First Song of the Month: Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity

March 1, 2013
Eccentric Soul: The Tragar and Note Labels (Numero Group)
Eccentric Soul: The Tragar and Note Labels (Numero Group)

 

I’m starting a new feature for this site called “First Song of the Month.” It’s just what it sounds like – a monthly feature on songs that have struck me recently, and why.

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The fantastic Numero Group label has been putting out some incredible reissues over the last few years; best-known is their Eccentric Soul series, which scrupulously collects every single side released by these largely forgotten local independent soul labels from the 1960s and 70s. Awhile back, I picked up their two-CD Eccentric Soul: The Tragar & Note Labels offerings, documenting the output of two sister labels from Atlanta.  As always with these things, some of the songs are deserving of their obscurity, some of them are truly incredible songs for the ages – songs that would have been radio hits in a better world – and some of them are just kind of strange. Falling into this latter category is Alice Swoboda’s “Potter’s Field.”

“Potter’s Field” leads off with a cascading acoustic guitar figure that, though quite pretty, seems very much at odds with the more conventional soul collected in The Tragar & Note Labels. It’s more of a folk-jazz riff, beautiful, calm, soothing, but with an occasional shift into double-time that throws things off a little. The drums kick in and they’re kind of jazzy too, not driving the song but instead accentuating certain beats, keeping it stuck in its halting rhythm. It’s all quite lovely and tranquil, bucolic almost, until the lyrics start poking out:

…drinking, no place to go
but run-down hotels and sleeping on the floor.
Ain’t got no money. What’s the use of a will?
‘Cause the city’s gonna bury me
in potter’s field.

All my yesterdays were once my tomorrows.
The dues I have to pay
wasn’t worth my sorrow.
Ain’t nobody’s business
if I drink all my meals.
‘Cause the city’s gonna bury me
in potter’s field.

Well, I guess I’ll go out
just the way I came.
People slapping me about,
making me feel the pain.
I’ve lost my soul,
now the devil won’t make a deal.
But there’s a six-foot hole waiting for me
in potter’s field.

Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Ian Curtis – none of them really got much bleaker than this. But Swoboda’s lovely little folk-jazz setting is peaceful and calm, giving the song a kind of opiate tranquility that makes it even bleaker and more frightening. On top of all this, there’s an extra disquieting element about “Potter’s Field:” Swoboda’s voice. It is completely emotionless. It’s not pointedly empty of emotion, like, for instance, Iggy Pop on “Sister Midnight,” trying to freak you out with his creepy monotone. It’s as if the desperation of the lyrics doesn’t touch Swoboda at all, as if she’s impossibly far-removed from that desperation. Her singing is skillful and accomplished, but her enunciation is very strangely mannered, proper, almost schoolmarmish. She oversells every consonant. She sings every line in a stilted, declamatory way, making every single syllable of “yesterdays” incredibly crisp: “All my yeSS-Terr-days.” So dignified is her delivery that it’s easier to imagine Swoboda correcting your diction than drinking all of her meals and sleeping on the floor. And the contrast between that sense of dignity in the vocals and the complete abdication of dignity in the lyrics adds another layer of tension to the song, another layer of disassociation verging on numbness. It’s as if someone is watching something happen to them, instead of experiencing it directly, watching from a far remove as they’re slapped about, as they’re being led to their very own six-foot hole. The contrast, in every element of “Potter’s Field,” between serenity and despair, propriety and abjection, makes it uncomfortable, almost disturbing, to listen to.

