I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the songs that make up my most recent release, a covers project entitled “Through Songs I Was First Undone.” The moments I’ve had with the artists whose music makes up this album have been sacred moments. These artists and their songs have been central to the necessary undoing of the expectations and limitations I habitually place on God and humanity.
Here is part two of why Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” is on the album:
The song’s opening line “cold was the night, hard was the ground” is an echo of Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting 1927 recording “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, When They Laid My Savior Down,” a song of lament for the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
I find the layers of contrast and tension created by Wait’s word choice here captivating and at the same time unsettling. Waits begins a song about the apparent inattentiveness of God to the death of a runaway by referencing a song about the death of God Himself in Christ; a song that, in turn, is written and performed by a man who, like Georgia, was poor, black and largely unnoticed until after his death.* All of this in one line. Genius.
So, in a nod to Waits’ choice to nod lyrically to Blind Willie Johnson, my recording of the song begins with an audio-nod to Pedro the Lion’s “The Longer I Lay Here.” Listeners will hear 6 beats of click-track to begin the song. The click is normally hidden but, like Bazan who produced “It’s Hard To Find A Friend,” we left the click exposed. Bazan chose to let the click track remain throughout the entire song.
The parallel here is a reflection of the way I receive Georgia Lee as a listener, which is much of why I covered it for the album. Listeners like myself are drawn to songs of like Georgia Lee and the larger bodies of work by David Bazan/Pedro the Lion because these songs provide words and shape to a very real experience of God that has little media attention paid to it: His absence.
The suffering of children at the hands of foul men or corruption of any kind often leads us along a line of questioning which comes to a tumbling, awkward end in an eerily empty space… eery because it is the space we thought we would find God, smiling knowingly, with a cup of hot chocolate and all the answers our shaken hearts desire about suffering, death and the like.. but many do not. Though this doesn’t at all represent a loss of faith, it is nonetheless a place of desperate, soul-wrenching tension… a place in which one must choose against ones “better judgement” when responding to the question “Why wasn’t God there?”
(At another point, I’d like to take a more philosophical look at the experience of God’s absence or disappointment with God in the context of faith. For now, I’m going to stick with the song’s place on the album in the light of that same tension.)
Waits’ song doesn’t answer it’s own question. Nor should it be required to. It is enough for the song and artist to ask it; to create space for the tension between assurance and doubt. In fact, the temptation to answer such questions prematurely is partly what makes some contemporary christian art seem so disconnected or shallow. It communicates a disregard for what I have come to know as an authentic and vital aspect of faith: doubt.
The empty spaces we sometimes find ourselves in are part of a mature emotional and spiritual landscape. It is about these spaces that works like “The Dark Night of the Soul” or “The Cloud of Unknowing” have been written, assuring those on a journey of faith that there is nothing broken; that this is part of what the map looks like. In “Caring For Words In a Culture of Lies” Marilyn McEntyre notes that it is in the silence after a sentence or the space left at the end of a line where a reader actually has the ‘space’ to engage, to receive and to process… to more fully know what was just written (or spoken, or sung). She calls this “the hospitality of our own silences.”
Wait’s “Georgia Lee,” and the space that follows it, has been a hospitable silence for me.