I frequent the same coffee shop every morning on my way to work. This addiction means I’ve developed a rapport with the staff, particularly a young kid from Mexico City who has an earnest sweetness to him. This morning, the morning after Father’s Day, he asked me “Did you call your Dad this weekend?” I replied, with an uncomfortable chuckle, “Uh huh, no. I didn’t. My Dad’s dead,” as I scurried to the other end of the bar and away from the eager customer behind me, jonesing for java on a Monday morn. When I turned the same question on him he told me he didn’t know his father. Never did.
I bid him good day, and walked out to my car. Sliding into the driver seat of the VW my Dad posthumously purchased for me, I took a moment. I set my latte down, tossed my piece of illicit crumb cake onto the passneger seat, and rummaged for a CD from the glove compartment to realign my professional comportment. Fish, fish fish and found it–Anais Mitchell’sYoung Man in America.
I forwarded through to Track 6, “He Did,” which accompanies this post in video form despite it delivering no video (not my preference, but it’ll do the job in a pinch). I default to music in times of (let’s say) stress without a second thought, as compulsory as an irregular heartbeat, because music makes memory move and marks moments; it heals through submersion since feelings felt fully are the ones that will eventually form a scab. While it probably made other customers uncomfortable, the exchange with my beloved barrista reminded me that while the void is very deep, still, in spite of passing years, at least there is a hole to fill. A path to find. A row to hoe. And an empty page to fill. It reminded me of how it feels to be my father’s daughter, alive like this.
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.