The music of Iris Dement

Last Sunday I caught an NPR interview with one of today’s finest country and folk music artists, Iris Dement.  Her music is not as well known as it should be, though it has been featured on several notable TV shows and movies.

I first heard Dement’s music in the final scene of the final episode of my favorite TV show of the 90’s, Northern Exposure.  The song, “Our Town,” from her first album Infamous Angel 1992, illustrates one constant in her work, an unflinching look at the losses and longings that permeate our lives.

And you know the sun’s settin’ fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
‘Cause your heart’s bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can’t you see the sun’s settin’ down on our town, on our town,

In the NPR interview, Dement said that for her, singing is prayer, and two other songs on Infamous Angel reflect the range of her spirituality.  The album’s title song is about redemption, imagined from the perspective of her evangelical upbringing, while “Let the Mystery Be” opened the soundtrack of Little Buddha 1993.

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Dement’s second album, My Life, 1994, won a grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.  The liner notes explain why it’s dedicated to her father who had been a fiddler but stopped playing after he was “saved.”  Young Iris was fascinated by the dusty violin case in the back of the closet and one day mustered the courage to ask her father to play a song.  He looked at her and at at the violin for a very long long time before picking the instrument up.  The few bars he played gave his daughter permission.  “No Time to Cry,” is her song about his passing.

Also notable on My Life is “Sweet is the Melody,” a beautiful song and fine expression of the nature of the creative process:

Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by
It’s so hard to make every note bend just right
You lay down the hours and leave not one trace
But a tune for the dancing is there in it’s place

Dement appears in Songcatcher 2000, a movie about an early 20th century musicologist collecting Scots-Irish ballads in the Appalachians.  She sings “Pretty Saro,” an expression of American roots music that parallels her own search for musical authenticity. Her most recent film credit is True Grit, 2010, where her version of the classic hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays at the end of the movie.  You can watch a clip in my review of the movie:

The recent NPR interview follows the release of Dement’s fourth album, Sing the Delta, a reference to the Arkansas Delta where she was born.  She discusses the importance of her Pentecostal upbringing.  As the youngest of 14 children, she sang in the church choir and took her faith seriously as an adolescent.  Losing that faith as an adult is reflected in her new song, “The night I learned how not to pray,” yet Dement emphasizes her gratitude for what she was taught as a child, saying it gave her a message “about what’s going on underneath the waters of life.  My parents just gave me a gift I can’t even put a figure on.”

Though she left the beliefs that sustained her youth, Dement relates a lesson she learned from her mother, “My mom, who sang straight up until the day she died, told me one day: ‘You know, Iris, singing is praying and praying is singing. There ain’t no difference.’ So I think, even though I’ve left the church and moved away from a lot of the things that didn’t do me any good, I continued to pray — and that is singing for me.”

You won’t find music more sincere or heartfelt than this.

More on the Brothers Grimm bicentennial

Earlier this month, I posted a piece on the 200th anniversary of first edition of the Brothers Grimm’s collection of German fairytales:

Yesterday the Sacramento Bee printed an article on this treasure trove of folklore and some of the worldwide activities the bicentennial has inspired (“The Grimm brothers from many angles,” by Jan Ferris Heenan,

Of particular interest is the publication of a new collection, The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Harvard professor, Maria Tatar. At $35, it’s not cheap, but since I don’t do Playstation and Christmas is coming up…

In the 45 years after 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published six more editions which were eventually translated into more than 160 languages. In the Bee article, Jan Heenan explains that the Grimm brother’s motivation was partly political – Napoleon had conquered the German states and the Grimms sought to preserve something “authentically German.” They also understood the irreversible changes taking place because of industrialization. Farms, towns, and forests, the birthplace of traditional tales for millennia, were emptying out as economic change drove people into cities and factories.

“These stories were the television and pornography of an earlier age,” said author John Updike, and the summaries of earlier versions of the tales makes this clear. Rapunzel got pregnant, the stepmother wanted to eat Snow White’s liver and lungs, and in some versions, Red Riding Hood disrobes for the wolf. Not the stuff of Disney, but according to Maria Tartar, the originals offer something more important for adults:

“These are stories that show you no matter how bad it is…if you use your wit and have courage, you can get back home again. Even if we know in the real world that you don’t always survive, these are the stories that tell you…you do have a chance.”

