From time to time I will post pieces like this that will examine the ideas and motivations behind the songs on my new album beneath a flagless moon.
Not a complicated song but one of my personal favorites on beneath a flagless moon.
The foundation of this tune is the realization that we are in charge of our own lives. We can choose to go through life harvesting light – collecting and valuing the good things along the way. Or we can do the opposite. I’ve met many people in my time who prided themselves on being tough – from the bullies at school to the corporate bullies of the workplace. Incidentally, they are no different from each other and both are just as despicable.
Bullies thrive on creating fear. And I’ve worked for bosses who managed through fear – men and women old enough and experienced enough to know better but lacking the inner strength to do better. My advice to young people? If you find a boss who is less concerned with protecting his or own job or reputation and more concerned with helping, training and encouraging you, stay with them. You will learn some priceless lessons.
But back to the song. Once the notion of going through life harvesting light had leapt into my mind, the rest just flowed.
Starting from the recognition that there is indeed “darkness all around” which we must not be sucked into, it led naturally to “looking for the moments when the light comes breaking through.” That phrase, looking for the moments, then became the core of each of the four verses.
The first verse says of the light that “sometimes it’s from another heart, sometimes it's from you.” Yes, love is a light and if you find it you are well ahead in the game of life. But sometimes the light is more personal, more inside out that outside in. This is the light of personal character. This is the light of having faith in yourself while retaining humility. Too strong an inner light or ego and, no surprise, you're back in the darkness.
The second verse describes the light in another way…”the tiny spark of living learned from those who died.” Too much of life today, it seems to me, is lived in isolation. It’s all about now. It has been said that those who do not know and understand history are doomed to repeat it. There are days I feel this applies to the entire human race!
In the third verse “the light of reason briefly shines upon our humdrum fears”…another kind of light that keeps us from darkness. I think this is an extension of the idea I just mentioned…the fact that the world (or I should say American culture) is so focused on rather fake celebration of the individual. People can indeed be very special but they become so by rising above the every day fears that all humans share. Let’s face it; anything you share with every other member of your species is not really special. But the way American culture does not allow for failure…you're a winner just for turning up…does not encourage us to do extraordinary things. Our fears, whatever they may be, are indeed humdrum. Meaningless. It is the positive things those fears…and the positive flipside, our passions…drive us to accomplish that matter.
In verse four there seems to be a contradiction to verse two when “the fog of history’s traded for the simple present tense.” Didn't I just say history was important? Well, it is. But learning from history – not dates and boring stuff like that, but the collective knowledge of humankind – should lead to progress. And so often, especially in the case of religious beliefs, a fixation on the past leads to stagnation of thought. This leads to the final hope of the song….that one day “the holy and the godless give up all pretense.”
Pretense? Yes, that’s my choice of words. Those who adamantly believe in god and those who just as adamantly do not are pretending. They are pretending to know what we do not know.
That is not to say we are not free to have our beliefs…make our choices…no, the pretense I would like them all to give up is the belief of being right and, in particular, the propensity to decry others as wrong. If we can make a better job of living alongside people with different beliefs we will all benefit. Christianity is not better than Islam…just slightly different. Atheists are not inherently evil just as Christians are not all inherently good. We need to give up this pretense that we know something others do not…and accept that beliefs are only one source of light in this life. And when they become dogmatic they are part of the darkness.
Sharon Gilchrist’s mandolin playing on this track is so beautifully understated. When we were recording it she was convinced she had not delivered…not “done enough”. But I already knew she’d given the song just enough light from her mandolin to counter the darkness of my guitar. Which is why Deborah Domanski’s uplifting voice comes in only on the words harvesting light. Every time her voice joins with mine I feel like I want to do more searching for that illusive light. And am happy that I have known more than my fair share already.