Hi Newsom fans,
A week or so ago, byaspringforaspell posted awesome audio of Joanna Newsom playing “The Sprout and the Bean” on piano. This audio reminded me of other songs which she first debuted on piano and then later recorded on the harp for Have One on Me (see this video of “Ribbon Bows” and this video of “Baby Birch”). I am wondering if there are any sources in which Newsom details her creative processes. Does she often compose her songs first on the piano? Is this because it was the first instrument she knew? What motivates her to change the main instrument of the song? What other songs did she first compose/perform on the piano that I am missing? And in addition to that, does she compose lyrics first? Harp and/or piano melodies first? How much does she use from improvisation?
This is a personal interest of mine as I struggle to write music, but is also deeply related to my wider political interest in women and music. I want there to be more chronicles of the creative and artistic processes of women because too often people ignore and denigrate those processes.
Thanks in advance for any help!
UPDATE: An early piano version of “Only Skin.” Thanks odetodeb for reminding me! But she mentions at the end of the video that she needs to play much of her set on piano because of blisters. Hmmm. Makes me wonder if she practices all her songs on both harp and piano.
[Question in reference to this post about “Baby Birch” and abortion.]
The point of the post on abortion stigma was to display how problematic interpretation, taste, attraction, and thought is in kyriarchy. We are taught and socialized from birth by the media, by literature, by education, by government, by the justice system, etc. to only value white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men. Everything we do and say and think is a part of that system and even acknowledging that we are so limited and framed by a system of many oppressions is radical. But, of course, that does not mean we do not make choices and that we are not autonomous. For example, I know I do not want to engage in capitalism at all, but the only way to not engage in capitalism at all would be to live in the woods, off the grid and how in the world has capitalist education prepared me for that? Is there a course I missed at public school about hunting and tracking animals and deserting your entire life? So, I make choices about how to engage with capitalism and at the same time, it must be said that I have many more choices than most people. Some people do not have the privilege to decide to say “hey, I’m not going to shop at Walmart” because that is the only store in their damn town as a result of years and years of unchecked capitalist hegemony. Hence, the limited choices issue I was talking about.
More importantly, acknowledging that those who are not white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men matter and have value is even more radical. Every day for me is a process of unlearning all I have been taught by kyriarchy and and every day is a process of learning about how it operates and to liberate myself and others from it. Yes, people can interpret things (especially Joanna Newsom songs) any way they want (as mentioned in my initial post), but I was just drawing attention to the fact that we are socialized and conditioned by many forces. To name a sort of trivial example in my life, I am super critical of heteronormative narratives about romance, but yet, I eat that stuff up (Downton Abbey, anyone?). I am queer and yet queer romances do not excite me in the same way heterosexual ones does. And do you know why that is? It is because I have been conditioned since the time I was born to think like that. I have been conditioned to see my worth only in relation to heterosexual relationships. I cannot help that I feel like this, but I hate it and recognizing this was such a huge, AUTONOMOUS step for me. Liberation from kyriarchy means that people will have full autonomy over themselves and we are absolutely not there yet.
Melissa pretty much summed it all up in the previous post but I think bowsandbrogues question/response is valid and it’s really tricky ground to differentiate between analyzing the abortion imagery in her songs and turning it into something different. I promise I will not use the words invasive or misogynistic in this post, although I just did.
To be one hundred percent clear, I do not think there is anything fundamentally wrong with saying “I think ‘Baby Birch’ is about abortion. I think Joanna Newsom has written songs about abortion in the past. Here are some lyrics that I think prove that. Based on this, I think it’s possible that Joanna Newsom has had an abortion and is using her music to work through those emotions.” That, like bowsandbrogues said, is analysis. If I fundamentally disagreed with the basic outline of that argument, I would not be writing for a blog like this. Because I am a giant, obsessive nerd about Joanna’s music, I also think doing those kind of things is really, really interesting.
My feminist side, though, is interested in thinking critically about the way that conversations surrounding abortion play out and I’ve been endlessly interested in seeing the kind of dialogue that “Baby Birch” has created in the fan community.
Here are some questions I think to myself when I see analysis of Baby Birch or when I see videos of her performing it with comments posted below or when some fans talk about it. These are the kind of questions I ask myself when I’m thinking about how we view abortion generally in our society and how it is playing out here, in discussion of Joanna’s music.
