by Kevin Burton
In college, I was the guy arguing that rock and roll is poetry. I was probably saying it is the real poetry.
No, not the “Shake Your Booty,” kind of rock. We’re talking the “Sounds of Silence” or “Both Sides Now,” that kind.
Real poetry, as opposed to someone saying “silver, silken, somber sleep” or some such and nobody knows what they’re talking about.
I may flesh out that argument again sometime. For now I will say the music of Susan Ashton, circa 1992, should be considered poetry and leave it at that.
This is album challenge post number 19. The focus is “Angels of Mercy” by Susan Ashton.
There was a time when I was spinning Susan Ashton tunes just about non-stop. I would switch to my James Taylor live double album on Saturday nights to get some feel of going to a concert, having an actual life.
I don’t think Ashton was doing anything new, she was just doing it extraordinarily well. She doesn’t write her own songs, but she sure knows how to interpret what she is given.
The sheer spiritual and cultural literacy of songs written by Wayne Kirkpatrick, Phil Madiera and others combined with Ashton’s swooping, soaring voice stopped me in my tracks. The vocals are countrified but not altogether country, which is how I like my country.
I don’t know that I am down with 100 percent of the notions presented on the record. But the lyrics encourage intellectual curiosity and honesty of the listener. I have a ton of respect for that.
Even if the conversations begun in these songs don’t always come to the conclusion I want, or to any conclusion, they are conversations worth having. Case in point, the song “Innocence Lost.”
“Better Angels Of Our Nature,” written by Kirkpatrick, is a call for grace and mercy in the face of mob justice. The title is of course a reference to the famous quote by Abraham Lincoln.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln said.
That call for unity in Civil War times, if uttered in today’s climate would be shouted down completely. This song in the context of God’s mercy carries the message of not casting the first stone.
“Let the gavel fall slowly through truth’s been revealed. Sequester the jury for a moment’s appeal. And in the court of compassion I hope we can appeal to the better angels of our nature,” is a partial lyric.
“Started As A Whisper” makes the case for compassion in a different way. It tells the story of an unwed mother-to-be who shows up in church looking for “a friendly hand to help her through.” The church members are judgmental and cold. Her hope fades and we see “faces draped in doubt ushering her out.”
I’m not sure what the point of “Alice In Wonderland” is supposed to be. Alice is a believer who has a mental challenge. “She paints her world in yellow and green, covering over the gray.” She is harmless enough, first cousin to Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn.” Not sure why she shows up on this album though.
The song “Hunger And Thirst” is the only one I have ever sung as special music in a church. Just so you know.
“Walk On By” is an encouragement to resist temptation, with the lyric “favoring a fatal attraction will take you down a piece at a time.” The organ on the song testifies, the saxophone says, “amen.”
“When Are You Coming Back,” also written by Kirkpatrick, is especially satisfying these days. The song starts with some blues licks on guitar. Each verse tells the story of a person struggling under the weight of way too many everyday burdens, before heading back to that musical question, “Lord, Lord, when are you coming back?” Of course all these characters “hope it’s gonna be soon, real soon.”
Amen to that.