Tartar’s book is the new number one on my wish list.

Alternate futures

Last night, I gave up five innings of the Giants National League pennant victory to watch the presidential debate.

I sacrificed the five run 3d inning in hopes of hearing the candidates answer a single question that moderator, Bob Shieffer, asked about 40 minutes in:  “What is your vision of America’s place in the world?”

Seconds later, a voice-over interrupted with tornado warnings for several counties north of here.  By the time it ended, the candidates were talking about the economy.  I waited for Shieffer to lead them back to the question he’d asked, but it never happened.  Same old, same old, I guess – the same dysfunctional vision I wrote about in January, in a post called, “Sabre-rattling over oil:  better get used to it.”

This was the first of several posts about the ideas of Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, West Point graduate, and currently a professor of History and International Relations at Boston University.  Like George McGovern, the first man I ever voted for as president, who died earlier this month, Bacevich is a warrior who hates warfare.

Sen. George McGovern (1922-2012) flew 35 bombing missions over Germany in WWII and ran for president in 1972 on a peace in Vietnam platform.

Bacevich pulls no punches in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (reviewed here

Rereading key passages recently, Bacevich’s anger became even more apparent – the anger of a patriot who sees his country sliding down a slippery slope to disaster.  His core thesis is that in turning away from President Carter’s 1980 call for energy independence – never mind the lip-service it gets every four years – the United States has squandered lives and wealth in a hopeless series of wars aimed at compelling the rest of the world to play by our economic rules:

“For the United States the pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence – on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit.  The chief desire of the American people, whether they admit it or not, is that nothing should disrupt their access to those goods, oil, and credit…The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse at home…and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.”

Bacevich argues that the status quo benefits those in power in Washington:

“…rather than addressing the problem of dependence, members of our political class seem hell-bent on exacerbating the problem…To hard-core nationalists and neoconservatives, the acceptance of limits suggests retrenchment or irreversible decline.  In fact, the reverse is true.  Acknowledging the limits of American power is a precondition for stanching the losses of recent decades and for preserving the hard-won gains of earlier generations going back to the founding of the Republic.”

In a 2008 interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich said, “I happen to define myself as a conservative,” yet when you read his prescription for addressing the ills he enumerates, they parallel those of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president. Moyers interviewed Stein on September 7:

Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate

Dr. Stein graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School, and has specialized in environmental health.  She got her start in politics with a successful effort to pass a referendum to reform election spending in Massachusetts.  Reality set in when the Democratically controlled legislature overturned the people’s will in an unrecorded vote.

Both mainstream presidential candidates refer to their “plans” to create jobs, though they haven’t offered specifics.  Stein has a plan too:  cut defense spending in half and use the money to fund a “Green WPA” which would train and employ many of those now unemployed to work toward true energy independence.

In a 2008 interview with Moyers, Bacevich answered the obvious objection that cutting defense spending would jeopardize national security.  Those persons and groups that wish us harm are ““akin to a criminal conspiracy…Rooting out and destroying the conspiracy is primarily the responsibility of organizations like the FBI, and of our intelligence community, backed up at times by Special Operations Forces.  That doesn’t require invading and occupying countries.”  Events last year proved him correct.


What chance do ideas like these have of making it into the mainstream?  Little or none at present, but I don’t think that is the point.  Ideas rooted in reality can be seeds that sprout over time.  The first Earth Day was a peripheral event, but it has picked up momentum every since.

Bacevich repeatedly stresses that not all limits are bad, and despite the title of his book, affirms that he does believe in American exceptionalism  “if American exceptionalism implies that there are certain qualities that make the United States of America a special place, a wonderful place– a place worthy of a patriot’s love.”

In the course of their critiques, both Bacevich and Stein affirm that it’s love of country and citizens that motivates their efforts to change what’s broken.

After all, what other nation on earth could have invented the World Series?

Stories, Dreams, Politics, and Baseball

Yesterday, I struck up a conversation with another San Francisco Giants fan about the possible conflict between the National League Championship Series and Monday’s Presidential Debate.  The Giants are down three games to two.  If they pull off a win tonight, the final game will be Monday.