Why is the first reaction always “OMG this is sooooooo sad”? Why is there not more discussion of the strength in the song? The defiance? Why is it almost invariably interpreted as a sorrowful song about a “lost” child, rather than an empowering song about a woman’s choice and how that choice has affected her life, how she is coming to terms with it?
Does our reaction to the song say something about how we view women’s desire to have children? Are we pitying the narrator’s choice because we think, deep down, she really wants a baby and that she had an abortion against her will because her boyfriend didn’t want one? Is that the narrative we are constructing?
Does it say something that “Baby Birch” has received more fan analysis than possibly any other one of Joanna’s songs? Is abortion a topic that people want to talk about because they want to create conversations about women’s choice/empowerment or is it because abortion is taboo/salacious in our society and it feels thrilling to talk about the possibility that someone would so openly admit having one?
What do you all think? I’m not expecting anyone to answer those questions, but maybe they’ll spur on some thoughts about this topic. I think it is so important to talk about these things but, at the same time, to think about how we are talking about them. I don’t engage in conversations about whether or not Joanna Newsom, the person, had an abortion, because (at least to me) it’s irrelevant to the analysis of the song and doesn’t add anything to the fact that the song is an enormously powerful and beautiful exploration of heartbreak and healing.
It’s the same way that I find conversations about whether or not Sufjan Stevens is gay/Christian/a space alien totally unnecessary to my interpretations and enjoyment of his songs.
…. with apologies for my complete inability to say anything succinctly.
I love the points that everyone is making in response to “’Baby Birch’ is a Baby Lost”. I think it is one of the most moving songs on Have One on Me. I guess I am inclined to interpret the lost child as one that was dreamt about or desired on the narrator’s behalf. The most problematic part of the song, for me, is the end. I think the violence in that scene is what has led a lot of listeners to interpret it as abortion. I will address this towards the end of my response, but I wanted to think about some things that scrapeyourknee brought up in suggesting that “Baby Birch” is a clear answer to a history of abortion imagery in Joanna’s work.
To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how the concept of abortion has presented itself in Joanna’s music prior to “Baby Birch”, but scrapeyourknee’s attention to the word “murthering” in “Sawdust and Diamonds” has triggered something with me that I’d love to hear all of your thoughts on (although I can’t say that this is a particularly well thought out theory).
I’m struck by the similarity between the words “murther” and “mother”. Scrapeyourknee suggested that the “murthering stake” represents the surgical procedure of abortion. Princepsfemina is suggesting that the stake represents a splitting of the soul (ie, an end of a relationship between two people who may or may not be soul mates). I hope I’m interpreting those thoughts correctly. I guess, with this theory, I am melding the two.
Could it be that the “murthering stake” is a play on words, that we are meant to hear it as an amalgamation of the words “mother” and “murder”? Maybe. In doing so, I’ve come to consider the song as a discussion of the breakdown of the relationship (splitting of the souls) because of the woman’s desire to have children. In other words, her “mothering” nature, one that is central to her identity, was the stake that split the two lovers. She discusses her “desire” repeatedly in the song, and towards the end says, “You would have seen me through/but I could not undo that desire”.
I find the line “And they will recognize all the lines of your face/ in the face of the daughter, of the daughter, of my daughter” interesting because she calls the daughter hers, but is discussing it having the features of the father. She does not call the child “your daughter”, although she repeats the phrase three times and very well could have. She could be suggesting that the daughter was something she wanted, and he did not, and would therefore never truly be his or, in reference to that line “what was yours and mine/appears to be a sandcastle that the gibbering wave takes”, theirs.
I think that, maybe, “Sawdust and Diamonds” is less about an abortion, and more about the female narrator’s struggle with what is a desire (a “bell” in her ears, a “wide, white roar”) to have children, a desire that she cannot escape, although she attempts to drown it by dropping it off a dock. It’s a desire that she, later in the song, curses: “It is the damnable bell!/ And it tolls, oh I believe that it tolls- for me!/Oh it tolls for me!”
I suppose what I am trying to say, very ineloquently, is that I don’t necessarily see “Sawdust and Diamonds” being about an abortion, and therefore can’t for certain say that “Baby Birch” is an affirmation of what has always been present in Joanna’s music in that regard. Like Princepsfemina, I’m more inclined to see the death of the child as a figurative one.
