I’d already gotten a couple of highly praised hip-hop albums (not exactly my go-to genre, but, damn it, I want to know) and then followed up with two more albums and an EP, because amazon $5 mp3s said so.
And then my mom died.
She was 95, so it wasn’t exactly a shocking development. I still managed to be surprised, though.
I was charged with/volunteered for creating a playlist for the funeral chapel.
We’re Irish and Mom was from the other side. In prior posts, I’ve described how Irish music was used by my parents as a kind of bulwark against the British Invasion of the early sixties. Me and my parents would always be at odds over music.
In a testament to his authority, my dad’s famous announcement in 1964 - “There will never be a Beatles album in this house.” actually held for almost two years. And our mutual incomprehension of each other’s tastes and enthusiasms would continue for the next two decades.
My dad had been long dead when mom moved to the assisted living facility. We sold the house and I somehow “inherited” their albums, which came in handy when I compiled the playlist. My siblings also gave me a couple of dozen suggestions.
There were some artists and songs that were obvious to me, like Bridie Gallagher, Larry Cunningham, The Clancy Brothers, The Wolftones and Anne Murray, plus anyone who’d do a song she really liked, like “The Patriot Game”.
And The Sound of Music.
Oddly enough, although she loved Bing Crosby, he didn’t make the cut. For some reason, none of his songs - even the Irish ones - stuck with me as being family favorites, no matter how popular they may have been.
So that got me about forty songs. But since the wake would consist of two sittings for a total of five hours, I felt I’d need quite a few more to fill that time. (Funny how simply replaying the list never occurred to me.) So I started going through my own collection and added songs I thought she’d like. Which was really just an excuse to add songs I liked. (Uh, Jaybee, who actually died, anyway?)
Which I did and I ended up with nearly a hundred. I'll cut it down to 95, in honor of her age.
For the life of me, I couldn’t find “The Irish Rebel”. And forgot “Carrickfergus” (check out the Bryan Ferry version if you can) and a handful of others.
Sequencing them was a snap - I sorted them in order of duration. This is an extremely under-rated way to organize a playlist, by the way. Structure, pace and tone can be remarkably similar in songs that both run about 2:05.
So here they are. Sorry Mom! And may God have mercy on my soul:
- “At Last”, by Neko Case: A primal animal cry about our fragile existence, from the point of view of an unspecified animal.
- “Edelweiss”, from The Sound of Music, and one of mom’s favorites. And she’s absolutely right. It’s simple, beautiful, and patriotic.
- “Redford”, by Sufjan Stevens. My choice. I’m not sure mom would have liked this haunting, mournful theme by Sufjan. I sure do, though.
- “There’s a Heartache Following Me”, by Jim Reeves, included because I thought mom loved Jim Reeves and I knew the Pete Townshend version. In fact, she loved Eddy Arnold. My confusion continues below.
- “This Will Be Our Year”, by the Zombies. A song of renewal. I imagine it being about my mom and dad overcoming yet another tragedy and deciding they’d just carry on and things would get better.
- “Faust Arp”, by Radiohead, included for no other reason than that it fits the mood I needed.
- “The Sound of Music”. Not the famous version, with Julie Andrews shrieking like a B-52 strafing the Alps (although mom loved that one, too) but rather the one with the whole Von Trapp family joining in. It's quite touching when the Captain - a man who didn't think he'd ever sing again - joins in. It gives me hope.
- “Snowbird”, by Anne Murray. I really want to hate this song, but the melody - and the words - wins me over every time.
- “A Rose For Emily”, by the Zombies. This is a sad one a la “Eleanor Rigby”. It really doesn’t apply, except that it still does suck to get old.
- “He’ll Have to Go”, another one by Jim Reeves, and pretty sexy, too. Mom liked to sing along to this one. Good for her.
- “Last Thing On My Mind”. Anne Murray again, and mom singing to it again. And as much as I’d like to dismiss her taste (she sure as sh*t dismissed mine) I can’t. A pretty folky version, too.
- “Wild Mountain Thyme”, by the Byrds. I know she liked the song, but probably by the Clancy Brothers. But this is the version I love.
- “Lovely Leitrim”, by Larry Cunningham. We played Two Sides of Larry endlessly, and it actually “took” for us kids. There were some great songs on this album, but damned if I could find any on iTunes. This seems like a re-recording. But it’s pretty great nonetheless.
