25 Songs That Left A Dent

By Chris Keene - ckeene@persistence.com

I like to sing. I'm not a pro, not a pathetic drunken karaoke howler, just a guy who picks up a guitar and belts one out every now and then. All my most important songs are songs I sing, or wish I could sing. They are songs that collided with me, picked me up by the scruff of the neck and demanded something, sometimes even settling for just an idiotic grin (see first selection).

1. Feelin' Groovy - Simon and Garfunkel

That critical initial pick - honesty or hipness; the ironic self of today or the blissfully unhip self of yesterday? Even the name of the song contains painful yester-words, bringing back even more painful pseudo-musical experiences with pseudo-bands like the Partridge Family. So be it. This was the first song I really played well on my guitar, it stands proud and archaic at the top of my list.

2. River of Love - T Bone Burnett

The song I sang to get back the girl. It is the only time I can remember when one song literally changed my life. Although singing it didn't keep her from leaving me during that particular altercation, it did set a hook which eventually brought about a long-term, more or less intact, reconciliation "it starts when the heart gets broken in two, from the thief of belief in anything that's true, but there's a river of love, that runs through all time."

3. Hey Little Guy - Steve Earle (Guitar Town)

One of those pre and post songs. I liked it pre-kids, but after singing it almost every night for three years to my two boys, it just oozed into the fabric of my life. It's hard to tell where this song ends and my love for my boys begins. "Go to sleep little rock-n-roller, your daddy's gonna knock em all dead tonight, one of these days, when you're a little older, you can ride the big bus, everything will be all right."

4. Fire and Rain - James Taylor

This is another stridently uncool song. Only when my dad died and I needed to sing a song at his funeral, I was supposed to sing Turn, Turn, Turn, but my brain just blanked when I tried to play it. After a few moments, my brain rebooted, and this was what popped out - my dad's favorite song. "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought I'd see you again."

5. Joan of Arc - Jennifer Warnes/Leonard Cohen (Famous Blue Raincoat)

Not just another beautiful duet, this song removes all oxygen from the room and demands immediate and undivided attention. Could anyone person really be that good? Are most other people always that bad? Jennifer is Joan of Arc on the barbque, Leonard croaks out the role of fire, "and finally, she understood, if I was fire, oh, she must be wood."

6. Walking on Sunshine - Go Gos.

Our first wedding dance song has to be on the list, even if I picked it because the wedding band butchered all the slow songs on their demo tape. Contains a perfect encapsulation of pop philosophy, "I used to think maybe you loved me, now know that it's true."

7. Deportee - Woody Guthrie

"This machine kills fascists" was inscribed on Woody's guitar. He believed - maybe more than any other songwriter - that writing a song could change the world. Because he believed, his songs really do go on changing the world, one person at a time. "Who are these people all scattered like dry leaves, the radio said they were just deportees."

8. Fisherman's Blues - Waterboys

As long as there are drunken Irishman wailing for all the lost could have beens, I'll be queuing up at the record counter to buy their CDs. "I wish I were a brakeman, on a Herkley-Healan train, crashing into the heartland, like a cannonball in the rain... with light in my head, and you in my arms."

9. Silver Dagger - Joan Baez

Just another folkie, just another woman done wrong, just achingly beautiful. OK, maybe folk music has created more its fair share of overly emotional kum-bay-yah moments, but its intentions were at least pure. "Go court another tender maiden, and hope that she will be your wife, for I've been warned, and I've decided, to live alone, all of my life."

10. Walking on a Wire - Richard and Linda Thompson (Shoot out the lights)

The most famous musically recorded breakup in pop history. What happens when two incredibly gifted musicians who happen to be married to each other decide to call it quits? "I wish I could please you tonight, but my medicine just won't come out right."

11. Sweet Jane - Cowboy Junkies (Trinity Sessions/Lou Reed)

Amazing what a lot of atmospheric reverb and a decent voice does for Lou Reed's moody song. The Cowboy Junkies recorded a bunch of Hank Williams covers in an echoing church and produced one heck of a record.

