1500 Words on the Circus, Cueball's Pool Hall, and Hearing Yourself Sing.
On Friday, the Englishman and I were waiting on the roofer to give forth on the water trickling down our upstairs bedroom wall. While we waited, we played three games of pool – I lost all the games – and listened to the soundtrack for “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” on vinyl. It turned out the roofer liked that soundtrack too, and this gave us confidence in him despite the shocking revelations about our chimney pots and cowls. After he left, I continued to loose at pool and we switched to Bruce Springsteen. I said, “Do we have that record with that circus song?” And the Englishman rustled around in our vinyl collection and put the record on our hi-fi which is not only a hi-fi system, but “a nice piece of furniture,” according to the late sixties brochure which came with it at the auction.
“That circus song.” Do you remember Bruce Springsteen’s circus song? Though I’d been listening to Bruce via my parents since I was a toddler, I’d never heard his circus song until last year. It was then that a long-time fan made a disparaging remark about “The Oxygen Girl” and the “novelty song” – meaning my circus song. I personally don’t have a problem with novelty songs and I know all of the words to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Punky’s Dilemma.”What’s wrong with “Wish I was an English muffin, ‘bout to make the most out of a toaster. I’d ease myself down, coming up brown.” I never would have wondered so much about boysenberries without that song in my childhood and boysenberries seem a tame obsession for a thirteen year old girl given the other options . . . In fact, I may just make buttons that say, "Citizens for Boysenberry Jam" which perfectly defines the political chaos . . . . back to circuses.
But there I was, last year, confronted with a fan who regarded “The Oxygen Girl” as a frivolous and annoying novelty song. What did circuses have to do with Jewell Ridge anyway? So, I was feeling a bit raw when the Englishman said, “All the great songwriters have circus songs. Do you know this one?” And then he queued up Bruce Springsteen singing “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” which begins, “The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave.” Since that night, this has become my favorite Bruce Springsteen song. This is not only because this song was played for me in a gesture of romantic heroism, but also because there’s a tuba and an accordion in the arrangement – two of my favorite instruments. And it’s about the circus.
When I was a kid I loved the circus. Even though Mom and Dad were broke, they somehow got tickets through their offices or cereal box tops or radio contests, I don’t know. And there we were, eating cotton candy, watching women in sequined dresses spin from ropes of silk between their teeth. All of the animal stuff has changed at circuses now and that’s how the world spins, but that’s where we saw elephants and tigers and bears. The trapeze. The trapeze. The trapeze. Women with feathers in their hair, balancing on the backs of horses. The knife-thrower. The fire-eaters.
My great-great grandmother’s sister ran away with the circus. I’ve been trying to write a song about her for years. I woke up at 4:30 last night with some new version of that song about her in my head again.
Maybe it’s a thing with us performing songwriters – that yen for the big-top moment. Isn’t that what we want our audiences to feel – the way that I did at the circus when I was ten – transfixed, transformed, jubilant, and defiantly hopeful?
When I started performing professionally, I had been singing all of my life, but suddenly I worried that I was meant to have some kind of distinctive voice – some kind of tone. This resulted in some odd unreleased recordings of me sounding like Ralph Stanley. But little by little, I let go of this worry and just sang – sang like I was sitting next to Mawmaw at the Friendly Chapel Church or next to my Dad when he got out his harmonica and guitar at Christmas. But even after making eight records, I couldn’t say what my personal distinctive Jeni “sound” was. You all have kindly described my voice to me in terrific comments and questions after concerts, but I couldn’t quite hear “the Jeni voice” in my own head.
That changed the other night when I sang “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” The Englishman, being a longtime Bruce Springsteen fanatic knew the melody far better than I did, so he began teaching it to me. After singing along with him, and the both of us singing along with Bruce, I said, “Let me see if I can do this first verse on my own.” So, I started singing and maybe because Bruce’s voice is so different than mine, maybe because it’s normally a rock song, maybe because I’ve been doing more sewing than singing over the last few weeks, my voice announced itself distinctively as my own – a little folk, a little mountain country, certain words that slide here and there, notes between notes, and a wrapping of words around lines.
The Englishman laughed with astonishment to hear one of his longtime favorite songs sung in an entirely un-Springsteen voice. He loved it. I surprised myself. We sang it again and again until our stomachs reminded us that some supper would be nice.
Dad always heard my voice. He made a study of it which wasn’t difficult for him since my voice is part his voice. The last time he saw me perform – at Merlefestin North Carolina – which was the first place I felt being a singer-songwriter was the life for me, he mouthed all of the words to the songs AND the stories in exactly my rhythm. He knew what I was going to say before I did.
I think a lot of you heard my voice before I did and so many of you have encouraged and galvanized me over the last ten years of my professional touring career. You’ve done this through coming to shows, buying CDs, hosting shows, sending me cards, letters, emails, Facebook messages, calling on the telephone, and being a group of a few thousand people who together make an audience, a fan club, a family, and a congregation of sorts.
I used to talk with my Dad nearly every day. When I called him, our conversation would go like this:
How are you?
I’m so good I can hardly stand myself.
That was Dad.
Other times he would pretend that he was a guy named Cueball who ran a pool hall and then he would pretend that he would have to go look for my father.
My point is that it’s been a really crazy year in the world. Things seem very hard and confusing and downright mean sometimes. I rarely comment on any of this in these newsletters or on social media because what can I say but that the world seems to be falling apart a lot of the time. On the other hand, I have felt tremendously loved this year. I’ve made some extremely talented and some truly good friends. I’ve traveled and returned home safely. I can still hear the voice of my grandmother in Jewell Ridge on the other end of the phone. My sister is making theater. My Mom sent me a photo of our family cat talking on FaceTime with me.
Sometimes, I just feel like making politicians learn the banjo to distract them from messing up the world, and other times, at the end of the day, I feel so good I can hardly stand myself.
I hope that you will give yourself a chance to hear your own voice, to sing a new song, to laugh in the face of chaos, to show kindness, to dare to write a circus song, and to pretend you are in Cueball’s pool hall with Dad, eating peanuts and drinking Rolling Rock Beer. I’m going to head over there now, order a tonic water and some salt & vinegar crisps, and put “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” on the jukebox. I hope in 2019 you will feel transfixed, transformed, jubilant, and defiantly hopeful – like I felt at the circus when I was ten.
Next year, 2019, will mark my second decade as a touring artist! If you’d like to see me in concert next year, please write to me with your house concert or local venue or festival ideas!
First Concert of 2019
I'll be in the states for the first part of 2019 and I'm tickled that the folks from the Huntsville Assistance Program (HAP) in Huntsville, Alabama, have asked me along to play a benefit concert. Saturday, January 26, at 3pm in the afternoon at United Church of Huntsville. Tickets are $20 at the venue on the day of the show. HAP is supported by 60 churches and provides vital assistance to family through food banks and utilities.
Second Show of the Year
I'll play my second show of the year at the Hope and Anchor Pub on Upper Street, Islington, London. This promises to be a terrific evening of variety for the performers and audiences alike with poets Kevin Reinhardt and Cathy Flower, strummy folkie Adrian R Shaw, electro pop band Parenthesis Dot Dot, and yours truly. It's all put together by master of ceremonies, comedian and songwriter, Hank Osasuna! I'll be playing somewhere in the middle of the evening. Tuesday, February 26, Doors at 7:30 pm.