This brings me back to the final verse of “Baby Birch”, where the narrator violently skins a rabbit. Joanna is playing with the Margaret Wise Brown story, “Runaway Bunny”, in which a bunny attempts to run away from its mother in various ways, and the mother always finds it. It’s a story about maternal instincts and homing instincts, and I think Joanna is engaging these ideas through the image of the skinned rabbit.
I think Joanna is using the rabbit to represent a very primal desire of hers to be a mother. I don’t necessarily think that the rabbit is meant to be a child. I see it representing a more abstract desire for a child. In “Sawdust and Diamonds”, she is almost apologetic about her inability to control her desire to have children (“Settle down, settle down my desire”). She’s lamenting the loss of a relationship because she can’t suppress her maternal instincts, almost as if she wishes she could. Here, she is grabbing hold of them (figuratively, through the rabbit), laying them bare (skinning and slicing the rabbit), and instead of apologizing, she revels in the kill. She threatens the rabbit “wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I will find you”. I see this entire scene as an incredibly powerful one in which Joanna (or the narrator) takes ownership of her desire to have children, and vows to herself (to her own damaged desires, to the skinned rabbit) that she is the one in control.
I think “Baby Birch” is a goodbye to the child she dreamed of having in the relationship that she discusses in “Sawdust and Diamonds”. That’s my 2 million cents.
I don’t know, maybe I am soooo off base. I would like to explore this train of thought more. What do you think?
[EDITOR’S NOTE from Melissa in 2013: This was my first post on Blessing All the Birds and I have a different interpretation of this song now. I now believe this song could be about an abortion and I analyze my own relationship with abortion stigma and the song here.]
I, too, googled Joanna Newsom and feminism recently. I came upon a review of Have One on Me in which Jonah Weiner from Slate avers that “Baby Birch” is about an abortion (or a least a baby lost through adoption). I think this is a provocative argument and it made me re-assess my interpretation of the song. However, I am hesitant to say it is about an abortion or even an adoption. I instead want to offer another interpretation, one I believe seems more in line with Joanna’s repertoire and her recent comments to Mojo about motherhood.*
The language throughout the song is certainly one of deep loss concerning a child, a baby-girl she “will never know.” The narrator sings that she “hated to close the door” on Baby Birch (which interestingly connects the song to “Go Long” and its images of women opening doors, but that could be for another time). But I think the song’s narrator is closing the door on her dreams of a particular child, possibly with a particular person, rather than on a real pregnancy or child that was lost.
She had imagined childhood for this baby (“Do you remember staring, /Up at the stars,/ So far away in their bulletproof cars?”) and wanted her to have an ideal life (“Because I’d hate to see her/ Make the same mistakes”). The narrator was even consoled by this dream during trying times (“When it was dark,/ I called and you came”).
By the end of the song, she resolves to obliterate this dream of Baby Birch once and for all after it returned from a long absence (“Well mercy me, I’ll be goddamned./ It’s been a long, long time/Since I last saw you”). Perhaps, the dream of the child is now too painful to bear because she had envisioned the baby with a certain someone who is now gone. The narrator reveals that the child had an amorphous visage and I think that image at least eliminates the adoption possibility, while still supporting the abortion possibility (“Your eyes are green. Your hair is gold./Your hair is black. Your eyes are blue”).
I believe the dream-obliteration scene transpires during the grisly rabbit-sacrifice scene at the end of “Baby Birch.” The female rabbit represents her dream of the baby-girl and she decides to mutilate it and frighten it away from her consciousness (and subconsciousness). The narrator even warns the rabbit/dream not to come back or else (“‘Wherever you go,/ Little runaway bunny,/ I will find you’”). I have always been troubled with the “mewling” rabbit, but I really do not think this could represent an abortion. However, that is not to say Joanna is not courageous enough to do so and it is not as if her work is devoid of disturbing imagery.
* I realize much of Joanna’s corpus is probably biographical as well as fantastical, though that has only veritably been confirmed for Ys. But I am always wary of taking that route when I analyze anyone’s poetry. It is especially easy to fall prey to biographical readings when the poetry is as seemingly personal as Joanna’s. I am also avoiding a biographical reading because I have found people too focused on finding Bill Callahan lurking in Have One on Me’s lyrics. Let us all interpret this song and others from Have One on Me without such a muddy context.
Anyway, what do you guys think? Adoption, abortion, dream, or something else?