Back in the 1990's, Tom Waits wrote a song called "Georgia Lee". If I remember the story correctly, he wrote it after the body of a 12-year-old girl was found not far from his house.
She'd been dumped there in a patch of trees, and her death barely made the newspapers. This was around the time of the Polly Klaas case — or during some other headline-making search for an abducted girl — and Waits was disturbed at the possibility that kids like Georgia Lee don't get as much coverage because they're too poor, or too black, or too troubled, or they're not photogenic enough, or ...
While he was giving Mule Variations its final edit, Waits cut "Georgia Lee" from the track list. Tom's daughter — who was near the age Georgia Lee had been when she died — was appalled. Here Georgia Lee is used up, murdered, and thrown away and nobody gives a damn ... until, finally, somebody bothers to write a song about her ... and it GETS CUT FROM THE ALBUM?
So, Waits sighed heavily, restored the song to Mule Variations, and wistfully remembered is simple, care-free single days when nobody meddled with his art except record company executives, producers, accountants, lawyers ...
Anyway, with that background, I'll get to the main point, which will take a while to explain. The lyrics begin:
Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She's too young to be out on the street
Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?
Probably, the first line pays homage to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," a much-admired gospel/blues record from 1927.
Johnson's recording is a slide-guitar instrumental, basically — the sparce vocals consist of humming, or moans of grief. Occasionally, Johnson says "Ah well." The recording is clearly a profound contemplation ... but ... of what?
The full title of Blind Willie Johnson's recording is "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground, On Which Our Lord Was Laid." For a long while, I wasn't sure whether it's a contemplation of the burial of Jesus in his tomb, or of the humble circumstances of his birth. After all, the body of Jesus was placed on the cold ground twice — once at when he was born, and once when he died.
Both stories — especially thought of together, as bookends — could elicit the overwhelming grief in Johnson's recording. The homeless child born in a barn, or the murdered preacher buried in a cave. To blind, and black, Johnson in the 1920's, either story might sound awfully sad and awfully familiar, even though most Americans, today, tend to miss the intense sense of pity that gives the Christmas story its meaning ... bad for sales, presumably.
Eventually, I decided "Dark Was the Night" was a contemplation of the crucifixion and the burial. After all, that's what Samuel Charters says in his liner notes.
I'd never thought much about those three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection until I puzzled over "Dark Was the Night." Those days are about grief and the total lack of hope, and they give the Resurrection much of its emotional impact.
Incidentally, I was reminded of this again when listening to Bruce Springsteen's version of the old Negro spiritual "Oh Mary Don't You Weep." The song makes one reference to the Old Testament after another, despite being about the New Testament story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This puzzled me until I realized that the song comforts an old Jewish woman upon the death of her son. It's a song against despair, to be sung for Mary during those same three days, during which she knew all about the crucifixion and the Old Testament, but nothing about any resurrection.
Anyway ... despite all this thinking about the crucifixtion, the Christmas story stayed in my head when I listened to Blind Willy Johnson's "Dark Was the Night." And the confusion between the two bookend images of Jesus lying on the ground reminded me of something I'd seen in art history classes in college.
There's a long European artistic tradition of depicting the baby Jesus with the features of an old man, and of depicting Mary holding the crucified Jesus (the pieta) in a way that echoes a Madonna and child. Birth and Crucifixion are mixed up together. In the way I've heard "Dark Was The Night," Blind Willie Johnson and Michelangelo share that ambivalence, that refusal to decide.
That's what I thought about Johnson's recording at the time Mule Variations was released ... and here was Tom Waits, referring to "Dark Was the Night" at the start of "Georgia Lee" — a song about a dead child. Whether intended or not, "Georgia Lee" revives this confusion between the pieta and the Madonna and child, and does it through Blind Willie Johnson.
Tom's song also evokes "Dark Was the Night" in a subtler way. While Waits writes a lot of wonderfully sad songs, "Georgia Lee" may be the only completely hopeless song he's ever written. Like "Dark Was the Night," it's as if "Georgia Lee" were recorded during The Three Days. It's a song about the total absence of hope, about despair. The chorus more or less says so, outright, in the unanswered question it leaves hanging in the empty air.
Editor's Note: This is installment 24 of 28 entries in which I seek to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day ... every stinkin day ... for the entire month of February.