Revisiting the darker themes of death and despair in mp3 mixes for Halloween season walking, I was struck unexpectedly by the Violent Femmes “Country Death Song” from the 1985 album Hallowed Ground.
But I never fully appreciated the song before. Listening to it on earphones while walking really brought out the seemingly schizophrenic despair of the tune. The father thinks himself into craziness.
More importantly, the earphones bring out the details of a beautiful arrangement. They’re working with their basic acoustic trio lineup, which established their more than Sun-records-worthy jamming credentials on their famous eponymous debut album. Brian Ritchie on acoustic bass really makes this band, and gives them a righteous bit of jazz edge.
But this recording has a critical additional instrument: banjo. The more I listen to it, the more interesting Tony Trischka’s playing here becomes. The point of the song emotionally is despair, not typically an emotional territory associated with banjo playing. Indeed, Steve Martin got one of his funnier stand-up routines out of how nearly impossible it is to play sad songs on this happy instrument.
Yet the narrator talks his way into despair so deep that killing his beloved young daughter to deliver her from the evils of this world looks like a good idea- and it’s really the banjo specifically that most clearly represents the instrumental expression of this demonic possession.
I said “make a wish, make sure and not tell and
Close your eyes dear, and count to seven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.”
I gave her a push, I gave her a shove.
I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love.
I threw my child into a bottomless pit.
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit.
What really makes the song is the instrumental jam after he throws the daughter down the well. Indeed, they pay off that anguish and despondency so well instrumentally that the subsequent announcement of his impending suicide that ends the song seems a bit redundant.