Tom Waits, no ray of sunlight, wrote and sang of November: “November’s cold chain / Made of wet boots and rain / And shiny black ravens / On chimney smoke lanes / November seems odd / You’re my firing squad.”
That may seem like a bit of a downer for a musical ode to the month, but as someone who edits a magazine filled with colorful images and engaging events, I can attest that this isn’t an easy month to package and sell.
In many ways, that’s the charm of November. The very heart and hearth of the month is Thanksgiving, which stimulates the travel economy — with folks streaming back to hometowns and family — and boosts the grocery stores and farmers markets for a spell. But for the most part it’s a holiday, and a month, with little commercialization.
I guess that’s why I love it. It’s a month that no one really wants, a kind of temporal insulator between the opposing (but weirdly harmonious) feasts of Halloween and Christmas — the former a celebration of death and the latter a celebration of a certain birth.
As a state, a country and a world, we’ve been preoccupied with death for quite a while now, calculating the risks of every interaction and treating gestures of kindness, like an outstretched hand or a hug, with suspicion. We all believe that a rebirth is right around the corner, but which corner is the question. Christmas and the promise of a brand new year is the answer to that quandary. Every October has its December, we just have to make it through November.
And music, for all its rhythmic and sensual charms, is the closest thing we have to real magic for those who wait for healing, freedom, justice and rebirth.
So, why the lack of November songs? Along with Tom Wait’s gut-kick of an anthem to the leafless, frostbitten and dreary days of November, there are “love” songs like Guns ‘N Roses’ “November Rain” — not much more uplifting though.
Perhaps the songs that best capture the strange, harsh beauty of these days are focused more on the spirit of the season than the name of the month.
“But when the sun turns traitor cold / and shivering trees are standing in a naked row / I get the urge for going,’” sang Concord-born-and-raised Tom Rush, introducing music lovers to the fragile but immortal lyrics of Joni Mitchell on his seminal 1968 album “The Circle Game.” When Rush sings, in a voice that rocks and creaks like a snow-draped white pine branch, “Now the warriors of winter they give a cold triumphant shout / All that stays is dying, all that lives is getting out …” you know exactly what month this story of love and change is set within for Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.”
Two musical artists who understood the seasons of the Granite State better than most were the Shaw Brothers, Rick and Ron. They were folk artists of great stature in their own right, and they ultimately settled into the role as musical ambassadors for New Hampshire among other gigs as senior statesmen of folk music.
The Informer department this month is devoted to a new and enduring facet of the deep legacy of music and storytelling that the Shaw Brothers left us when Rick Shaw passed away early this year. And while the Shaws didn’t write any original songs about the month of November, the spirit of the month was captured perfectly in their rendition of Michael Peter Smith’s classic, “The Dutchman.” It’s a heartbreakingly sweet song about dementia, of all things, that is also an astounding tribute to the power of love. To those who know the song, the lyrics, “Long ago, I used to be a young man / And dear Margaret remembers that for me,” can simultaneously create goosebumps, a tear and a smile.
Veteran journalist Lynne Snierson, who also writes our Seniority department, penned the story about the Shaw Brothers’ final years and days and about the special woman and friends who stood, and sang, alongside them. See if you can read her tribute to the magical healing power of music without a tear and a smile.
Sad, but uplifting. Doomed, but filled with hope. That’s November in a song.