Thursday, December 13, 2012

To Tell a Story

This is the third time I have written this introduction. You see, I just couldn’t get down how I wanted to start this. Three hundred words erased twice over.

I didn’t need to tell you that. You expect this blog entry to be well-oiled, grammatically sound and competently manufactured and so obviously revision is involved. That’s the advantage of the printed word; it’s all tightened up. If I were to physically perform this essay—unscripted that is—it would not work at all. Even if everything I said was premeditated and written out on note cards it would not be the same as it is in this written blog.

I should add the disclaimer that I am not a great live storyteller. I don’t have the comedic timing and the prowess of descending revelation in my stories. In place of live storytelling I like to write stories out as if they are being told by me in person. This technique is one employed by one of my favorite songwriters, the great Bruce Springsteen, in one of his more recent songs, “Silver Palomino.” In this essay I will critique storytelling elements in this song including voice, language and expected audience. I will make judgments on whether or not Springsteen’s strategies are successful in telling us a strong story in the character he has created. And I promise you, no more of this essay will be about me.   

Do I even need to introduce Bruce Springsteen? No. Wiki him if you please. I will introduce the album Devils and Dust, on which “Silver Palomino” appears. Devils and Dust, released in 2005, is the thirteenth studio album and third “solo” album of Springsteen’s career. “Solo” means that the album was recorded without the E Street Band and features minimal instrumentation. Springsteen recorded the album after a successful five year reunion run with the E Street Band that included two high-profit tours and a successful studio album. Springsteen backs down the rock and brings in the folk with this album and it saw success in its own right. “Silver Palomino” is a song featuring Bruce on the acoustic guitar with a gentle string arrangement backing him. The vocals are not over-dubbed and they front all other sounds in the song and so mistakes and missed notes can be heard with ease—not that there are many. It’s a quiet song and rather short. There is a YouTube link to the song at the bottom of the page.
When we are about to read a story, the first thing we may want to discover is who is telling the story. In songs sometimes there is no actual storyteller; it’s just lyrics and you pump your first as the music plays. Rarely is this the case in Springsteen’s music. On the lyrics sheet, before the song begins, we receive a snippet of background. “A mother dies, leaving her young son to come to terms with the loss. In remembrance of Fiona Chappel, for her sons Tyler and Oliver.” These two sentences contradict each other, if only because one son is mentioned in the first sentence. The sentences do not immediately give us evidence as to who is telling the story, but the contradiction leads us to believe that the song is not specifically about the two sons. The first line of the song, “I was barely 13 years old,” describes a person, probably the son mentioned above, who is aged an unknown amount of years past the age of 13. The grammar in the song is off which could suggest that the storyteller is not that much older than 13, but he could also be an adult with poor grammar.

Both suggestions are logical and both may be partly true. I believe they are both true. I believe that this story is being told by a man looking back upon his life at the time of his mother’s death. He has adopted a child-like, nostalgic voice in the retelling of the story and this voice reveals an absence of self-consciousness in the narrator. The line “Me and my dad had to blowtorch the thorns off the prickly-pears” serves as evidence. Poor grammar aside, how about the usage of “prickly-pears”? Springsteen kindly defines “prickly pear” as being synonymous with “cactus” the bottom of the page. 

An adult may not wish a large amount of people know of his bad grammar and may be more conscious of the inclusion of Spanish words. There is much familiarity and the narrator does not seem to have a broad audience in mind for the tale. Who exactly is this story meant for?

That is a tough question to answer considering the amount of ambiguity of this piece. Even finding out where exactly this story takes place is tricky. We receive hints such as “she came out of the Guadalupe’s on a night so cold” and “Of the west Texas thunder roll” and many references to deserts. There is a Guadalupe County in south central Texas but the narrator is probably not referring to this.

The setting is a beautiful sketch, a panoramic vista of mountains, deserts, clear lakes of melted snow, and prairies. But even if we pinpoint that this story takes place in Texas there is something about the language that suggests that this is not a modern tale. There isn’t any concrete evidence to support this theory; it’s just a feeling. The narrator creates a mood of nostalgia and memory, almost to the point of stream-of-consciousness.

There is a blotting out a sense of time, doubtlessly created by Springsteen to make the piece universal and “lost in time” but the character of the narrator still seems to care little for providing background for us.

The naïve yet observing and yearning voice is seen well is the following passage:

            In my dreams bareback I ride
            Over the pradera low and wide
And a few lines later:

            I’d give my riata and spurs
            If I could be forever yours

Notice the shift in tense. The narrator does not say “I would have given my riata and spurs.” This narrator is clearly a man looking back at children, yes, as we discussed, but now we have next-to-concrete evidence that this man has seeped back into that mind of a child and is still yearning.

The shift in tense happens several times throughout the piece, notably in this line:

                       Tonight I wake early the sky is pearl, the stars aglow
            I saddle up my red roan
            I watch the silver palomino

The argument could be made that the man is now a ranger in adulthood and therefore he owns a riata or “rope” and I’ll oblige this argument, but the loss of a mother to a child is to freeze a part of that child in time forever. Even if the man is now in the present “[riding] deep into the mountains along a ridge of pale stone” it is still the child in him that yearns for his mother, the spirit of whom resides strong and living in the magnificent pale horse.

Perhaps I seemed to glide over the significance that the mother of the narrator is embodied or represented and reincarnated as a wild and beautiful horse, but that is the most concrete detail of this piece—and it may not be concrete at all—and the topic is beyond the scope of this essay.

The main purpose of this blog was to answer one question; who is the audience of this piece? Are we any closer to knowing this answer? No, it seems, but in that answer we see another. This piece isn’t for anyone. It’s a memory of a man, the tale of one who falls asleep in a memory returning him to youth, to a time of deep strife and wide opens prairies. It’s not as if we are not meant to hear the story, but it is so personal, perhaps too much so, and we should consider ourselves lucky to be a part of this ethereal tale.
By Matthew T. Bauman

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