Short Essays on Favorite Songs, Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Songbook
To celebrate the release of Nick Hornby’s Songbook, several authors wrote in about their favorite songs.
“Everything Is Free” by Gillian Welch.
From Moss Point, Mississippi—Dad’s hometown—we cut a diagonal north through Alabama, en route to Nashville, Tennessee. We passed SUVs with patriotic stickers on their rears, and a sign that has stood for as long as I can remember on the side of I-65 North: GO TO CHURCH… OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU, it threatened, that last part in red letters. A few miles later, a billboard advertised Montgomery’s main tourist draw: Civil-Rights History.
Mom and I drove most of the way, while Dad slept. He was suffering from a bad cold, made all the worse over four days of preparing for and attending his mother’s funeral, held the day after Christmas. I’d spent Christmas night with him, typing while he dictated the words he’d written to read at Irma’s funeral. His throat was so sore he didn’t want to swallow even the Miller Lite my cousin offered him. The day after the funeral, his voice had gone fully hoarse, making him sound as though he’d become a very old man overnight.
At one point on the way home, I looked to the backseat to see if Dad was awake. His eyes were closed, head tilted back on the seat. There was a crusted dribble of something on the front of his flannel shirt. A canister of fat-free Pringles had spilled open on the seat beside him, crumbling all over a bag of books I’d brought along and a cutting of resurrection fern Mom was bringing back. I felt, then, an uncomfortable urge to take my father’s picture. And I followed up on that urge with my digital camera. He was not so asleep, I found, and good-humoredly mumbled something about his hair being awful wild for picture-taking. When I’d looked at him before taking the picture, he’d looked tired and unhappy, his mouth set in the shape of an unused staple, the familiar furrow between his eyebrows (partly to blame for his many headaches, my mother believes) deep enough to sow seeds in. When I looked at the image my camera captured seconds later, there was the most aged version of my father I’d ever seen. I started to delete it, then didn’t.
What music were we listening to at that moment? It’s possible we’d reached a silent spot. There was a time in my family’s history when that would have been unthinkable; there was always music. Today we listened to music much of the drive, but it felt unintentional, not the result of any mutual desire or eager choice on anyone’s part. Five CDs were in the Acura’s changer: some opera, some classical, Disc 1 of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a Phish CD, and Gillian Welch’s Time: The Revelator. They were in there (had been for weeks, I suppose), so we just let them play. But when Gillian Welch was on, I sung along softly and almost cried, just as I had the night before.
The previous day, Dad and his brother Al had spent the day going through documents and papers at my grandmother’s house. When they reached a stopping point, we drove maybe a mile north, along the McInnis bayou, to Uncle Al’s house. He fixed us plastic cups of Jack and Coke, and then he offered to take us to dinner at the China Garden “boofet.” So off we went in my parents’ car. Time: The Revelator was playing softly in the car on the way there, and I sang along; I couldn’t help it. It played on the way back, too, and as we pulled into my uncle’s driveway, the song “Everything Is Free” —one of my absolute favorites on that album, and in Welch’s repertoire in general—came on. After the first plaintive, weaving notes of David Rawling’s guitar, something happened that surprised me: my father turned the volume up. We’d be out of the car in less than a minute, but he turned the volume up. Did he feel as strongly about this song as I? I figured he did, and I savored that moment as a kind of connection between us. Lately, I’d found it hard to connect with my father in more direct ways. He seemed so cordoned off by worries and back pains, so quick to retreat to his office or his bed. But I knew from that behavior, too.
Anyway, back to the drive home: after we ended up driving in silence for some miles, my father asked me to “put us on some good music.” I was delighted at his show of interest. I leafed through my CD case, thinking, “Mellow, but not melancholy,” and chose Tortoise’s TNT. Twenty minutes later, Dad asked me if I would burn him a copy of it. He liked it! Score. I was getting a glimpse of my father as I wanted him to be, as I knew he could be.
“Sure thing,” I said.
“Oh, but maybe you shouldn’t do that, you know, because it’s stealing,” he said, sounding half-serious. “You know, Gillian Welch has a wonderful song about music piracy, called ‘Everything Is Free.’”
“I love that song—that’s one of my favorites of hers,” I gushed, remembering how he’d turned the volume up the night before. “But I never thought—”
“It’s so clever, because she never even mentions music piracy directly, but the song is clearly all about that.” He began reciting lyrics: “Everything I ever done / Gonna give it away… Someone hit the big score / They figured it out / Now we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay…” He chuckled. He was thrilled by the thought of it. There was energy in his voice that I hadn’t heard in a while.
But music piracy? “Everything Is Free”? For me, this song had always been about hitting bottom and settling in, coming to terms with all the shit that’s come down, accepting your lot in life. Accepting the poverty of an artist’s life; or maybe just accepting the sadness that’s been heaped upon you. Letting go or giving in, peacefully. Okay, well, the truth is, I’d never formed a strong analysis for this song; I just felt like I got it on some deep, raw, intuitive level. Any time I needed a dose of sweet melancholy, “Everything Is Free” did the trick. It simply seemed to make sense to me, though I couldn’t say exactly why.
But I’d definitely never considered that this lovely little song might have anything to do with CD-Rs or illegal file-sharing.
“I don’t know…” I said slowly. I thought about the lyrics. He had a point… “I guess it could be about that.”
“It is about that,” he said. “Put it on, let’s listen to it.”
So I took out TNT and found Time: The Revelator in the changer again, and skipped to track nine.
Now it was my father who echoed Welch, offering little bits of commentary along the way: “If there’s something that you wanna hear / You can sing it yourself… I think she’s maybe just a little angry, don’t you?” he said playfully. “It’s pretty clever how she’s able to get all that across without ever directly mentioning it; you know, I had to hear it several times before I understood what it was about.”
I could do two things at this point: I could enter into a debate with Dad, toss out a loose articulation of my reading of the song and see if he saw any validity in it, too. It could be a fruitful intellectual exchange, maybe. Or, I could accept his reading. After all, I didn’t know how to say what I thought the damn song was about, anyway. All I could say with any confidence, I realized then, was how it made me feel. But I couldn’t really say that, either. Not now.
“That really is interesting,” I said. “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”
But now I will, every time I hear it. I’ll also hold fast to my belief that the song is about more than that. But I will accept that “Everything Is Free” could be about music piracy, because if anyone could take a culturally hot topic and turn it into one of the sweetest sad songs ever written, Gillian Welch is the one to do it, and end up making all us soft-hearts with penchants for the blues stare off into the distance, misty-eyed. Of course, the song now has a third layer of meaning for me: it’ll make me think of my father, and the Christmas that his mother, my last living grandparent, went to—as Welch would sing it— “shake her Savior’s hand”; and music meant something to my family once again, and Dad and I bonded, in a way, over it all. And yes, I will burn him a copy of any CD of mine that he wants.
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