Sometimes, when she rode MUNI on her way to work in early morning fog, she imagined the opening credits of a biopic based on her life and with what they would be soundtracked. If this thought struck her just as the train jumped in to/out of the Sunset Tunnel, the song that picked it’s place was always “Crowd the Pine”.
My obsession this week, Anais Mitchell, is redolent with reference so let’s get some things out of the way here. Mitchell’s father, Don Mitchell, authored the 1970s psych-paperback Thumb Tripping which was heralded as “the new novel that says all there is to say about the Marijuana Society.” Don named his daughter Anais, for Anais Nin–best remembered as an evocative diarist whose brief affair with Henry Miller is the stuff of literary dreams, and less well known as a major influence in my collegiate early-twenties existence. This already looks promising, doesn’t it?
Beginning in 2006, songs came forth from Anais Mitchell that fully formed as a folk opera titled Hadestown based on the mythical tale of Orpheus. Teaming up with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, indie icon Ani DiFranco, and A Prairie Home Companion alum Greg Brown, the tale of Orpheus becomes accessible through song much like Shakespeare was more easily understood from the lips of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes under direction of Baz Luhrmann. As a whole, this 2010 album is mesmerizing: enthralling in its epic proportions (to use the term “epic” correctly, for a change). Yet, individual songs are able to stand alone on their own merit and are equally enjoyable in their solitude–songs such as the soothing introductory track, “Wedding Song” (which pairs Mitchell with Vernon), and the knee-slappin’ hullabaloo of “Way Down Hadestwon” (which features DiFranco). My favorite singular, however, is “Why We Build The Wall” with Brown as Hades. Brown’s voice is simply unforgettable in its theatricality and paired with Mitchell’s Depression-Era aura this song takes on greater import as a discussion of poverty and privilege that finds relevance in a discussion of any epoch but is certainly present-prescient.
Mitchell’s other music is equally well-written, and steeped in American hunger. Her albums The Brightness and Young Man In America are easy to drink in, down to every last drop–that voice driving you to drink in all the more. This is a woman to take note of, so raise your pen and find paper.
Death creates a sense of manic urgency when it invades, when cemeteries cease to be abstractions and become home to ones you love. Every twitch of sinew is weighted with importance. Waste not, regret not for tomorrow is uncertain; It is No longer guaranteed.
This makes you a martyr fallen on the blade of memory. But only you will know and this is the cross that you will bear. To want so desperately to make your name, but stay exactly as you were when he last saw you should he be fumbling in the dark to find his way back home.
This is your darkest secret. It is the steam that holds the air and surrounds you. Because an “I” has meaning only where a “Thou” is granted; where there is no Alter an Ego cannot be.