Joe Henry’s “The Gospel According to Water”; and Judee Sill

Twitter’s home page lists some motivations for becoming part of its domain: “Join the conversation.” But what if you are the subject of conversations, and have been “enjoined” as such?

And then it hit me: the canonical is that which cannot opt out of the literary conversation. At this point, Emily Dickinson cannot choose to not to be talked about.

Sometimes the conversation is about one’s influences, and sometimes it’s about those whose work you have influenced. (“A writer who does not teach other writers teaches no one.” — Walter Benjamin)

In reading Jon Pareles’s article on Joe Henry’s new album, “The Gospel According to Water,” a familiar aggregation assembles: Bob Dylan, Wallace Stevens, Tom Waits, John Prine, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, Buckminster Fuller, Randy Newman, James Joyce, Langston Hughes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thelonious Monk, John Cage, Elvis Costello, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Charles, Lucinda Williams, Robbie Robertson, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Woodie Guthrie, T. Bone Burnette, Billy Strayhorn, Lonnie Johnson, and Rosanne Cash.

Aspirations to be as good as one’s models only infrequently achieve work halfway as distinct, but in this case I don’t think anyone should be surprised at the quality of the lyric quoted from Henry’s song, “The Fact of Love.”

But isn’t the point of a meaningful conversation to invoke a name that isn’t being spoken of that often? I wish, therefore, this morning to urge all of you to give a listen to Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.” Many, many years ago, when I was younger than my age hinted at, I saw her perform one evening, solo, on a piano, at the Church in the Ocean Park. It was one of the most inspiring performances by a singer-songwriter I have ever had the good fortune to be in the audience for: a small audience for an artist marked by Fate to stop singing far sooner than her admirers wanted her to.

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