- “Make the World Go Away”, by Eddy Arnold. This one used to drive me crazy when I was a kid, but mom loved it, so, given how much I like “Heartache” and “He’ll Have to Go”, and how I hadn't yet figured out that it was not Jim Reeves, I have to let this one slide.
- “Underneath the Weeping Willow”, by Grandaddy. This one’s all mine. Mom would probably have mocked it as a real sad sack song. And it is! One of the sad sack-iest ever. Enjoy!
- “Brennan on the Moor”, by the Clancy Brothers. This one is just about buried into my DNA. And yet, I don’t remember anyone ever referring to it. But we did play it, and I think I heard my brother - six years old at the time - singing it like he was one of the Clancys himself.
- “Naples”, by Yo La Tengo. Just one of those happy collisions of mood and circumstance.
- “Streets of Laredo”, by Marty Robbins. Just a perfect song, really. Yeah, mom had pretty good taste. And the story? Oh, just rip my heart out, why don’t you?
- “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, by Smashing Pumpkins. I dare you to tell me that this doesn’t belong here.
- “Kevin Barry”, by the Davitts. Another rebel song. I know that, deep down, she could identify with anyone who was oppressed and who rebelled against it.
- “So Long, Farewell”. TSOM again. I love the end when all the guests say good night.
- “San Francisco”, by Scott McKenzie. I’m so glad she loved this one. She didn’t let the flowers in their hair part bother her.
- “John Riley”, by the Byrds. Another unabashedly romantic song that I think she’d love. The story of a stranger who asks to marry a maiden, who cannot accept because she’s already given her heart to someone who’s gone away for seven years. Spoiler alert! There’s a twist at the end. But it brings a tear to my eye every single time.
- “Gentle Mother”, by Foster and Allen. I’m not sure which version mom liked, but this one fit the bill.
- “Strange Boat”, by The Waterboys. It is probably meant for something else altogether, but it fits my mom and dad’s stories perfectly.
- “Hills of Donegal”, by Bridie Gallagher, or as I like to call her, “She Who Shall Not Be Named” Get through this if you can.
- “Carrie and Lowell”, by Sufjan Stevens. From his album of the same name, about the loss of his mom, with whom he had a strained relationship. I can relate.
- “Caide Sin Don Te Sin?”, by Atlan. One of the better ones from Celtic Moods, which I leaned a little too heavily on, and is too slick by half.
- “Could I Have this Dance?”, by Anne Murray. Another one she’d single along to. (Christ, she was always singing to me!)
- “Something Good”, from guess what? About Mom and Dad, I’d like to think.
- “Strangers”, by the Kinks. For most of our lives, mom and me were strangers to each other. Neither one quite understanding the other. I went from black sheep to saint (a finicky one, I admit) in her eyes. Thanks, mom, but wrong on both counts. I wonder now what I got wrong about her... Strangers on this road we are on, but we are not two, we are one.
- “Red is the Rose”, by Nanci Griffin and the Chieftains. This one is pretty and I love Griffin’s voice. The Chieftains totally nail it, of course. It’s just not one of my favorites, but this list is about mom, right Jaybee?
- “Home to Mayo”, by the Screaming Orphans. I tried to find the version by Bridie Gallagher, whose power-drill voice scarred all of us kids way back in ‘63. Thank god for the Beatles, who rescued us shortly after. But really, this is not a bad song at all.
- “The Coolin”, by Celtic Roots. Meh, I've heard better.
- “Holland”, by Sufjan Stevens. This lovely song has the perfect tone for a quiet funeral parlor, but maybe not a full, Irish one, though.
- “Little Beggar Girl”, by Richard and Linda Thompson, is one of the most amazing songs of the 70s. So full of life, wisdom and delusion. The title sounds sad but the melody is joyous about a rather bleak situation. I think my mom would have loved it.
- “Withered and Died”, by Richard and Linda Thompson. Okay, there’s no mistaking the mood here. One of the saddest songs ever, because nothing makes us Irish folk happier than sadness.
- “When I Get to the Border”, by Richard and Linda Thompson, who almost make death sound good. Mom, I’ll see you on the other side of the border some day.
- “Brief Candles”, by the Zombies. Even though she made it to 95, the candles are still too brief.
- “My Life”, by Iris DeMent, is the single greatest song to hear if you ever fear your life hasn’t added up to much.