Later, considering which program I want to watch vs. the one I should watch, I thought of how clear it’s become to me that this election is not about the candidates themselves, but about the visions, or perhaps more accurately, the stories about America they embody.  Most people seem less than thrilled by the candidates themselves, but everyone takes the stories seriously.

A high school history teacher planted the seeds of this understanding decades ago.  At the time of another presidential election, he suggested that most voters are swayed by an image of times past, a story of “the good old days,” which probably never existed.  He argued that the imagination of the conservatives of his day echoed the television show, Bonanza.

The Cartwrights (l-r), Adam, Little Joe, Ben, and Hoss. Public domain.

Ben Cartwright and his three sons carved a fine spread out of the wilderness – they did it on their own, by the sweat of their own brows, thank you very much.  The only hint of government was the Virginia City sheriff, and generally the Cartwrights told him what to do and not vice versa.

In a similar manner, liberals dream of Kennedy’s “Camelot” and its precursor, The New Deal.  For the generation that came of age during The Great Society and the War on Poverty, “less government” is a codeword for Charles Dickens’ London: “Are there no prisions?  Are there no workhouses?”

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want. Public domain.

And whenever you hear a politician of any persuasion invoke “family values,” you can bet their story embodies the world of Norman Rockwell.  Anyone grow up in a family like this?

Norman Rockwell mural. Public domain, courtesy Oregon Historical County Records Guide.

We’re dealing with powerful stuff here – nothing drives us more than our dreams, which means we need to be careful.  I liked Bonanza and still enjoy Norman Rockwell, but I try not to bring them into the voting booth.  Kids learn how to separate dreams from the world of make-believe:  they know that “I want to be a doctor” is different from “I want to fly like Super-man.”  What kids know, politicians seem to forget.

Tomorrow night, the presidential candidates are scheduled to discuss “foreign policy.”  Webster’s Dictionary defines policy as, “1.  wise, expedient, or prudent conduct or management.  2. a principle, plan, or course of action, as pursued by a government, organization, or individual, etc.

I expect to hear a story that goes like this:  “We are number one and if you want to keep it that way, vote for me.”  I’m not so sure we’ll hear much about policy, aka, “wise, expedient, or prudent conduct or management.”  For that we often have to look to outsiders.

I’ve done precisely that over the last few months, and was startled to find a clear and feasible foreign policy articulated with very similar features from both a liberal and a conservative point of view.  There’s a beautiful story in there too, one involving national renewal through shared effort and dedication.  A dream, to be sure, but it doesn’t require Superman.  This will be the topic of a post in the coming week.

Meanwhile, though I’ll be watching the debate, I’ll have my phone set to the instant scoreboard app.  “The Giants are number one,” is a dream that could happen, but if Superman is listening, we’re not above asking for help!

*** Update, Sunday Night ***

The Giants won, 6-1, so there will be a game 7!

Njal’s Saga, part 3

Gunnar looks back at his home, 1898 illustration. Public domain.

In order to follow this discussion, it will help if you’ve read two earlier posts:

  1. Njal’s Saga, an Introduction:
  2. Njal’s Saga, part 2:

Scholars suggest that the author wove together two separate stories, an oral “Gunnar’s Saga,” and a related but distinct, “Njal’s Saga.”  Both men die during attacks on their homes.  Historically 18 years passed between the events; Gunnar died in 992 and Njal around 1010.  In the last third of the saga, Njal’s son-in-law, Kari, mounts a campaign of revenge against the killers which threatens the stability of the nation.  A pitched battle breaks out at the Althing, the National Assembly, which was sacred ground where fighting was forbidden.  When reconciliation finally comes, it signifies the dawn of new vision of life and its purpose.

Once the saga gets going, certain scenes come alive like movies – I know there’s a screenplay here…


Soon after Gunnar and Hallgerd were married, they attended a feast with Njal and his wife, Bergthora.  In no time, the two women were at each other’s throat.  The insults grew so extreme that Gunnar dragged Hallgerd out of the hall. Soon after that, she had one of Bergthora’s slaves killed.  Bergthora paid her back in kind, initiating a feud that escalated and took the life of free retainers and then kinsmen on both sides.

