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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Making Americayana: Burn So Bright

Most of the songs on Americayana were written and recorded in the order they appear on the album, but "Burn So Bright" is the major exception - it was the first song written for the album, and in a lot of ways laid out the framework of the whole project.



The spark of the idea that became "Burn So Bright" came more than ten years ago, while listening to a song that might as well be Holy Scripture within the country music canon: "Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash. I had spent some time in grad school studying a famous episode that pops up some form in nearly every version of the Ramayana: the agnipariksha, or the test of fire.

In most versions of the story, Sita, the wife of the exiled king Rama (who is usually considered to be an avatar of the god Vishnu, sent to earth to destroy the ten-headed demon Ravana) is kidnapped by Ravana and taken to his kingdom of Lanka. Rama leads an army to defeat the demons, kill Ravana, and free Sita. But then a curious thing happens: Rama tells Sita that, since she has lived in another man's house, she has been defiled; while it was his duty to save her, she's no longer worthy of being his wife. Sita declares that she remains entirely pure and not only never allowed Ravana to touch her, but never let her mind wander from Rama. She then (depending upon the version) either orders that a fire be built so that she may enter it to prove her purity, or is told by Rama that such is the only way he can be sure of her faithfulness. Sita enters the fire and remains untouched by the flames, proving her purity and giving Rama the justification to take her back (there are also versions in which Rama and Sita are described as planning the whole thing to happen as it did, with a shadow version of Sita created specifically to be kidnapped by Ravana, while the real Sita was spirited off for safekeeping by the fire god Agni; in these versions the fire test is simply how the real Sita is returned to our world).

With the story of the fire test bouncing around in my head, all it took was hearing the chorus of "Ring of Fire" one day to suddenly make me realize that at its core, the narrative structure of the Ramayana is basically that of a country tune: a seemingly true love destroyed by suspicion, with the murder of the "other man" thrown in to make it extra juicy. By that time I had also encountered the work of Nina Paley, who was at the time creating some fantastic Flash animations of characters from the Ramayana set to the songs of Annette Hanshaw (she would eventually bring them all together in the fantastic full-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, which you can watch or download for free).

Nina's work helped make clear to me the potential for cross-pollination in two ostensibly very different artistic traditions. Like many versions of the story that I had read or heard, her work also highlights just how unfair and misogynist the entire notion of the fire test is (the versions where Sita is hidden by Agni that I noted above would seem to be attempts to deal with the uncomfortable idea of a supposed paragon of virtue acting like such a cruel jerk).

So, when I decided to write a country song retelling the Ramayana, I wanted to accomplish two things: to reframe the story within the idioms of country music, and to retell the story from Sita's perspective. The first task wasn't tough; I didn't quite know yet why the Rama character was out on the road, but the ramblin' exile is an established trope in the genre. The Ravana character, instead of disguising himself as a mendicant sage to kidnap Sita as in most versions of the story, becomes a door-to-door salesman of bibles and knives who just happens to be in the right(?) place at the right time. Along the way, the theme that emerged from the Sita character's perspective was how hard, even infuriating, it must be to be married to someone who can (or thinks they can) do no wrong: "best intentions make an awful mess," as she says in the song. Perhaps, faced with living with that kind of self-righteousness all the time, she might have actually been looking for a way out, and who could blame her? In this version, she becomes the agent of what happens to her rather than the object.

After I finished the song back in 2008 or so, I took it to my band at the time, The Lost Cartographers. Our keyboardist, Erin Fusco, gave it a compositional polish, adding in the chord changes in the pre-chorus and the outro, and together the band performed it live a number of times. Eventually we figured it didn't quite fit with some of the other songs were doing, and I decided that someday I was going to do a Ramayana concept album that I would somehow fit "Burn So Bright" into.

While it was the first song written for the album, its recording was done in sequence, so I had already finished a good chunk of the album before I sat down to record this. Given the relatively mellow songs on either side of it I decided I wanted to keep the rocking feel of the Lost Cartographers' version, but maybe even kick it up a notch into a kind of messy garage rock tune. The stomps and claps that provide the backbone of the percussion for the song were recorded in my dining room (I love that you can still kind of hear the glasses in our wine rack clinking together), and were recycled from a recording of "My Name Is Charles Guiteau" that I did as a promotional piece for a production of Assassins. My lovely wife provided the vocals, one of two songs on the album in which she provides the voice of our heroine.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Making Americayana (Part I)

Inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Song Exploder, I've decided to do a series of blog posts about the making of my new album, Americayana.

One of the questions that I've gotten a lot over the last few years when it came up in conversation that I was working on a alternative country album about Hindu mythology(no, seriously, it did actually come up in conversation) was: how did you get interested in all this?

The truth is that I've been interested in "mythology" - which we'll define for the sake of expediency as "shared narrative traditions concerning the heroic or divine" - since I was a small child. In first grade, when each of us had to bring a book to read to the class, I chose a child's adaptation of the story of Demeter and Persephone. From Greek mythology, I moved on to Arthurian legend and Celtic myth, and designed my own major in Comparative Mythology at Oberlin College.

It was at Oberlin that I first found out about the story of Rama and Sita, in a class on Hindu Mythology taught by one of the greatest teachers I've ever had, Paula Richman. Through her classes and her books (I can't recommend the edited volumes Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas highly enough) she made me see not only what great stories were contained in this diverse narrative tradition, but also how compelling they had been - and still are - to millions of people across thousands of years. I learned about not only the historical epic, first written down in Sanskrit between 300 BCE and 300 CE, but about how these tales still provided models for how people could and should live their lives in media as diverse as 1980s state-run Indian television and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. I learned about the ways these stories were still vibrant in everything from art-house LGBT cinema to fundamentalist politics and everything in between.

I was, in short, hooked. One of the subjects of my honors thesis was the relationship of Rama and Sita, and I went on to do a master's degree and several years toward a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, studying (among other things) the way that tellings in different media changed the story of the Sita's trial by fire and uses of the Rama story in anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist activism. I spent a summer in Jaipur, Rajasthan, studying Hindi. And while I never did finish that Ph.D., I also never lost my love for these characters, or for the storytellers who have brought them to life over and over in so many different forms for so many centuries. Americayana is my own humble contribution to that tradition, and over the rest of the posts in this series I'll share some of the stories behind the songs.


Of course, if there's anything specific you'd like to know about, leave a comment and I'll be sure to address your question. Thanks for listening!