By MARIANNE WORTHINGTON
One of the most memorable phrases from director Milos Forman’s fictional biography about Mozart (Amadeus, 1984), is spoken by Mozart’s nemesis and rival composer Antonio Salieri. Describing Mozart’s perfect compositions, Salieri says: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”
While it may seem far-fetched to compare Mozart to Mississippi-born folksinger Caroline Herring, the analogy holds. The music and lyrics of Herring’s fourth CD release, Golden Apples of the Sun, like Mozart’s music, captivates and converts us. And, like Mozart, with each hearing listeners will discover more complexities and connections in the delicate but precisely placed bricks and mortar of Herring’s musical structures.
Caroline Herring’s newest CD project is an ordered, cohesive musical whole, rife with stunning images, elegant folk melodies and universal themes that resonate with listeners. Most amazing, perhaps, is that these effects were achieved mostly live with Herring’s solo voice and versatile guitar playing, and an occasional instrumentation by her producer David Goodrich.
Herring begins with “Tales of the Islander,” a ballad about American artist Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), who spent most of his artistic life on the waters near Horn Island along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Herring re-imagines Anderson’s life as an eccentric, prolific wildlife artist, planning his escape from a hospital (“tied some sheets together / crawled down and was on my way”) so he can “take to the water” where the birds and waves are calling to him. Herring’s rolling guitar picking mimics the skiff on the water while bell-like piano notes descend as tenderly as birds from the sky.
“Tales of the Islander” sets the theme for the rest of the album. Herring has said she wanted Golden Apples of the Sun to reflect “a constant theme of nature as sacred, nature as illuminating,” and certainly that theme is evident, but it is the collective human quest, the journey—movement and searching and longing—that marks nearly every song on this CD.
Take “The Dozens,” for instance, a song written in tribute to the influential cultural historian and teacher Larry Levine. How he must have inspired his students to social justice and intellectual opening is obvious, and the singer understands the cultural game of “the dozens” on an intellectual level. She sings:
Tell me a little joke
Let’s play the dozens
Say something about my mama
In a veiled quadrille round
But the game only results in more searching, “more questions I never knew to ask:”
I’m just a white girl
from a segregated town
And I’m looking for some answers
That I haven’t found
Or, take “Abuelita,” where the singer pursues ancestral connections with her mysterious grandmother despite her family’s discouragement (“They won’t tell me about you / They don’t want me to see”). Sustained by Spanish-style rhythms and guitar arpeggios, the singer traces the connections anyway:
But I feel something rising
Up through me like a song
It’s fragile and lovely
It’s powerful and strong . . .
Abuelita, you’re just like me
Or, listen to “A Little Bit of Mercy,” with its driving beat, infectious refrain and gorgeous self-harmonies. The singer celebrates home and heritage while longing to see the wider world. “Let us breathe in mountains,” she calls, “Breathe out sun / For ourselves and this race we run.” The refrain illuminates the second theme pulsing through this project: mercy, or the human need to give and to receive grace especially when it is unearned or when we can only do “the best that we can.”
The original compositions on Golden Apples of the Sun are dazzling, but Herring’s cover versions are just as impressive. She reworks “True Colors,” a song made popular by Cyndi Lauper in the mid-1980s. With its low register guitars and fast-tremolo vocals, Herring’s version is deepened into a mercy-filled anthem. She also changes the melody on “Long Black Veil,” a big hit for Lefty Frizzell in 1959. The modal tuning, the droning of the diddly bo and the addition of a ghostly chorus gives new life to this contemporary murder ballad. Herring’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” is one of the more memorable songs on the CD. It’s a true homage to Mitchell. We never forget it’s a Joni Mitchell song with its complex guitar and vocal acrobatics (which Herring handles with such ease), and many listeners of a certain age will be reminded how much we relied on and needed Joni Mitchell in our youth.
“The Wild Rose,” the last song on Golden Apples, is fashioned from poems by Wendell Berry (“The Wild Rose”) and Pablo Neruda (“The Light Wraps You”). Accompanied only by austere piano, the song resonates musically because it is so intimate. “The Wild Rose” could be a hymn, a Stephen Foster song or even a German art song (Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” comes to mind). Whatever it is, “The Wild Rose” is familiar and provides a fitting blessing on the musical rooms Herring has built on this CD.
We need to be giving Golden Apples of the Sun to each other for Christmas and beyond. Caroline Herring’s musical and lyrical gifts are too bountiful not to share with each other.
Marianne Worthington, of Williamsburg, Kentucky, is the author of Larger Bodies Than Mine (Finishing Line, 2006) and editor of Motif: Writing by Ear, An Anthology of Writings about Music (MotesBooks, 2009).