Way back in the dark ages when I first began writing this blog, I called it an mp3 blog and featured some of my favorite music from around the world. Those posts and songs are still here, though they’ve been subsumed under thousands of posts about the daily horrors of the Israeli Occupation.
But in honor of the wonder, beauty and power of song, I’d like to take you back to those days of yesteryear and feature one of the most wonderful pieces of songwriting I’ve heard in years. I first heard this song a few weeks ago on my local roots radio station, KBCS. I knew it was Marianne Faithfull singing and I knew the lyrics were killer. But you know how it is: I was in the car, only heard a few snatches of lyrics, didn’t hear the song credits, meant to look it up in the program playlist. Never got around to it.
Tonight, for some reason I started looking for it. Couldn’t find anything digging through old program playlists. Then, thinking perhaps the DJ may’ve been playing something from Faithfull’s most recent album, I hit pay dirt. The song is That’s How Every Empire Falls. It was written by a hitherto unknown Knoxville singer-songwriter, R.B. Morris (website), and appears on his Spies, Lies and Burning Eyes. John Prine recorded a masterful, haunting (as only John can do) cover in 2008 on his Fair and Square EP.
Finally, Faithfull recorded her own cover of the song for her new album, Vagabond Ways.
The lyrics are a haunting allegory in which the frailties of the human heart are woven into the decline of an empire. It seems, at least for me, that the best songs are the ones that somehow connect the heart with the deeper truths of human society. First, listen to the song and as you hear the last words (lyrics here), read these words and think of the 9/11 attacks, all those miserable years under George Bush, and all the lost opportunities we’ve had as a great nation humbled by our own hubris:
A bitter wind blows through the country
A hard rain falls on the sea
If terror comes without a warning
There must be something we don’t see
What fire begets this fire?
Like torches thrown into the straw
If no one asks, then no one answers
That’s how every empire falls.
What is it about such a song that distills human experience in such a primal, powerful way? It’s something like the role prayer and religion served at one time (and still for some) in human society.