A Crack in Its Speak:
Fantastic Birds in the Gothic Country Lyrics of Jay Munly
by Lisa M. BradleyTrigger warning: Discusses lyrics that depict physical violence, character-driven racism and ableism, and abuse of a cognitively impaired character, with references to incest.
Slim Cessna and Munly, at Bottom of the Hill
San Francisco, CA, September 11, 2011
By jdaisy. Used with permission.
Jay Munly's songs have been described as "Edgar Allan Poe-meets-Tom Waits-meets-Jack Kerouac storytelling." From singing horses to babies with "the Helling" and women without belly buttons, there's enough of the weird and fantastic in his discography that any speculative poetry aficionado can be seduced into a second or third listen. Or a complete conversion, as in my own case.
Here, I'll focus on the 2004 album Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots, which includes four, possibly five, speculative songs. Of special interest, and the focus of this article, are the two spec songs that appear back-to-back on the album—"Song Rebecca Calls, 'That Birdcage Song,' Which Never Was Though Now Kind Of Is Because Of Her Influence…" and "Goose Walking Over My Grave". Both songs use birds to signal the uncanny, and both deal with the upheaval caused by revelation. By conflating bird and human characters, however, Munly complicates the reversals of power that those revelations make possible.
A Slight Digression Regarding Genre
Imagine a Venn diagram with overlapping circles for country, alt country, Americana, dark cabaret, gospel, folk, and bluegrass (and maybe a few more subgenres). That dwarf-star nexus where they all come together is "gothic country" and the form gained particular popularity in Denver, Colorado, during the 1990s and early 2000s. The bands most often identified with the subgenre are 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, and The Denver Gentlemen.
But if, like me, you're not musically sophisticated (I only became aware of this subgenre about a year ago), then maybe none of that means anything to you. Rather than provenance, you might need story. So…
Imagine running through the pitch-dark forest, whiskey on your breath and blood on your hands. Branches slash your face as vigilantes with shotguns run you to ground. You stumble over a root, face-plant in pine needles, and think to yourself, it's the family curse finally come to call. That's gothic country.
Or maybe it'd help to tweak that old joke, "What happens if you play a country song backwards?" Well, if you play gothic country backwards, you get your dog back, but he's a slavering hellhound. You get your truck back, but it's got a Denver boot on the wheel and a suspicious smell in the bed. You get your spouse back, but they've developed a taste for blood.
The genre is gallows dark and ironic as a skull's grin, thanks in large part to Munly. Originally from Quebec, Jay Munly spent his formative years in Denver, where he now resides. A member of Slim Cessna's Auto Club, he has collaborated with numerous other groups and released solo albums. Munly's lyrics are notoriously difficult to make out. My husband and I have sweated blood trying to transcribe "Haggie Hennie's Almost Dirty Dress," desperate to find out why this woman has no belly button and why her dress is "almost" dirty. The obscurity of the lyrics tends to create a downward spiral limited only by the listener's willingness to stare into the abyss.
Munly's vocals on the Lee Lewis Harlots album are perhaps his clearest. For this essay, I've relied primarily on my own transcriptions. The lyrics available online, while sometimes helpful, are unofficial, posted by Munly fans, and usually include (understandable) errors.
The story of the Goose song is fairly straightforward for a spec reader. Like many of Munly's songs, it's set in a dust-and scandal-ridden past on the wrong side of the tracks from Grant Wood's American Gothic. It starts pretty awful: A woman implores a man to punch her in the stomach so "our child inside will not grow." And from there, it quickly gets worse: The man reluctantly does so. Later, thinking their problem solved, they go to the county fair, where
All the men, they spied her flat gut
and the women sent birds up to air.
Then we found ourselves a half-breed
to tell us our fortune today.
He painted my hands a deep dark red
said, "Now, boy, you know that you gotta pay."
(Distracting as the racial epithet in this verse is, I'll continue with plot explication for a moment, as it has bearing on that word choice.) Enraged, the woman berates the fortune teller:
Well she spat and she swore, she ground all her teeth
then she swolled up all her veins.
She said, "Mister, for claimin' all that ya know,
don't you know my brother's bird brained?"
Just as the listener realizes this is an incestuous couple, the mentally impaired (or perhaps merely slow-witted) brother realizes the extent of his sister's manipulation. The narrator might be excused for using the term "half-breed," given his impaired cognition and thus his likelihood of mimicking slurs without detecting their malice.
