Junebug versus Hurricane

She’s Got To Be

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

July 2011

When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  The queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the image

the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve always had but never clearly felt or understood.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything I need it to be: an anthem about losing gracefully.   It is resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.


Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt and Aural Terroir

Elena Glasberg

Two girls singing along to the radio, that American jukebox from before the music industry broke down to alt. country, Emmylou Harris’ niche market.  In the time after “race records” but way before itunes, the radio connected a nation in sound and could inspire two girls to sing along – and to imagine a life beyond their “red dirt town.”  But just you try singing along with “Red Dirt Girl,” and you’ll find that the electronica beat joined by the guitar and then Harris’ sweet voice is deceptively simple.  The lyrics — about a doomed girl named Lillian, who “never got any further across the line than Meridian” — come crowding, relentless and yet achingly slow as grief.

It makes sense that the narrative line of “Red Dirt Girl” is driven, as precisely plotted as a road map.  Harris says the lyrics came to her while she was driving – a road sign for Meridian started her thinking of rhymes.  Lillian/ Meridian, the sounds mixing deep in the red dirt of the border between Alabama and Mississippi.  Fixed as this aural geography may be, it also echoes out across the “great big world” Lillian once dreamed of.  Meridian, Mississippi, like Lillian, also once aspired to a greater world.  During the town’s glory days before WWII, the Mobile and Ohio rail lines intersected there.  Jimmie Rogers, “the singing brakeman” left Amtrak for country music greatness.  But since those days, Meridian’s fortunes, like Lillian’s, “keep on falling/ there ain’t no bottom, there aint no end.”

Meridian, as the name itself suggests, is an in-between state; it’s a place to pass over and like Lillian’s story, it is easily passed over.  It’s the place in-between the wars, in between dirt and sky, earthly blues and gospel’s “joyful sound.”  Even today Meridian has among its foreclosed farmland and dying downtown, a church for every 200 inhabitants.  Jimmie Rodgers’s lonesome yodeling and the whistle of a locomotive still ring through the air.  The red dirt still stains the land; it is a form of terroir — a fancy French term for the trace of origins.  We can taste the red dirt in the “off,” or dissonant, rhymes that Harris thought up that day on the road: Lillian/ meridian.  Alabama/ hammer.  And, Girl/ world – the song’s central dissonance: how to tell a story about a life that isn’t supposed to matter.

“There won’t be a mention in the news of the world/ about the life and death of a red dirt girl.”  But every packed line connects Lillian’s life to the greater world.  Her brother’s “fixin’ up a ’49 Indian” hints at the violent appropriation and pathetic failure of southern whites with little money or prospects wanting to “ride to the moon and back again” on an old fantasy of Native freedom – but all he gets is a trip to Viet Nam.  When the “telegram come” it’s only to tell of the death that predicts Lillian’s own, on the very red dirt from whence she sprang.

Given her losses and sense of entrapment, is it any wonder that Lillian wants to “swing that hammer down”?  Foreign wars and domestic misery – the way that meth labs sprout now in places like Meridian like weeds on abandoned train trestles – resolve when Lillian “laid her hammer down/ without a sound.”  Like John Henry, she too gave up her struggle for significance: “Stars still fell on Alabama/ the night she finally laid that hammer down.”  That hammer, beating you down and beating you up, like the steady beat under the song, still sounds through Johnny Mercer’s “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a hit in 1934, when Meridian still passed as a vital crossroads.  All these times and roads, gentleness and violence intersect in the red dirt, the aural terroir of a lost life that tears at gospel sureties and connects to a relentless, “great big world.”

Red Dirt to Red Dirt: Emmylou’s Ode to Joy and Despair

Taylor Black

Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl” from her 2000 album of the same name is a perfect song.  Like any good work of folk music, the song tells the story of people who don’t matter living in towns that no one knows about.  However, this piece is also country and southern gothic down to its core, as Emmylou ruminates on failure and sings the song of sadness.  There’s a beat that begins even before the song itself commences.  It’s a hammer: the same one we sung about in “If I Had a Hammer,” the same one that made and broke poor old John Henry.  In Emmylou’s song she gives a eulogy for a woman she imagines living down in Meridian, stuck in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go.  She’s a well-meaning woman with well-meant hopes and dreams of getting out of her hometown, who ends up swinging her hammer right back down in the same red dirt ground she came from.  That same simple, yet insistent, beat that began the song turns into a story, a death, a part of history for this red dirt girl.

Emmylou’s version of Lillian’s life makes elegant what is so terrible about the myth of success for those of us born to fail.  You see, there are two kinds of red dirt girls: there’s the one who gets out of Meridian—Emmylou, in this case—and the one who, like Lillian, in spite of themselves and their efforts, has nowhere else to go.  However bleak her future was sure to be, Lillian was able to romance the possibility of success for a certain amount of time in her life, wishing and hoping for a way out of Meridian: “She said there’s not much hope for a red dirt girl//somewhere out there is a great big world//that’s where I’m bound//And the stars might fall on Alabama//But one of these days I’m gonna swing my hammer down//Away from this red dirt town//I’m gonna make a joyful sound.”

Those “joyful sounds” of Lillian’s life are textured over the beat of the hammer, as it hammers away at and through the song and the story.  As opposed to the simple, confident beat, the words Emmylou uses as she sings about Lillian are complex, overwrought and almost too much to cram into the melody they create.  However, Emmylou manages to fit it all in beautifully, poetically and almost magically.  Likewise, Lillian’s attempts at overcoming her position in life—“her joyful sounds”—seems to cast a spell over her condition.  While the beat of the hammer begins, drives and ends the song itself, the sound of Lillian’s life, of her failure, of her desires, is represented by the sound of her quiet failure—of her hammer hitting the ground without a sound, but with some kind of resounding beauty.

All of the noisy fantasies that inspired Lillian’s mundane life before her future became known to her, before it became the past, ended up only representing something like an ontological blues, which, as Emmylou tells us, “keep on falling because there ain’t no bottom//there ain’t no end//at least not for Lillian.”  For Emmylou’s audience, or at least for me, there’s beautiful irony in Lillian’s attempts at optimism and hopefulness.   Even before the song admits it to us, Lillian’s fate seems sealed; as Emmylou puts it, she’s bound to die just as isolated and alien as she was born.  There’ll be no news about Lillian in The News of the World, and that’s what makes the song tragic like any country song ought to be, but also important as a work of folk music for eulogizing a life that doesn’t matter.

The tragedy for Lillian, however, is not so much that she doesn’t matter—the song is a living testament to her.  The problem is all the joyful noise that she hoped would one day grant her wishes of success outside of her predetermined position right there in the middle of Alabama.  What Emmylou does so well in this song is to take these sounds and transform them into something else, something more important and transcendent than quotidian desires.  Emmylou’s voice, Lillian’s memory and “Red Dirt Girl” itself each cast their own spells.  Emmylou sings about tragedy only in order to inspire.  You don’t sing to die, you sing because you’re not dead.