Down-and-Outers, Global Edition

There’s a lot going on in the world and it has me wanting to get back to writing for other people.

So let’s start with the thing I didn’t expect to resonate with me this week: Nanci Griffith.

Griffith, a Texas singer-songwriter who enjoyed her greatest success in the late ‘80s/early ’90s, passed away Friday at age 68. I haven’t listened much lately, but she was an absolute staple as my tastes grew twangier in the years after leaving school. (She and John Hiatt were staples on the Portland, Maine radio station I listened to while working up there.) She has this high, delicate voice and is a very powerful poet — think Tift Merritt, crossed with a Texas bar room. Her albums, especially Late Night Grande Hotel and Other Voices, Other Rooms (which was all covers delivered through her musical prism) opened up a whole world of music to me.

On Late Night Grande Hotel is a song, The Down-and-Outer, about a person who just can’t cross over to the American Dream. The second verse gets right to it:

I won’t hurt your family

I don’t want a house there on your street

And I know you think that I’m

As lazy as a hobo’s sigh

Now, you call me down ’n’ outer

If there’s a way out

I’ve not found ‘er

I only want to earn my piece of America

As lazy as a hobo’s sigh …

Like I said, the lady could write a line. And she gets at the essential truth. Nobody chooses to be down ’n’ out. Nobody chooses to be born in Port au Prince or Kabul or Shreveport … all people want is to be known and valued.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to Nanci Griffith this weekend when it seems like every down-and-out country (Haiti, Afghanistan) is buckling under bad fortune or worse intentions, mixed with a hefty dose of incompetence or inattention. Or all of the above. And there’s plenty going on here in America, with our own Down-and-Outers. It’s enough to make my eyes roll back in my head and my brain to beg, look away. Yet I keep remembering my experience in Haiti, which tells me, These are real people, with real lives. They laugh, they cry, they dream, they despair, they die, they hustle, they rest, they grieve, they remember. They persevere. And I wonder what can I do to honor and help these very real people from this position of privilege? (I ended up donating to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which has connections to groups on the ground in the country.)

No larger answers this weekend, but I’m thinking about what is not earned but owed to these people, and feeling sad that this world’s answer is awfully little. And about another song from Late Night, San Diego Serenade (written by Tom Waits), and the line that closes it’s chorus:

I never heard the melody till I needed the song

Desperately needing that melody about now.

If you want to dive into Nancy Griffith, Late Night Grande Hotel is a good start.


Some things to consider …

If you haven’t read George Packer’s Four America in The Atlantic, I heartily recommend you do. It won’t solve anything, but it allowed me to think about how I map against his four countries (Free, Smart, Real, Just) in one.

My favorite music act these days, Jason Isbell, is insisting that concert-goers provide proof vaccination or get tested before attending his concerts on the current tour. In fact, he canceled a show when the venue wouldn’t meet that test. Here he is explaining his stance. My favorite line:

I’m all for freedoms, but if you’re dead, you don’t have freedoms at all … It’s life and then it’s liberty, and then it’s the pursuit of happiness, those are in order of priority.

Apple has been making some very interesting decisions about how it will keep tabs on your iPhone, regarding child sexual abuse material (CSAM). While it currently concerns this most abhorrent of “content”, the ability to scan one’s phone opens up many possibilities. I recently returned to the iPhone for security, among a short list of reasons (iMessage, Photos, and the weather app Dark Sky were the others), and I’m now wondering if perhaps I overvalued Apple’s approach vs. Android. Also, my Pixel 4a simply worked better. My iPhone 12 is kinda dumb and clunky in comparison. This might be considered heresy, but there it is.

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