This week’s Free Ride* celebrates the music of Emmylou Harris, who turns 64 today. She is one of my all-time favorite singers, with a distinctive voice that could sing the names in a phone book and make it sound like roots music. Whether it’s folk or traditional country or bluegrass or gospel, she knows how to create a unique sound while staying true to the genre.
I love hearing Emmylou live; she has a spirit that soars and invites the audience to take flight with her. Two songs in particular from her 30 years of recording speak to this idea of taking wing, and the longed-for freedom found in such a flight. The first is My Songbird from the 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and the second is Sailing Around the Room from the 2008 album All I Intended to Be. Brian Ahern produced both these projects (the first while they were married, the second as her ex), giving them his stamp of authentic old school country. Jesse Winchester’s poetic lyrics on My Songbird provide the perfect Emmylou vehicle:
Songbird in a golden cage, she’d prefer the blue
How I crave the liquor of her song
Poor bird who has done no harm
What harm could she do?
She shall be my prisoner her life long
My songbird wants her freedom
Now don’t you think I know
But I can’t find it in myself
To let my songbird go
Then, 20 years later, Emmylou co-wrote Sailing Around the Room with the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna. She said that inspiration for the song came from events surrounding the 2005 death of Terri Schiavo. Harris told an interviewer that she found the public tug-of-war over Schiavo’s life an intrusive tragedy. I was really proud of the American public, she told the interviewer. They drew a line in the sand and said, “Get out of our bedroom; get out of our deathbed.” The song imagines Terri Schiavo’s perspective and the hope of liberation from that tug-of-war:
The two songs together make for an interesting look at the tension between freedom and control in our culture. And there are few people I’d rather hear sing about that tension than Emmylou. She is a songbird set free, and her voice frequently sails around my room.
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different artist or song each week and muses on lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.