Songlines Words & Music by Cindy Mangsen
Our culture is something that has been tailored for us by corporations. Just as we have for-profit medicine, we have for-profit arts. Is there something to be gained by stepping outside that corporate establishment and observing how others have lived? Can we really do that?
This song was inspired by Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines. Chatwin was a mysterious figure who traveled the world with just a simple backpack and sought out the people of remote regions, finding wisdom in what they had to impart. His study of the aboriginal tribal people of Australia led him to an understanding of their way of seeing man’s role on the earth.
One reviewer suggested that Chatwin was describing “... the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as "Dreaming-tracks" or "Songlines"; to the Aboriginals as the "Footprints of the Ancestors" or the "Way of the Lore."
In a life that was similar in many ways to that of T. E. Lawrence fifty years before him, he gained the trust of people who had much to teach him about how to conduct themselves in the interest of their covenant with nature and their own people. And I think it's that exploration that inspired Cindy to take up these issues in a song.
There is also the compelling suggestion that the song itself is creating something as it makes its way on the land. That the singer is creating something, calling something into being, something of wisdom and revelation. The song gains power from some structural innovations, a melody that circles in on itself, building an emotional/musical theme that supports the assertions of the lyrics.
The visual art of the aboriginal people conveys a similar message. The 'dreamings' are not only a reflection of an inspiration, but a creative avatar, something that is directly affecting the world into which it is fashioned. The artist is speaking with the voice of nature in the medium and discipline which has developed out of her study and empathy, her sensitivity to the true way of things. This is something very different from the ways that things are valued in our post-industrial mass culture of artificial scarcity and manipulation of commodities and markets.
I asked Cindy to write something about how she was attracted to the ideas of the song and how it unfolded. Here’s what she wrote:
When Steve and I met in 1988, I was not a songwriter, believing that my strongest suit was as an interpreter of the songs I loved. Some of them were written by friends, and many were traditional ballads that I dredged from books and re-arranged to suit myself. There were so many great songs already in the world (and begging to be sung) that I didn't want to add to the heap unless I felt I had something compelling to offer.
All those years of learning others' songs taught me how it feels to deeply inhabit a lyric. But it didn't teach me how songs came to light. I suppose I imagined that they sprang full-blown onto the page (which happens very rarely … and never in my personal experience). It turns out, for me, to be pretty hard to create a song that feels like it's worth singing. The most difficult part is turning off the internal editorial voice long enough to enjoy the first step of creation, playing freely with some abandon.
“Songlines” was my first attempt (at least since college, 20 years earlier) at penning an original song, and the impetus was Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines. Although Chatwin would have been the first to admit that the whole concept of the Songlines can't truly be grasped by a modern westerner, divorced as we are from the natural world, it is an undeniably attractive and intriguing concept, and I desperately wanted to try and convey some of its mystery.
I carried pieces of the song around with me for a couple of years, really more as a chant than a finished lyric, not knowing how to proceed to a “whole” song. But finding myself living with a songwriter (and attending gatherings like Kerrville and the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop), I found myself interested in participating in the process of creating songs (I seem to remember thinking “How hard can it be?”)
I wanted to maintain a chant-like quality in this song, and the Am/Em progression creates a walking pace and a stateliness for the gravitas of the ideas. The song breaks into C major in the second section of each verse, but always returns to the minor. Pete Sutherland, as he often has, helped me create the guitar accompaniment, which relies more on melodic walking bass notes than on full chords. He also arranged the canon for three voices which carries the song to its conclusion, which still gives me chills (thanks, Anne & Priscilla!).
Lyrically, I still recall the satisfaction, when the song was already quite well-formed, of writing the final couplet (“Our lives are short, our time is long; We are her voice, she is our song”). The whole process of writing this song felt like a journey, as I tried to burrow my way to the heart of the matter. It's mostly an intuitive, rather than analytical, process for me. The analysis comes later, when that editorial process kicks in.
When to call a song “finished” is always a question. I deeply believe in letting a song take its time to emerge: dream with it, walk with it, entertain it until you discover more avenues for it to stroll. There is a great joy in discovery, and I often don't know what I'm really writing about until I'm quite far into the process. For me, the genesis of a new song is almost like an itch – there is a story or an issue that keeps asking to be acknowledged, and the writing is an attempt to bring it into the light.
I still say that I don't really enjoy writing, but I love having written. And it's gotten easier with each new song, I'm happy to report.
Werner Herzog has produced an amazing documentary called “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.” On the BBC's page for the film they say:
“When legendary writer and adventurer Bruce Chatwin was dying of Aids, his friend and collaborator Werner Herzog made a final visit to say farewell. As a parting gift, Chatwin gave Herzog the rucksack that had accompanied him around the world.
"Thirty years later, carrying the rucksack, Herzog sets out on his own journey, inspired by Chatwin’s passion for the nomadic life. Along the way, Herzog uncovers stories of lost tribes, wanderers and dreamers.
"Told in Herzog’s inimitable style - full of memorable characters and encounters - this is a portrait of one of the 20th century’s most charismatic writers, which also offers a revealing insight into the imagination and obsessions of one of the 20th century’s most visionary directors.”
Here’s Cindy’s YouTube video of the song:
Audio from Cindy's CD, Songlines. Video by Steve
And here is a version of the song produced by Shaina Noll.
Cindy’s version of the song is available on her CD Songlines.
Here are the lyrics and chords:
Am Em7/B Am
© 1992 Compass Rose Music, BMI