- “The Crib of Perches”, by Matt Maloy. Celtic Moods again! But at least this one’s actually Celtic. Again, mom may not have gone for the sheer prettiness of it.
- “Always on My Mind”, by Willie Nelson, who wrote and recorded hundreds of songs before he hit it really big with this one. But if it wasn’t for my mom hearing it and telling me he could really sing, I may never have checked him out.
- “Has He Got a Friend for Me”, by Richard and Linda Thompson. Another really sad one, and at this point mom may have drawn the line.
- “Four Green Fields”, by the Clancy Brothers. I was really looking for the Mary McGonigle version but couldn’t find it. In the throes of teenage rock n roll I mistook this for a stupid little song about a farm until my mom pointed out that the Irish practically invented metaphor.
- “Blackbird”, by Sharon Shannon, who does a lovely, jaunty little instrumental. What’s not to like?
- “Gentle Annie”, by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. A little too stiff in the singing department, as are a lot of the Clancy songs. But I’m glad I avoided a Celtic Moods version!
- “All of Me Wants All of You”, by Sufjan Stevens, The line about masturbation slid in there without notice. So it counts as an improvement over my adolescence.
- “In My Hour of Darkness”, by Gram Parsons. With a reference to a beloved elder’s impending death, it fit my mood perfectly.
- "The Patriot Game", by the Wolfe Tones. This is one of the greatest songs ever written. (Dylan stole the melody for "With God on Our Side”.) To this day, I can’t tell if it’s pro or anti- war.
- “Bonny Boy”, by Kathleen Fitzgerald. I couldn’t find the Larry Cunningham version. But this one’s pretty good anyway.
- “Find A River”, by REM, at their very best. The climax of Automatic for the People, their death album. None of this is going my way…
- “Questions for the Angels”, by Paul Simon. Sweet, gentle and earned after a full life. Art Garfunkel was never really needed.
- “Try Not to Breath”, by REM. Also from AFTP, directly confronting death. I have seen things you will never see. I’ll bet you have.
- “Endgame”, by REM, but this time from Out of Time, one of my all time favorite albums. As beautiful as “Near Wild Heaven” is, it was too obtrusive to be here. This will do just dandy.
- “For the Widows in Paradise…”. Another Sufjan Stevens gem. He’s got so many.
- “Death With Dignity”. Sufjan again. Every road leads to an end.
- “Electrolite”, by REM. Maybe the greatest song of the 90s. Your eyes are burning holes through me. Well, that’s mom. I’m not scared. I’m out of here. I’d like to think that’s her, too.
- “Brokedown Palace”, by the Grateful Dead - I’ll get to the reason this is here a little later.
- “Love and Hard Times”, by Paul Simon. The word "love" appears a lot in this song. I’m normally suspicious of that. But if you’ve been around as long as Simon, you’ve earned the right to use it all you want.
- “Ripple”, by the Grateful Dead. When I was a teenager, I was forever playing records to convince my mom that "rock and roll was good". I’d try to be subtle and just put something on when she was in the room. It NEVER worked. (“Celluloid Heroes”? “John, I think there’s a scratch on that record!”). But one day, this song was just playing, and without any prompting, she said “Oh, now that’s a nice song there, John” Thanks mom. I love you. And that’s why “Brokedown Palace” - and an even greater song later on - is here, too,
- “Dusty in Here”, by the Go-Betweens. I wasn’t happy about what the new owners did to my parent’s house, but it relieves me and my siblings of having to see an abandoned house, like the one the narrator of this song visits. It’s cold.. It’s cold, it’s cold, and dusty in here. Brrr.
- “Long Journey Home”, by Elvis Costello, from the film The Irish In America. My mom and dad have as much right to this as anyone.
- “Nightswimming”, by REM. Yet another on from AFTP, but not about death, thank god. About youth, I guess. But after all these sad songs we all deserve a break.
- “Sweetness Follows”, by REM. Readying to bury your father and your mother. What did you think when you lost another? The song promises a relief I’m not feeling just yet.
- “Return of the Grievous Angel”, by Gram Parsons. And I remember something you once told me, and I’ll be damned if it did not come true. Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down, and they all led me straight back home to you. AND I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea.
- “When She Sang About Angels”, by the Go-Betweens. It just feels right here.
