Thursday, July 19, 2012

On "Indian Summer"

After the oral surgery i got to spend some quality time with Dirt Floor, all Vicodin-ed up. From the moment i first heard "Indian Summer", i knew i was listening to what would be one of my all-time favorite Whitley songs. In retrospect, it seems to epitomize Dirt Floor more than any other track (including the title track), deeply soulful and full-on, painful blues. I figure there are folks who would argue with me on this. 

But i did call my brother James after i sent him a copy and asked him what his favorite track was and -- without hesitation -- he responded "Indian Summer". Other artists have done very cool covers of this song but not enough of them, i think. This has got to be one of Chris' best ever.

So the song is obviously about poverty and homelessness. If you have bootlegs of live Whitley shows -- or review the scant live recordings on YouTube of Chris performing this song (at last count n=1, sigh) -- you will always hear him introducing the song as about living in poverty. 

Musically, the first thing that strikes me is the raspy growl of the National Triolian that shows up in so many of Chris' songs, here tuned E-B-E-G#-B-E (also, incidentally, the tuning used in "As Flat As The Earth" and "Home is Where You Get Across").

What i love about this song (and really all of Whitley's slide tunes), is that he builds up to slide use, which has this feeling of releasing tension (e.g., at 37 seconds into the original track, everything before that point is fretted). The slide creates a sonic profile similar to the human voice in that it is not constrained to discrete fretted notes, but (like bending a note) covers a greater range. 

Some blues theorists claim that this is why it is so appropriate (e.g. in delta blues) for the style -- it most closely follows the human voice, and can create a sonic profile that provokes a very strong emotional response in listeners (i have been moved to tears on a number of occasions just listening to Chris' slide work, so anecdotally, i think the theorists are on to something).

Listen at :43 in to the bending of the note just before Chris brings his slide to the strings, it is a very Whitley nuance. I will have to start listening for precedents to this in the old blues recordings. It is extremely subtle but creates this nice rolling transition from fretted note to slide.

The very brief pause at 1:07 in the original, intentional or not, serves as a musical punctuation to me, as if to communicate that the next verse is particularly important, so pay attention. I love this pause.

I think of all the guitar solo slide work Chris does, the solo on "Indian Summer" is the most expressive (though certainly not the most technically complicated -- Whitley can get positively pyrotechnic at times, e.g. as on his live versions of "Pint of Lotion" and his cover of "Hellhound On My Trail"). The vibrato on the slide arpeggio at 2:10 gives me goosebumps every time i hear it. At 2:17 the punctuated slide up reminds me of a plaintive call to the listener ("are you paying attention?"), as though you might not have caught the message of the first bar of the solo. 

At 2:22 you hear a very distinctive arpeggiated chord that is pure Chris Whitley (you hear this chord pattern in many other Whitley songs) and then at 2:27 it is as though the solo just runs out of steam. This feels appropriate to me -- like running out of things to say (and the energy to say them) is fully in line with the theme of the song. 

The solo is the voice of impoverished subject of the song, and it pulls your heart out with it.

The lyrics present the plight of a homeless person. 

I pray into the distance
Let me out of these heavy clothes, I'm beggin'
creates an image that Whitley invokes in many of his songs, the wish to die rather than endure the suffering of this life ("Soon I'm gonna lose these rags and run ..." [Wild Country], "Just lay me out, in my birthday shirt" [Made From Dirt]). In fact, the image of being naked -- as a metaphor for authenticity and impermanence -- comes up again and again in Whitley's lyrics (more on Whitley and impermanence later).

So hard to get warm now
It's so easy to get burned
So an Indian Summer then is a reprieve from the cold, a temporary escape that inevitably yields to winter.

Communion at the station
For a million grinding gears

Love this lyric. I think of homeless people outside a train station. Gears and mechanical imagery run deep in Whitley's lyrics ("Gasket", "New Machine", "Border Town" etc.). They seem to represent what is impersonal, mechanical, not human, but present a fascinating order and capability that inspires both fear and awe.

This song also reminds me of "Dislocation Blues":
Where does a heretic call home?
I imagine Chris felt this way, like a heretic, in the sense that his lyrics pointed at a very unconventional spirituality (to say nothing of his unconventional musical style). 

So the heretic is homeless, too. 

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