Lay Down Lay Down — The power of song lives on

Bryan Zepp Jamieson

January 26th 2024

The 1970s pop star Melanie passed away a few days ago, and while most of her songs were simple pop songs (“I’ve got a brand new key”) there was one she sang that hit me, and many other people, with a deep emotional impact.

In my case, it was because I completely misunderstood what the lyrics were about. She was singing about the Woodstock Festival. She sang,

Lay down, lay down

Lay it all down

Let your white birds smile up

At the ones who stand and frown

We were so close, there was no room

We bled inside each other’s wounds

We all had caught the same disease

And we all sang the songs of peace

Some came to sing, some came to pray

Some came to keep the dark away

So raise the candles high

Cause if you don’t we could stay black against the sky

Oh, raise them higher again

And if you do we could stay dry against the rain

My take on it was something much darker, much more tragic. In our schools, they taught about the Great Plagues that afflicted Europe in the middle ages. They taught about how the populace, frightened and horrified by the disease that killed members of nearly every family, felling them by the millions, saw the mysterious curse as something sent by Satan. When the waves of death arrived, packed faithful flocked by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands, in every chapel, church and cathedral. Inevitably, people who were infected but asymptomatic were in their numbers, and they created what today we call “super-spreader events.” Fleeing to the church “to keep the dark away” they “raised their candles high” beseeching God to protect them. And they died in the millions.

Read the lyrics above. Reflect on the mass deaths and privation that was a part of our history. My mistake wasn’t an unreasonable one. Melanie was singing about a peace festival. I was listening to a tale dark and tragic, expressed in tones of love and hope.

It made for an amazing song, one of those rarities that, when you hear it for the first time, decades later you remember exactly when and where you were when you heard it. Perhaps unwittingly, Melanie created a masterpiece.

Her death came only a few days after the passing of the creator of another such song, one just as powerful and memorable. Les McCann, however, knew exactly what he was doing when, together with Eddie Harris, he recorded what I consider the finest improv session piece ever. “Compared to What.”

Just the beginning rivets your attention:

I love the lie and lie the love

A-hangin’ on, we push and shove

Possession is the motivation

That is hangin’ up the God-damn nation

Looks like we always end up in a rut

Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?

It was a protest song, one of pure genius. It came out as Vietnam drew to its bloody and futile close, and captured the disaffection and despair Americans felt. “Have one doubt, they call it treason.”

(As usual, I’m listening to music as I write, and Greg Lake just asked me, “How did God lose six million Jews?”)

Protest songs have a way of staying in your memory in a way others can’t. I could talk about Bob Dylan, but that would make this piece at least three times as long. So I’ll mention just two others of extraordinary power: James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore.” And Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”

McMurtry’s country-tinged song is about the misery and loss the middle class and the poor have suffered in the bloody wake of “supply side economics” which translates to “Give the national wealth to the rich so they can afford to laugh at you.”

In the wake of the Dobbs decision by the vicious zealots of the Supreme Court, this stanza has a particular poignancy:

High school girl with a bourgeois dream

Just like the pictures in the magazine

She found on the floor of the laundromat

A woman with kids can forget all that

If she comes up pregnant what’ll she do

Forget the career, forget about school

Can she live on faith? live on hope?

High on Jesus or hooked on dope

When it’s way too late to just say no

You can’t make it here anymore

In the 14 states that have outlawed abortion, there were 68,000 pregnancies that resulted from rape. Fuck your morals, Supreme Court, and fuck the god you worship.

Eve of Destruction is nearly 60 years old, and after that vast span, remains amazingly timely. Unfortunately.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China

Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama

Ah, you may leave here, for four days in space

But when you return, it’s the same old place

The poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace

You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace

Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace

Substitute all the fascist dictatorships in Russia, in Hungary, in Turkey, even in Israel, for “Red China” and you’ve got today’s headlines. “Even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’.”

On a less gloomy note, there’s one song that is on my list of unforgettably powerful pieces for no other reason than that it is an absolutely beautiful song, soaring and inspiring. “Bratya” by Michiru Oshima, and performed (in Russian) by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. It comes from, of all places, a Japanese anime from the turn of the century: Full Metal Alchemist. The song was written specifically for the anime, and the English translation perfectly captures the profound tragedy of the youthful Edward and Alfonse Elric, crippled and unnatural due to their breaking the first law of alchemy and attempting to bring their dead mother back to life. It’s a dark and diabolical premise that makes this show one of the best animes made. And any anime where Oshima appears in the credits pretty much guarantees it will be something special. Soundtracks, even incidental music, can have powerful effects. This is, quite simply, a lovely song telling a story of tragedy and hope.

Steve Earle has written some of the most stunning songs around. You could call him a protest singer but only if you stipulate that his anger is more existential and less political. He challenges reality.

A long time ago before the ice and the snow

Giants walked this land each step they took

The mighty mountains shook and the trees took

A knee and the seas rolled in

Then one day they say the sky gave way

And death rained down, and made a terrible sound

There was fire everywhere and nothing was spared

That walked on the land or flew through the air

When all was over the slate wiped clean with a touch

There God stood and He saw it was good

And He said, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”

Just his album “Jerusalem” is one of the greatest gems around.

Obviously this list is personal, and I’m sure some of you are thinking, “That idiot. That song was dumb.” I could list a dozen others, including, yes, some songs that are dumb. Knew they were dumb when I first heard them, but they had a certain something…

As for whether I’m an idiot, well, be kind.

In any event, farewell, Melanie, and farewell, Les McCann. And thank you. You gifted us, not just with delightful songs, but cherished memories.

Links to the full lyrics are below, and all of the songs mentioned can be found on YouTube.




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