Songwriting and Gratitude
Have you ever heard Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning?” If not, please stop reading and find it on youtube, now, a version performed by Thompson. His northern British, full throttle voice and guitar genius combine with poetry to make, I think, one of the greatest folk songs ever written. A few days before Thanksgiving this past week, after putting the chords together, I began singing Thompsons’ lyrics over and over, and then another song came out of me; one about my mother. Here’s how it happened.
“Red Molly,” the love interest in Thompson’s tune, joins protagonist “James” on the back of his 1952 Vincent motorcycle, and James’ dreams have somehow been realized, briefly. It seems he cannot imagine anything else that will make life more vivid than the combination of this young woman riding his beloved bike with him. After playing the song a few times, the image of Red Molly’s locks stuck with me, and I began writing my own tune:
“Slow down you little redheaded girl. There’ll be plenty of mountains to climb.
Is your hand in your pocket, are the pebbles still there? The red ones you found the last time, . . . .”
My mother was never a redhead. But captured by Thompson’s vision, I remembered a photo of my mom when she was impossibly young, maybe two or three. She’s in a large field (or yard) standing before the camera, her blonde hair curly and free, her face saying “This is the place to be RIGHT NOW, outside with ME!”
Her family of 11 people (sometimes 12 when a grandfather retired with them) would know food insecurity for years during the first decade or so after the Great Depression when recovery for the working class was slow. I imagined Thompson’s James came from similar struggles. A vigorously Catholic family on both sides, my mother’s large group of siblings would be educated for free by the local parochial school. But that didn’t solve the problem of feeding 11 to 12 people a day and her stories of scarcity weighed on me as a child myself. At one point in the song I reference my uncles who as adolescents collected empty beer bottles for change to boost the family coffers. Still, in that black and white photo of her, where she claims her life so unabashedly, I found a relief that let me believe that at one point, at least, my mother had enough of something as a girl, whether it was joy, attention, food or fresh air.
As I began writing this song, it immediately became a chronology of verses: toddler, grade schooler, young woman, mother, grandmother. And the writing let me memorialize a contradiction of sorts that speaks to the marvelous nature of the human spirit. My mom did something outrageous as a pious young women fresh out of high school in the 1950’s. She applied to be a stewardess with the Trans World Atlantic airlines (TWA) and moved to New York City. She was indeed slim and beautiful as was the requirement then, as well as prim and very Catholic. At a crucial moment in her life, she chose to act, to pursue her dream. She left her hometown and her own mother.
My own song tells the story of generational cycles and choices as well as the peace my mom knows now at 83 and seeing her grandchildren enter their teens and twenties. Despite hardships, from childhood poverty to raising a large family of her own with an active alcoholic partner for many years, the circle of life itself has been plenty to satisfy her in the end. Her love of her children, her husband and her grandchildren fill her with gratitude, and she gives thanks to her God for those gifts every day. By example she has taught me that gratitude is a crucial gift to give oneself; the daily counting of blessings, large and small. Whether it’s music, food, family, or a slick motorcycle, the thanks for your blessings can provide comfort enough. And the vision of the young girl lives on in those blessings.
I will post a recording of this song here soon. So stay tuned, stay well and stay grateful!