The killings took place while the husbands were at the Althing which  convened for two weeks every summer.  Aside from social activities, this was the time for legal action on matters the lower courts couldn’t settle.  It was also where “compensation” for killings was determined.

If you killed a man, even in self defense, you confessed it in front of witnesses.  A hidden killing was treated as murder and could result in exile for life.  A killing confessed was manslaughter and terms of compensation could be set:  a slave was worth seven ounces of silver, a freeman fifteen, and a kinsman as much as 200.  It may seem cold, but the system was designed to break the cycles of revenge that the old ethic of “honor” and blood retribution entailed.

Gunnar and Njal tried to keep up with the legalities of the killings-for-hire their wives initiated, but it became harder as stakes were raised.  Each killing drew more people, bound by family and friendship, into the feud.  Into this deadly mix came Mord Valgardsson, son of Unn,  who despised Gunnar and Njal.

If Hallgerd spawned chaos and harm, she did so in a half-unconscious manner.  She was reactive, without clear designs or premeditation.  Mord, by contrast, was cunning, able to weave elaborate snares for his enemies.  Our tour leader, Robert Willhelm, pointed out the similarity of Mord’s name to Mordred, King Arthur’s  son and nemesis.

During a famine, Hallgerd sent a servant to steal food from a man who refused to sell any to her husband.  When Gunnar, with his concept of honor, discovered the theft, he slaped his wife, who had already buried two husbands who hit her.  Hallgerd warned Gunnar that she would never forget the blow.

Njal prophesied that if Gunnar killed two members of the same family and broke the legal settlement for the killings, he would die soon after.  Through trickery, Mord ensured that Gunnar killed the son of a man he’d already slain.  In addition to a financial settlement for the killing, the Althing court sentenced Gunnar to three years in exile.

In one of the most poignant scenes, as Gunnar and his brother rode to the harbor, Gunnar’s horse slipped while fording a river.  Springing off the horse, Gunnar looked back at his farm and said, “Lovely is the hillside – never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.”

That autumn, Mord sent word that Gunnar was home alone and 40 of his enemies mounted an attack.  Firing arrows from the second floor, Gunnar killed two assailants and wounded eight.  Then a man named Thorbrand got close enough to cut Gunnar’s bowstring.

Gunnar defending his home, 1898. Public domain.

Gunnar turned to his wife and asked for two strands of her waist length hair for a new bowstring. Hallgerd said, “Does anything depend on it?”

“My life depends on it,” Gunnar said, “for they’ll never be able to get me as long as I can use my bow.”

“Then I’ll recall,” she said, “the slap you gave me, and I don’t care whether you hold out for a long or short time.”

Gunnar wounded eight more attackers before he finally fell, exhausted and wounded in fifteen places.  One of the attackers said, “His defense will be remembered as long as this land is lived in.”

Gunnar’s mother was ready to kill Hallgerd who fled the house.  Gunnar’s friends raised a burial mound, and one night, as two of Njal’s sons passed by, they saw the mound open.  Four lights shone and cast no shadows.  The brothers heard Gunnar’s spirt sounding content as it spoke skaldic verse.


Gunnar embodied the old warrior ideal of life and death with honor that won you a place in Valhalla.  The dark side of this ethos was an unending string of killings that threatened the nation itself.  Things were about to change.  Shortly after Gunnar’s death, a Christian missionary named Thangbrand arrived in Iceland.  He wasn’t the sort of evangelist you want on your doorstep, since he carried a crucifix in one hand and a sword in the other and didn’t much care which he used.

One autumn morning, as Thangbrand celebrated mass, a man named Hall of Sida approached.  “In whose memory are you celebrating this day?” he asked.

“The angel Michael’s,” Thangbrand said.

“What features does this angel have?”  Hall asked.

“Many,” said Thanbrand.  “He weighs everything that you do, both good and evil, and he is so merciful that he gives more weight to what is well done.”

Hall said, “I would like to have him for my friend.”

