You Got Me Singing: Jack and Amanda Palmer’s Elegy for Time and Ode to the Dignity of the Downtrodden and the Dispossessed
A record of searing tenderness and sorrowful optimism, harmonizing heartbreak and hope.
By Maria Popova
“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. It was near-silence that had stretched between Amanda Palmer and her father, Jack, from the time she was nine months old, when her mother left Jack, until she was an adult. And then there was music — music as memoir, music as lamentation, music as the myriad inexpressible complexities that lie between regret and redemption.
In 2015, after nearly a decade of tentatively dancing around the idea of collaborating, Jack and Amanda walked into the legendary Dreamland Studio in upstate New York, founded by Albert Grossman, onetime manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. The iconic cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was shot at Grossman’s house nearby.
The result — a labor of love in every possible dimension of the phrase — is the almost unbearably beautiful Jack and Amanda Palmer: You Got Me Singing. Gracing it is a cover staged after the Dylan classic and photographed at the same location by Kyle Cassidy.
I wrote the liner notes, which say everything I have to say about this miraculously wonderful record:
“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
Folk music, more than any other art, invites each generation to come to terms with this perennial instability. Beneath the intergenerational dialogue between Jack and Amanda Palmer is a larger conversation with time through the inescapably entwined dimensions of the personal and the political. The twelve songs they spent years choosing together are a reminder that what we experience as the present moment, with all of its shrieking urgency, is a bellowing echo of a past yet to be redeemed. The trials and triumphs of our time, from civil rights to marriage equality, have a gestational period stretching back generations.
An album of cover songs, like culture itself, is an hourglass — the same material passes through the narrow opening of the present, back and forth, over and over again. Jack tweaked and retrofitted the lyrics to Phil Ochs’s piercing protest song “In the Heat of the Summer,” adding, “Another black kid facedown in the road / whose life did not seem to matter,” and suddenly the half-century between the Harlem riots of 1964 and the Black Lives Matter movement crumbles into a single grain of sand. Sinéad O’Connor wrote “Black Boys On Mopeds” in 1983, after a young black man named Colin Roach was shot dead by British police and his killers were acquitted. As the song is beckoned back to life in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner’s deaths, we are chilled out of our self-congratulatory illusion of progress — however far we may have come, we have a long way to go.
There is a Victorian nursery rhyme, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” a phantasmagorical children’s poem by Eugene Field which was originally set to music by another family duo, Lucy and Carly Simon. There is country death song (“Louise”), a traditional Scottish lullaby (“Skye Boat Song”) about a journey to Amanda’s immigrant Grandmother’s Island of Origin, a modern-day gay rights anthem (“Glacier”), and an ode to simple and humble human connection (“I Love You So Much”) written by a hometown friend of Amanda’s. The songs are strung together by a connective thread woven of the old ideals of folk music — ideals about equality and love and human dignity, all the more urgent today if there is any hope to be had for our civil society and our inner lives.
When Amanda was nine months old, her parents’ separation brought her up to Boston and left Jack in New York City. There were short visits and school vacations and a somewhat reserved relationship; it wasn’t until Amanda was in her late twenties and touring solo, on her own terms, that music created a new connective tissue between father and daughter. They reentered each other’s lives through the gateway of cover songs; together, they played a Leonard Cohen tune (“Night Comes On”) at one of Amanda’s DC shows, and a year later, another one (“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”). So began — in 2009 — the tentative idea to record the songs for posterity. Finally, in 2015, Jack and Amanda walked into Dreamland Studio in rural upstate New York, recording for seven days straight. Those two Cohen songs didn’t make the list, but Jack suggested “You Got Me Singing” as a perfect statement to open the album.
“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger, that great patron saint of protest music once observed, and there was another link on the way– Amanda was seven months pregnant with her first child. These timeless and acutely timely songs became a soundtrack to Anthony-and-Ash-for-short’s final weeks in his mother’s womb.
What emerges is a record of searing tenderness and sorrowful optimism, harmonizing heartbreak and hope — for this particular father and daughter, and for the world itself. This collection of songs is an elegy in the proper sense — a dialogue between loss and celebration, reminding us what we so easily forget: that every life carries weight; that even the downtrodden and the dispossessed are animated by tremendous dignity; that life is not something that happens to us, much less something that has already happened to us, but something we actively construct and calibrate each day.
For a taste of the magic, here is a beautiful animated short film for one of the songs on the record, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, with art by David Mack:
Amanda’s work, like my own, is sustained by donations — so join me in supporting her life-giving art on on Patreon.
Published July 15, 2016