the top of this newsletter, I took my sister and brother-in-law to Columbia’s local independent bookstore. The mission was to let them pick out a new book for my niece and to take it back for me, a little gift for the weekend that she shared her parents with me. After a diligent search, the landed on a cute book, and we still had time to kill, so I wandered the stacks for myself. At the table of new fiction, I picked up Zadie Smith’s newest The Fraud, and I read the read the dust jacket, getting a better idea about a book I’d already heard others speak about at length, including Smith herself on Fresh Air. My literary brain knew that was the book I should buy: the topic was interesting, the writer’s pedigree unmatched, the reviews glowing. But then my eyes spied another book on the table: Mick Herron’s newest spy thriller, The Secret Hours. It’s a genre I’ve lovingly made up and referenced to my girlfriend as Man Trash, which I describe as “beach reads but, you know, for dudes.” And, dear reader, my lizard brain won out, and before I knew it, I was at the counter talking to the store’s owner, hearing about how much I’d love the book. While this is happening, another customer was checking out; he was a dapper bald man. And the “commotion” was him reveling in his dumb good luck to have dug through the stack of Smith’s books and uncovered the single signed edition that had been sent to the store. And perhaps I’d feel even worse if I’d been standing up there with an unsigned copy while he checked out with the signed one, but suddenly I felt trashy about my Man Trash. So the lesson for you? Don’t give in to your lizard brain (and possibly always check for hidden stowed-away autographed copies at your local bookstore). To help you avoid the lizard brain, here’s a thoughtful review of Smith’s book from Harper’s Gen X-focused issue.
  4. John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight has this segment where he pivots to something, usually a collection of local news clips that showcase on-air talent being weirdos, by saying “And now this…” The implication is it’s something totally different. I feel like that’s how this link should be viewed. It’s a just a fun piece from The Washington Post of visual and data-driven journalism that explores how Lego bricks went from a few basic colors to almost 200.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

9/14: Charles Wesley Godwin ft. Nolan Taylor
9/15: Only Murders in the Building, S3