Oh, I must give some credit for inspiration – this post from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) discussing a book about trees called Old Growth, about how trees do everything, including living and dying, on a very different timescale from us humans.
And thanks to my daughter for letting me use her Sirius Black bobblehead, and my brother for the gift of the Ukrainian nesting doll many years ago. They were very cooperative film stars.
I remember my grandmother and the laundry on the line But I feel it like a story from another space and time Oh the sweet sting in the memories of the days we’ve left behind Gone forever, come back never, nevermore
There goes the me I used to be Here comes the one I’m setting free All of this time it’s up to me to live with me In peace
There’s a country undiscovered in each other who I meet You’re a universe of wonders and you share this air I breathe It’s a language only you know but I’ll listen when you speak You mean more to me than anything you say
There goes the you I thought I knew Here is the you I’m talking to All of this time I’m only taking in a glimpse Of you
I go dreaming with the trees while they are dying by degrees Round my feet I feel their children rising up from broken seeds Taking root, spreading out, bright sky, dark ground Changing ever and forever, evermore
There goes the world we used to know Here comes the one we’re making now All of this time it’s up to us to live with us In love
My great-grandfather Gus Dominguez was born to parents who had emigrated to the US from Cuba and Germany. Gus spent a decade in a Brooklyn orphanage and then part of his teenage years living on the streets. His daughter, my grandmother Hazel, had given me a copy of a typewritten transcript of some of his memories of those years, as told by him. I kept this transcript in a notebook and recently pulled it out to read to my children. I had remembered there were some pretty colorful moments in the story and thought they’d be interested to hear it.
After that reread I thought it would make a pretty good folk ballad, so that’s what I did for my song last week. I sat with Gus’s story and rhymed it into a song, trying to keep it as faithful to his telling (in content, style and wording) as possible.
Nathan generously contributed several hours of work adding guitar and drum tracks to help keep this long song musically interesting.
And I spent lots of time perusing the Internet for photos of 1900s Brooklyn and Philadelphia. And cats and cigar stores and saloons. This was such a fascinating way to feel more connected to my great-grandfather and the time and place in which he grew up. Many of the photos I found were from a book published by Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, called How the Other Half Lives. The typewritten words are from photos I took of the transcript my grandmother gave me. Incidentally, I learned that she was named Hazel after Gus’s sister Hazel (unnamed but mentioned in his memoir), who died from the 1918 flu, shortly before Gus’s daughter, my grandmother Hazel, was born.
Uncle Frank has a lot of nerve Coming to see me after all these years Since he turned us all out of his home And left us at the Home of Saint John
We weren’t even Catholic till he sent us there To keep four kids out of his hair I used to be Lutheran, not that it matters I’m just a poor boy, beaten and battered
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
The laundry man took me when I was sixteen I saw he had four kids and seen what it’d mean To stay there washing all day and all night Keeping those children all in my sight
Laundry Man Laundry Man
So I went tramping alone on the streets Looking for food and a place to sleep I saw a stable and found nearby A covered wagon with blankets inside
So that’s where I slept, at the Navy Street gate Where I seen a man with a familiar face A sergeant Marine who was my brother Fred He took me on board and made sure I was fed
Brother Fred Brother Fred
I still had no room so I asked around And worked for a lady hauling milk around town It didn’t pay cash but I got a home And two meals a day and she got me some clothes
But then she took sick and she closed up shop And once again I was out of luck She gave me two dollars so I could eat And I headed back out on the Brooklyn streets
Brooklyn Streets Brooklyn Streets
I slept in hallways, got up at sunrise, Found some meals for a decent price My two dollars lasted for six more days I kept looking for any kind of work that pays
Inside a saloon on Fulton Street Was a lunch laid out with so much to eat I looked at that lunch, hungry as a bull Dreaming of feeling my belly full
The bartender said you look half-starved Help yourself, I thanked my lucky stars Twenty customers watched me eat Threw coins in my hat till I had tears on my cheeks
Kind Strangers Kind Strangers
They gave me eight dollars ten cents and their smiles And told me where I could live on that for a while Twenty-five cents for a night of sleep In a sailor’s flophouse on Tremont Street
Then a man took me in and I worked for his brother Scraping rusty pipes, sealing ships’ boilers It was dirty work but a decent life Till he came home drunk and started beating his wife
I tried to butt in and he smacked my face So I knew I had to get out of that place Next time he got drunk and beat her again I picked up his poor cat, and threw it at his head
Out the window went the poor cat I ran away and never looked back I’m sorry for the cat, I don’t know how it did But I had to leave if I wanted to live
Poor Cat Poor Cat
I found a good job as a captain’s boy The storms were rough but I was employed Near the Cuban coast I got drunk with a friend The captain hit me hard and said my job had to end
