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Friday, November 18, 2016

Lover, Beloved

Suzanne Vega discovered the writing of Carson McCullers as a teenager and has been obsessed ever since. So much so that she created a theater piece and accompany songs, which is now out on an album called Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening With Carson McCullers.

I have heard of McCullers but never read her, which I hope to remedy soon. Vega channels McCullers and has written songs that take the author's point of view. Vega even poses on the front cover in a shot reminiscent of one of McCullers' most famous photographs.

McCullers was labeled a Southern writer, and in a bouncy but bitter-tinged number called "Harper Lee," she bemoans that she's always compared to her. The number of authors mentioned in this song could fill a college semester, from Virginia Woolf to Graham Greene to Katherine Anne Porter. The bitterness comes from some writers getting more recognition:

"Darling Tennessee Williams
It's anybody's guess
Why 'Streetcar' made millions
And 'Wedding' so much less"

(One of McCuller's novels, Member of the Wedding, was made into a Broadway play that did not match the success of Williams' Streetcar Named Desire).

But McCullers resisted the "Southern Gothic" label and spent many years in New York, which Vega writes about in "New York Destination":

"New York is my destination
New York is where I'll be from.
New York is made for grander things.
Just. Like. Me."

This is an interesting, though short, album that shows of Vega's song writing talent (she shares music-writing credit with Duncan Sheik and Jefry Stevens). She's long ago left behind the single-guitar folk style that she started with over thirty years ago, and Lover, Beloved is fully accompanied by a variety of instruments. The opening cut, "Carson's Blues," has a New Orleans quality, with accordion and a banjo ukulele (I didn't know there was such a thing). This song establishes what McCullers thought of herself:

"A wounded sparrow
Timid and shy
A fallen deer, that's what they call me
But I'm an iron butterfly."

I'm no expert on Carson McCullers, but I have to think she would approve. McCullers, who was born in 1917 (I'll be reading something by her next year for her centenary) lived her life in poor health and died at age 50. The last song is called "Carson's Last Supper," and is a beautiful tribute, which begins and ends with these lovely lines:

"I love the world
Sometimes it loves me
The love of my life
Is humanity."

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