I remember being a little kid listening to Casey Kasem’s Top-40 Countdown in the back of a station wagon as my dad drove me and my brother to church, in the days when Whitney Houston had hit the highest point of her commercial ascent with the single “The Greatest Love of All.” The song represents my first memory of identifying the quality of sanctimony in something, though I wouldn’t have used or known that word. I specifically remember my brother and me being vaguely but persistently bothered by the climax of the song, when Whitney sings, “No matter how much they take from me, they can’t take away my dig-n-ity!” hitting, with “dignity,” an impossibly high note. I kept being bothered by that line and, with lots of boring down-time in church to think about it, I finally realized it was because that line was completely, irresponsibly false. The horrible truth struck me and scared me: they can take away your dignity. Realizing that, even in my limited, little-kid way, made me grow up just a tiny little bit, sitting, ignoring the sermon, in that pew in the Holy Redeemer Church in Lebanon, New Hampshire. You can fool yourself into believing that line if you want, I thought, but it turns out that dignity is relatively easy to strip away. And imagining situations in which one’s dignity might be stripped away, which Whitney and her songwriters accidentally invite the listener to do by spotlighting that line, takes you far, impossibly far away from the world of “The Greatest Love of All” takes you into an incredibly bleak and grim and terrifying place where the pop sunbeams of “The Greatest Love of All” can’t penetrate – a place a lot more like “Potter’s Field.”

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7 Comments |

7 Responses to “First Song of the Month: Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity”

  1. Maximilian

    Great write up, greater song. Thank you for starting this blog, look forward to more of this column.

  2. Mark Laver

    Beautiful song. Great balance of pathos and deadpan. Thanks for reminding us about the link between falseness and lack of dignity, and the fragility of one’s dignity, maybe especially when producing creative work and presenting it to the public. I think our all-too-human need for recognition often tempts us to do things that put our dignity at risk. We need a good reminder once in a while that it’s not worth it.

  3. elizabeth

    “She oversells every consonant” What a great sentence. Reminds me of Cosmopolitan Greetings by Ginsberg I was reading two nights ago: ‘Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. Syntax condensed, sound is solid. Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best. Move with rhythm, roll with vowels. Consonants around vowels make sense.’ The song IS haunting. I feel so grateful that it has the actual capability of spirit to haunt. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing…

  4. Megan

    I never really liked that Whitney Houston song either. i didn’t know that word “sanctimony” back then…my word for it was “cheesy.” i’ve always had an attraction to the slightly kilter. thanks for posting this song. it’s good to be exposed to these obscure things. i would have never known about this song. it reminds me of music that would be played to a 70’s sitcom like Mary Tyler Moore meets Good Times, but more cynical and maybe more reality-based. ain’t we lucky we got’em. 🙂 Thanks, Will!

  5. Megan

    so, i woke up this morning with more clarity and still thinking about that Whitney Houston song – thanks for getting that stuck in my head! 🙂 i didn’t remember all the words, so I had to dig up the song on YouTube and listen. after revisiting the lyrics, I felt a little more hope in what she had to say. I wonder if the context of Whitney’s preachy “they can’t take away my dignity” is less about the honor bestowed by external forces, and rather more about self-respect and acceptance – like a call to finally just accept yourself. ultimately, those outsiders are going to perceive you the way they want to – and you can’t change it. Still it really doesn’t matter what they think in the end – they can’t take away your dignity. The only one that can take it away is you by believing in the difference. It’s like what Hicks and Hicks say in the Law of Attraction “within you today lives the knowledge that you are the creator of your own life experience; that absolute freedom exists as the basis of your true experience; and that ultimately the creation of your life experience is absolutely and only up to you.” Surely sadness and suffering are part of life – like what Swoboda sings about in her “Potter’s Field”, but to use another man’s poignant words “People were always the limiters of happiness except for those who were as good as spring itself” (Hemingway – A Moveable Feast). Maybe life can seem like it’s letting you down…in the end it’s only up to you to perceive it as bolstering you up and showing you yourself. But then again, i really like sad songs… maybe it’s human to experience the despair just as much as the delight.

  6. Mark Franks

    Hey, Will. I first heard “Potter’s Field” about a year ago on the Numero Group website, and have been haunted by it ever since. I finally bought it the other day for my own collection because…well, I needed to. It is an amazing song in its simple but jarring juxtaposition of elements, as you so beautifully expound upon in your assessment of the song. Thanks to the resurrective efforts of Numero Group and the willingness of writers such as yourself to shine a light on what could well have remained in the dark, Alice’s haunting song has escaped being buried in pop music’s potter’s field. Thank you.

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