Racial epithets do appear in other Munly songs, however. To my knowledge, the terms are always character driven (and usually in historical settings), but their use is indeed questionable, even problematic coming from a white man. In this particular song, the fortune teller seems to be a variant on the Magical Negro. This supporting black character has special insight (precognition?) and appears solely to help the white protagonist. At least, in a welcome change from the usual deployment of the trope, this character doesn't die to help the narrator achieve epiphany, only has to endure the fury of the sister.
Returning to plot explication…The tragedy deepens when the couple returns home, for "yonder carryin' a bucket / was our [dead] child doing his chores." In a drunken brawl, the sister gouges out her brother's eyes, and the brother retaliates by dragging his sister to town and turning her over to "the town youth." Her final fate is unclear, but on "bloody red knees" she says, "Why did you do this to me?" To which her brother replies, "I was blind, but now I can see." That the song ends with an ironic allusion to the Christian hymn (and funeral favorite) "Amazing Grace" is ominous as hell.
The Birdcage song is more complicated. It begins with an echoey spoken-word piece that reads like a southern-fried version of the Book of Ezekiel. Over howling winds, the narrator explains how "them jays" are so aggressive they made a nest in his ribcage. When a furnace explosion destroyed their cage, Herod's face was revealed underneath. The jays took the narrator's eggs, making him aggressive, but he couldn't fight them off because his knife is gone and the birds have nested in his sheath.
What Herod, the Rome-declared "King of the Jews," and these egg-stealing jays are doing here isn't immediately clear. But they're laterally symbolic to the song that unfolds, which is about heresy, truth, and exploitation. The narrator talks a bird off his tree, an idiom suggesting the man's powers of verbal persuasion. He and the bird—who likes to nest in "your" hair and has a cracked beak—have been travelling the countryside. The people they meet believe the bird's song, inflected by the crack, holds new prophecies. And perhaps it does, for the crack in its beak grows into a map that reflects their journeys. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John follow the bird messiah and try to "re-re-educate" the country folk,
sayin', "Country people unlearn what you seen.
That bird's got a crack in its beak.
Go back to ginseng and senna pods and fennel seeds,
learnin' spells in your old Gullah speech."
But they tell the flock to go back to the city and let this bird sing!
The Gullah are Black Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. Descended from slaves taken from West Africa to work on rice plantations, the Gullah speak Sea Island Creole. I'm not sure how ginseng, senna, and fennel function as Gullah "markers," but "learnin' spells" is obviously a reference to spiritual beliefs. The people's openness to the bird's message may have something to do with Gullah musical traditions, specifically the "call and response" subgenre of spirituals. The Four Evangelists do not seem interested in spreading the good word (which is the etymology of "evangelist"); rather, they prefer to maintain geographic, racial, and linguistic divisions.
Eventually the bird mends its cracked beak using "your" hair. The narrator says this fix muffles the bird's message, which gets mistranslated, "but the country people believe it even harder." The believers take to the city to spread the good word. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, in hot pursuit of the narrator and his bird, finally get close enough to hear its message:
They…blushed a deep dark red, said, "Oh, I see!"
They rubbed on ginseng and senna pods and fennel seeds.
Their speech they changed to the local speak,
creatin' new maps with an educator's need.
They're now quiet in the country as my bird he does sing!
In both songs, birds signal the uncanny. In the Goose song, even before the suspicious women "send birds up to air" (which sounds like proto-Twitter gossip), we've heard the chorus: "There's a goose walking over my grave." The idiomatic phrase refers to "goosebumps" (when the hairs on one's arms stand up because of fright, perhaps so one's skin resembles that of a just-plucked bird), and it derives from folklore that when a goose walks over the future site of your grave, you experience an otherwise unexplainable chill. Only a few lines after the birds are released, the couple finds the old fortune-teller.
In the Birdcage Song, the very first words are "them jays" and the aggressive jays are thieves who may or may not be in league with Herod, Rome's client-king. By referencing Herod, Munly foreshadows a tale of authority opposing authenticity, corruption versus populism. We don't know the specific type of bird that the narrator travels with, but the fact that it's affable suggests it's not a jay, and since the locals see it as an oracle, it's neatly established as the populist hero.