- “Samain Night”, by Loreena McKennitt. She sings too good by half, but I have to hand it to her here. Another Celtic Mood. If I had more Irish records I might not have had to rely on it so much.
- “Dazzling Blue”, by Paul Simon. By now, after all this mourning, we need that haunting electric guitar, the harmonies and Simon’s words: And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through, and dream our dreams of dazzling blue.
- “Pilgrim’s Progress”, by Procol Harum. The words have all been writ by one before me, We're taking turns in trying to pass them on. The ending theme KILLS me. If you can hear it and not be moved, I don’t think I want to know you.
- “America Without Tears”, by Elvis Costello.It seems we’ve been crying for years and years. Mom, Dad, I hope you copped some joy out of all of this.
- “The Fields of Athenry”, by Paddy Reilly. Yet another Irish tragedy.
- “Fourth of July”, by Sufjan. Maybe the most haunting one from Carrie and Lowell.
- “Romulus”. Sufjan again. A painful song about an absent mother. Mom and I didn’t always get along, but she was always there.
- “The Only Thing", by Sufjan. The most beautiful song on this album. 2:40 is the most sublime moment maybe ever.
- “Don’t Be - Memory”, by the Chills - Kind of self-explanatory, really.
- “Why Should I Cry for You”, by Sting. This list is so inclusive even this insufferable twit makes it.
- “Golden Slumbers”, by Jackson Browne and Jennifer Warnes. This version not only fits in better at the funeral parlor, it has the bonus of ending with a gentle “Carry That Weight”.
- “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, by Gregg Allman. Of course the song belongs here, and of the many versions out there, why not Gregg’s?
- “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, by Elton John. My own seeds shall be sown in New York City. Yes, mom and dad. They were.
- “I and Love and You”, by the Avett Brothers. These were always tough words for us to say. But we occasionally did, and Brooklyn did let us in. All of us.
- “$1,000 Wedding”, by Gram Parsons. One thousand sounds about right, but mom actually went through with it.
- “The Bard of Armagh/Streets of Laredo”, by Vince Gill, Paul Leim, Michael Rhodes, John Jarvis, Stuart Duncan, Paddy Moloney, Seán Keane & Derek Bell. A nice combination of these two songs, the latter of which made an earlier appearance. The melody alone deserves a second go round, doesn’t it?
- “Deeper into Movies”, by Yo La Tengo. Again, there’s absolutely no thematic justification for the inclusion of this song, other than it sounds just right.
- “From Clare to Here”, by Nanci Griffith. Mom liked this one, but for tales about failure and dissipation, I’ll take “Carrickfergus”.
- “Box of Rain”, by the Grateful Dead - The connection may not be obvious, but it’s about supporting someone through a hard time. I wonder if I ever played it for mom? One of my all time favorites.
- “The Island”, by Paul Brady. Okay, another Celtic Moods piece, and nice enough. But "Box of Rain" - in its sheer empathy - blows it away.
- “That’s the Way”, by Led Zeppelin. Yes, even those thieving bastards LZ deserve a spot here because of the sheer beauty and sadness of this one.
- “Raglan Road”, by Loreena McKennitt, who very nearly overdoes it, but holds back just enough to allow this stunning melody to do its job. Did I say the Irish invented metaphor? They may have invented melody, too.
- “In the Upper Room, Dance 2”, by Michael Riesman and the Philip Glass Ensemble. Wordless, but it may be the sound of going to heaven.
- “Casimir Pulaski Day”, Sufjan, yet again. Young love abruptly ended by cancer, and yet the ending is so goddamned uplifting. I think we’re nearing something approximating acceptance.
- “Closing”, by Michael Riesman and the Philip Glass Ensemble. Still floating, but more mournfully. Maybe it’s for those of us left behind.
- “On the Nature of Daylight”, by Max Richter - And what about that mourning?
- “The Town I Loved So Well”, by Paddy Reilly. Okay the lyrics are slightly sappy, but again, the story is very real, and the melody captures every bit of the tragedy.
- “Vito’s Ordination”, Sufjan again, with Jesus assuring us: Rest in my arms, Sleep in my bed, There’s a design, to what I did and said. But I’m so tired now I’ll have to take his word for it.
- "In Reverse", by The War on Drugs - And I don’t mind you disappearing cause I know you can be found…
So that's it.
Thank you Sufjan, REM, Richard and Linda, and even you, Celtic Moods.