At least they paid me – forty dollars I was a rich man, I went to the track My bet paid off, I bought some new clothes Worked for a while as a stable hand
I started to look for the other kids Searching through all the Dominguezes I found the school where my sister was And that she was being well taken care of
I rented a room on Navy Street And then one day who should I meet My old man himself, waiting for me I greeted him as if he hadn’t left me
He asked me to go with him to PA Said he’d explain it all on the way He’d married again, had two more kids And changed his name cause of something he did
I said, what did you do? Did you kill or steal? Then he told me a story and it was all real He got engaged and then changed his mind Cause he’d found out she was the high-flying kind
She didn’t want to let him go But he didn’t want to keep her and so He threw acid in her face So now the police were on the chase
He changed his name to Frank Hidalgo And from now on I should call him Uncle
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
He ran a cigar shop in Philadelphia My brother Fred came in and recognized him Fred sailed right at him, cussing and mad Frank ducked behind the counter and I got bashed
Then Fred started crying and I tried to explain But he just left and didn’t come back again
Brother Fred Brother Fred
I finally found Charlie, my other brother Through an ad in the New York newspaper He came to Philadelphia, turned out alright, And then our house caught fire one night
And who do you think started that fire? Yeah you got it right – that cowardly liar A lighted cigar, a hall filled with clothes Good old Uncle Frank, right on the nose
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
My mother died when I was six This story shows how dear a mother is
I got Nathan to play along on this one so it’s officially a Cabin of Love song! And just indulged in old romantic movie scenes for the video. Sabrina, The Philadelphia Story, and Roman Holiday are the movies these snippets came from.
Let’s pretend that we’re all alone And there’s nothing to see on our shiny phones And the children have all gone to bed And there’s visions of each other dancing in our heads
And we know just what to do And we feel a love so true And the stars are shining bright On this perfect pretend night Buh duh duh dum bah bah bah dum
You go first and I’ll follow you To the ends of the earth in these dancing shoes That we’re making believe are on our feet While we’re moving to a rhythm oh so slow and sweet
And we know just what to do . . .
Who cares the weather or how we feel This is our secret world and we make it real So let there be light in each other’s eyes And magical nights under black velvet skies
You wouldn’t know it from these song lyrics, but I have been in a good mood on this beautiful day all day today. Maybe that’s the best way to write sad songs. Not that this is necessarily a sad song. I’m not really sure. I sat at the piano and came up with this chord progression and rhythm and really liked it because I was hoping to write an upbeat song and this felt like the right musical direction for that.
Ah but then the lyrics, which tumbled out while I mostly watched (or that’s what it felt like). They were even darker at first and I honestly wrestled with whether I should allow such a song to exist. Initially, the last little chorus went like this – “I’m dying, dying, living alone / Goodbye, I’m leaving, there’s nobody home.” (I know!!)
I’m truly mystified when a song like this writes itself so effortlessly. I wonder, is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Is this song speaking someone else’s pain and it’s important for me to give voice to that? Because I truly was not feeling this way today, nor have I been in quite a while.
In my writing process I often record a voice memo of each iteration of the song, then play it back to myself so I can experience it as a listener. It was in the playback that I felt confident that my first version of that last chorus was just too maudlin/sentimental/melodramatic.
And so we ended up here, and I still don’t feel like I know much about this song’s meaning, cerebrally. I certainly can feel that it gives out vibes of loneliness and vulnerability and maybe even hope and tenderness. Might come back to this one in the future after it’s had some time to settle. I always enjoy hearing how a song hits someone else, so feel free to tell me in the comments.
I tried to call you but nobody answered and that’s how it’s been for a while So I went out walking and looking for somebody else who could lend me a smile
But no one, no one, no one was there There was no one, no one, no one around
I wanted to tell you that I’m fairly certain that everything’s falling apart The walls are all cracked and there’s holes in the curtains so they just can’t keep out the dark
And no one, no one, no one is here Here is no one, not a soul to be found
No one just wants to be alone And live their life in nobody’s home
Funny, I didn’t post my song for week 37 of #songaweek2021 on my blog, but that one is called “No One. But You” because the prompt for that week was “no one but you” and I thought I’d be clever with it. Now I have another “No One” song that I like better but of course it’s not so light and bouncy. Here’s “No One. But You,” just for the record (at least until I have to remove it to make space for newer songs on my free Soundcloud account ;):
When the dust settles, when the smoke clears When you and I are all gone from here Will there be songs left for someone to sing When you and I are all gone from here? When you and I are all gone from here?
Do not rush Hush, hush You are free deep down free Wind is breathing in your soul
Here is joy steel-toed joy Patience too embracing you Music courses through your veins