In both songs, the narrators are conflated with birds. The Goose brother is described as bird-brained, and it is he who gets goosebumps, first when he aids in the abortion, then after the sister's outburst triggers his realization ("I caught up to my slow."). Given placement of the chorus, we can assume he also gets "goosefleshy flesh" before and after he betrays his sister.
In the Birdcage song, although the narrator sings, "Me and my bird have a growing influence over people of country persuasion," the Four Evangelists are notably pursuing him, not him and the bird. This focus makes sense, since the authorities do not want to lend validity to the rural folks' beliefs by targeting the bird. (Or, they might worry about creating an avian martyr.) Nevertheless, bird and man are conflated, just as they are in the cataclysmic spoken-word intro that superimposes birdcage over ribcage.
Complicating the narratives of both songs, however, is the dualistic quality of their birds. In the Goose song, Munly plays with naturalistic and metaphoric associations. To be birdlike means to be foolish (bird-brained, silly goose; both naturalistic comparisons), but also to be associated with death. The brother is the former, while the sister is the latter. The siblings switch places near the end, however. Once she's turned over to the townsfolk, the sister lies on the ground "squibblin' and squabblin'" and her brother informs her, "Girl, now you're my goose." The joke is, of course, that she was always his goose in one sense—not so much walking over his grave as tricking him into digging it himself—but now he, the fool, has outsmarted her, not only made her the fool but possibly engineered her execution.
The duality of birds in the Birdcage song also complicates their symbolism. Beginning with the vicious jays getting in where they don't belong, Munly predisposes his audience to distrust the bird-hero of the song. But that bird nests in soft, sexy hair and wins the hearts of all who hear his song, even those paternalistic Four Evangelists who'd rather keep the country folk in their literal and metaphorical place. How can we doubt the bird who effects the Evangelists' conversion to Gullah traditions, their elitism to populism? He re-sings the very maps.
The dualism of the birds in these songs permits the twist endings, both of which reverse an unfair power dynamic, although not necessarily to arrive at just conclusions. While the power swap at the end of the Goose song gives me a vengeful sort of satisfaction, I also sympathize with the sister. There's never any mention of the siblings' parents, so one must wonder how long the sister's been solely responsible for her brother. The family is far outside of town, and perhaps the brother's mental state has compounded their outsider status. It's unclear the townspeople did anything to prevent the family's sorrow, but they seem frightfully eager to punish the siblings' misdeeds. At song's end, I fear for the sister's long-term safety—and what will become of her brother without a caretaker?
Likewise, as attractive as we might find the reversal of authority in the Birdcage song, there are hints that the prophet's triumph is not necessarily a good thing. The furnace combustion that destroyed the ribcage and revealed Herod's face—were the birds harboring this secret presence, or was the narrator? Although the narrator invokes the song "My Country Tis of Thee," which enumerates the natural wonders of the United States more than it glorifies war (c.f. the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner"), in the very next line, the narrator subverts it:
My bird does sing to thee, country
My bird decrees to thee, people of country persuasion
From celebrating to decreeing in two lines, the bird shifts from prophet to ruler, from addressing the country to dictating to those of country persuasion, that is, those who may be persuaded. If in doubt as to the song's cynical intent, one need only refer to the lines about the country folk's migration:
…the message is mumbled and mistranslated,
but the country people believe it even harder.
They leave the country, 'light upon the city,
swellin' the I.Q. in both locations.
The country folk "alight" upon the city, like birds, or bird-brained believers. Apparently, the only people stupider than country folk are city folk. This sardonic observation better fits a huckster than a true believer, casting the song's power exchange in the typically grim light of Munly's humor and supporting my suspicion that the silver-tongued narrator, not the bird, is orchestrating this groundswell, and not necessarily for altruistic reasons.
Birds function as convenient metaphors in Munly's gothic country, because they naturally occur in the rural environments he sings and writes about. Because of their flying ability, birds can be used as symbols of transcendence and freedom. Munly's birds skew from these associations. On this album, at least, birds are bits of the uncanny that do not transcend so much as they alight on our mundane world, and any emancipation they offer is a possibly poisoned apple. It would be interesting to compare these birds with "Duk" and "Bird" in Munly's 2010 project with the Lupercalians, Petr and the Wulf. What symbolism do talking birds offer in a story where all the animals speak?