12. You Are The Light - Lone Justice

Maybe the essence of pop is a fleeting song from an ephemeral group that have sunk below the surface of popular culture but left behind this gem of a song.

13. Entella Hotel - Peter Case

Peter Case went from being the front man of the popular punk group "The Plimsouls" to being another one of those obscure heros of the American folk tradition. "You check into your room in the Entella Hotel, get used to the gloom and the smell…"

14. Wrecking Ball - Emmylou Harris (Neil Young)

Emmylou, Emmylou, Emmylou. Where to begin? The initial partnership with Gram Parsons (who helped the Rolling Stones write "Wild Horses", the beautiful country albums with the perfect voice. With "Wrecking Ball", Emmylou stopped singing other people's songs and started writing her own. It turns out she has a lot to say.

15. Downtown Train - Everything But The Girl (Acoustic/Tom Waits)

Tom has a personally unhealthy but artistically provident addiction to New Jersey girls. Everything But The Girl performs a perfect acoustic cover. Was it right for me to teach a four year old the words "You raise your hands and they scatter like crows, they have nothing that can capture your heart. They're just the thorns without the rose, but be careful of them in the dark"? I'll let you know in ten years.

16. Witch of the Westmereland - Stan Rogers (Between the Breaks Live)

Stan Rogers is an obscure Canadian tenor from Newfoundland who brought songs from hundreds of years ago to life. "Pale was the wounded knight, who bore the Rowan shield. Loud and cruel were the raven's cries that feasted on the field."

17. World Inside The World - Rhett Miller

Any song that quotes Don Dilillo deserves a listen. Rhett Miller was the primal force behind the Old 97s who has struck out successfully on his own. "And if love is all we're made of, then what are we afraid of, just 'cause freedom rings, it doesn't mean we're free."

18. Four Strong Winds - Ian & Sylvia

This was the song that I could listen to my parents sing forever. When I went to the Bridge Concert in 2003, Neil Young told a story about listening to this story on the jukebox every night when he was getting started as a musician. "Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run wild. All those things that don't change, come what may."

19. Hansel & Gretel - Laurie Anderson

The only real humorist in rock. "Hansel and Gretel are alive and well, and they're living in Berlin. She is a cocktail waitress, he had a part in a Fassbinder film."

20. New Favorite - Allison Kraus.

Sings like a skylark, plays a mean fiddle. Somehow, despite all efforts of LA and Nashville to supress anything good in music, the good stuff still breaks through with some regularity. "New Favorite, they all say it. I'll say it too - you've got a new favorite."

21. Caroline No - Beach Boys

Written for Carol King, showing that the musical world is even smaller than the real world. Poses the eternal loss of innocence question, "Where did your long hair go, where is the girl I used to know, when did you lose that happy glow - oh Caroline no"

22. Cheer Up, Honey I Hope You Can - Wilco (Hotel Yankee Foxtrot)

With a title this gloomy, you know the song is not going to make anyone feel better.

23. Side of the Road - Lucinda Williams

Another gem on the challenge of relationships - "I want to know you're there but I want to be alone."

24. The Tower of Learning - Rufus Wainwright

Yes, he can be a bit precious, but his songs have aspirations of grandeur that are altogether lacking in most popular music. "I've seen it in your eyes, what I'm looking for."

25. Sliding Delta - Doc Watson

I can't play half as easy or sound one tenth as good as Doc and his son Merle pickin' along together. What do they sing about? Life, relationships, hope:

"Slidin' Delta, run right by my door, gonna leave here honey, don't you want to go?
Easy rider, see what you done done, you made me love you, now you're on the run.
No, no baby, things ain't quite that way, old trouble's found me, you know I can't stay."

Copyright 2005 Christopher Keene

A long, long time ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile -Don McClean

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