Monday, April 9, 2012

Grand Optimist

Okay, I will confess, I am obsessed with a song. I have listened to it dozens of times in the last few days. Ever since I saw it performed on the Juno Awards I have been obsessed with Dallas Green's song, "The Grand Optimist." Dallas Green who performs as "City and Colour" won the songwriter of the year award for work on the "Little Hell" recording. Here are the lyrics to "The Grand Optimist." Listen to it here.
I fear I'm dying from complications
Complications due to things that I've left undone
That all my debts will be left unpaid
Feel like a cripple without a cane
I'm like a jack of all trades
Who's a master of none

Then there's my father
He's always looking on the bright side
Saying things like "Son, life just ain't that hard."
He is the grand optimist
I am the world's poor pessimist
You give him burdensome times
And he will escape unscarred

I guess I take after my mother
I guess I take after my mother

I used to be quite resilient
Gain no strength from counting the beads on a rosary
Now the wound has begun to turn
Another lesson that has gone unlearned
But this is not a cry for pity or for sympathy

I guess I take after my mother
I guess I take after my mother
(2011, City and Colour Inc. Under Exclusive License to Dine Alone Music - CA) 
As I read the words of this song my heart immediately began to make some interpretations. My mind sees allusions and references to generations and societal influences and begins to paint a picture of what the artist is saying. We must interpret a song carefully, but at the end of the day the song speaks to us with the images it conjures in our minds. Brian Walsh, who wrote an entire book in which he interprets the songs of Bruce Cockburn, has this to say about interpreting songs:
Let me put it this way: while I wouldn't give the artist the final word on any matter of interpretation of his own work, I am interested in knowing what I can about what the artist might think about a piece of his own work. So yes, the artist has some interpretive authority over his work. But not final or exhaustive authority. Artists can say more than they mean. They can make allusions without intending to do so. But the allusions are "really there!" Or at least they are there if you have eyes to see.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that "anything goes" when it comes to my interpretations of Bruce Cockburn's songs. Any interpretation needs to have merit in relation to the work being interpreted. Interpretation needs to be faithful to the art under discussion. We could say that interpretation itself is an act of performance.*

The images conjured in my mind as I listen to "The Grand Optimist" are those of generational differences. I think of the differences between my father and myself. I think of the differences between my children and myself. I think of more general societal differences between the modernist generations and the post-modernist generations. I think of gender differences.

The father and son are quite different. The son is full of fear and worry. He worries about things that may never happen and, at one level, may not matter. The father is stoic and remains unbothered by difficult times. The singer speaks of how his father is an optimist and that if "you  give him burdensome times" "he will escape unscarred." But not so the singer. One senses that, for good or ill, he is scarred by burdensome times. In this regard, he does not take after his father; he takes after his mother. He and his mother are both scarred. Should one be scarred by "burdensome times?" We are left with that question. Perhaps every generation takes after their mother rather than their father.

The artist recognizes a change in himself. He "used to be quite resilient." He did not need rosary beads to gain strength. But now, his wound, that will eventually scar, "has begun to turn;" perhaps fester; perhaps hurt; and so the lessons go unlearned. Yet, there is a hardness in him, for he will not cry out "for pity or for sympathy." He sees his wounds and his scars; he sees the difficult times; but he internalizes the pain and will not let others see this pain. And so, with or without a rosary, he will cry out to no one. He has learned how to hold things in and bear up under such conditions; he takes after his mother.



*Walsh, Brian J. Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011, p. 32.

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