With his openness to new ideas and the simple way he voices his spiritual longing, Hall becomes the first convert.  In 999 or 1000, the Althing declared Christianity to be the new religion.  Mord continued to work behind the scenes fomenting trouble for Njal and his sons, and around the year 1010, 100 armed men attacked Njal’s home and burned it, with him and most of his family inside.  Only Kari of Orkney, Njal’s son in law, escaped.  He raised a force to attack the burners, and at the next Althing, when the retribution process broke down, a pitched battle erupted at Thingvellir, the spiritual heart of the nation.

Battle at Thingvellir. Public domain.

During a lull in the fighting, members of the assembly intervened to arrange a truce.  Hall of Sida stood between the combatants and said, “All men know what sorrow the death of my son Ljot has brought me.  Many will expect payment for his life will be higher than for the others who have died here.  But for the sake of a settlement I’m willing to let my son like without compensation, and what’s more, offer both pledges and peace to my adversaries.”

Things have changed.  A few decades earlier, such a statement would have cost Hall his honor, but the saga says that when he sat down, “much good was spoken about his words, and everybody praised his goodwill.”

The combatants submitted to judgement.  Cash payments were levied as well as three years exile from Iceland for the combatants.  During the exile, they slew each other in Orkney and along the coast of Ireland, but finally, when the leaders returned to Iceland, they pledged friendship to each other.  The old ways had cost too much in blood and suffering.  The survivors had no stomach for anymore fighting.  The saga ends with a sense that a new wind was blowing through the land.

Next:  reflections on the story.

Two hundred years of The Brothers Grimm

Statue of The Brother’s Grimm, Hanau Germany, by Syrius Eberle, 1895-96. CC-by-SA-3.0

In honor of the bicentennial of Children’s Household Tales (1812) by the Brothers Grimm, the University of Florida presents Grimmfest this month and next.  The university is home to the Baldwin Collection of Historical Children’s Literature, which features 2500 digitized children’s texts and a virtual exhibition of 19th century children’s book covers.

The Grimmfest page,, has links to other fairytale resources, including related contemporary books and movies.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1865 cover. Public domain.

“Traditional fairy tales have their roots in our oldest stories, in myths and legends, in those primal tales that were formed when human beings first began to speak…However we may wish to define fairy tales, they remain an inescapable part of our psyches and our cultures.  They are why we celebrate the underdog, and secretly acknowledge “The Ugly Duckling” as our own autobiography.  Through their flights of fantasy, fairy tales set us free to seek our happiness, to follow our bliss — if only for the few minutes we are enfolded in a particular tale.”

This is a marvelous resource for anyone wishing to delve into the roots of the stories we love.

Skalholt, Iceland

The view out my window is Skalholt Cathedal and this reconstructed chapel which is part of an archeological dig at one of Iceland’s key historical sites.  On the horizon behind the chapel likes Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.  In the middle ages, Europeans called it the Gateway to Hell.  Hekla last erupted in February, 2000, but with luck, it will continue to sleep through the rest of the week.

Mary and I are here for a different type of archeology – a dig into an ancient tradition of story.  We are here with three other storytellers to explore Njal’s Saga, the account of a feud with tragic consequences, not unlike the American tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  In both cases, events are based in history; we’re visiting some of the key locations mentioned in the saga.  Njal was shaped by an anonymous author into the masterpiece of a unique tradition that influenced Tolkien, among others.

Meeting of the continents: the North American tectonic plate (left) meets the Euro-Asian plate at Thingvellir, Iceland.

This week of the equinox, the temperature drops to freezing at night, but the guesthouse where we are staying is warmed by geothermal energy, by water bubbling up from hot springs that is shipped through pipes to cities and settlements throughout the island. Iceland is 99% energy independent.

I’ll have more to reflect on in future posts, but meanwhile it is seven hours later than west coast time – tomorrow is almost here, so it’s time to log out.  Please enjoy your week and stay tuned for future posts.

Nerds with time on their hands: The Popinator

The Popinator prototype – under development at Popcorn Indiana

An article in the Huffington Post food section puts it like this: “The problem with popcorn these days, is that it doesn’t pop directly into your mouth as nature intended.”

No more! Intrepid engineers at Popcorn Indiana have a working prototype of a voice activated popcorn cannon that calculates the trajectory to your mouth and launches a kernel when you say, “Pop.”

I am seriously encouraged by the Popinator.  Who says America has lost its edge?  Creativity, engineering prowess, and humor – a potent combination!