The Wildwood in The Decemberists

Wildwood Cover Carson Ellis Colin MeloyLast week I reviewed Wildwood by Colin Melot and Carson Ellis. Colin Melot, who is the literary creator of the NewYorkTimes bestseller Wildwood Chronicles, is also the chief lyricist for Grammy-award winning The Decemberists. One might wonder what children’s writing has to do with leading an alternative roots band.

We shouldn’t be too shocked by the day jobs of some of our most beloved writers. J.R.R. Tolkien worried over The Hobbit while giving technical lectures as a philologist. Word has it that Douglas Adams was a relatively unsuccessful day labourer before becoming a personal bodyguard. Goethe was a lawyer, I think, Margaret Atwood served coffee and taught first-year writing, and J.K. Rowling was going to teacher’s college when she finished Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienThere are connections between these pre-careers and the writings that follow. Goethe’s civil service is essential to the class context of his books. Atwood’s writing is structured beautifully, language is essential to The Hobbit, the collegial setting to Harry Potter is absolutely key to that story, and Douglas Adams… well, he’s random, isn’t he?

I think for Colin Meloy, the connection between his day job and his children’s writing is even more intimate. The lyrical content of The Decemberist’s songs and the writing of Wildwood share a deep connection with place, and both evoke the otherworldliness of down-the-street and across-the-river. Wildwood is about a fantasy world on the threshold of urban Portland; Meloy’s music, though set in everyday life, is every bit on the threshold between the tangible and the imaginative.

The Decemberists The King is DeadA small bite tour of the Decemberist’s recent album, The King is Dead, will show the deep evocation of place that also fills Wildwood. I’ve linked to the three songs below, but first we’ll look at some of the poetry itself.

The Decemberists draw on deep Celtic and Americana roots traditions, creating albums filled with ballads, ellegies, and hymnic melodies. Indeed, Meloy writes contemporary folk hymns. One of my favourites is June Hymn:

Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day
Heralding a summer’s early sway
And all the bulbs all coming in,
To begin
The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens
Disrupts my reverie again

Pegging clothing on the line
Training jasmine how to vine
Up the arbor to your door,
And more
You’re standing on the landing with the war
You shouldered all the night before

[Chorus:]
And once upon it
The yellow bonnets
Garland all the line
And you were waking
And day was breaking
A panoply of song
And summer comes to Springville Hill

A barony of ivy in the trees
Expanding out it’s empire by degrees
And all the branches burst a’ bloom
Into bloom
Heaven sent this cardinal, maroon
To decorate our living room

[Chorus:]

And years from now
When this old light isn’t ambling anymore
Will I bring myself to write
“I give my best to Springville Hill”

Walking In Wildwood Carson Ellis drawingC.S. Lewis once quipped that the most beautiful English phrase was Cellar Door. It captured, he thought, a euphonic ring together with a lovely, homely image. To me, there are phrases that do the same in this song: “Pegging clothing on the line / Training jasmine how to vine / Up the arbor to your door / And more” and “Heaven sent this cardinal, maroon / To decorate our living room.”

In Rox in the Box we have a similar combination of resonant tones with a story that haunts of a nearby world. Here is the first verse:

Get the rox in the box, get the water right down to your socks
This bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren bones
We all do what we can, we endure our fellow man
And we sing our songs to the head frames creaks and moans

And it’s one, two, three on the wrong side of the lee
What were you meant for? What were you meant for?
And it’s seven, eight, nine, you get your shuffle back in line
And if you ever make it to ten you won’t make it again

Walking In Wildwood Carson Ellis drawingIntriguingly, Meloy often links the gritty life of the miner or the water-edge danger of a seaman or the soil-stained fingernails of the Green St. gardener with an ethical response to everyday life. In “Rox in the Box” we “endure our fellow man.” In Don’t Carry It All he ponders what it means to be a neighbour.

Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
The neighbors blessed burden, within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all in one

[Chorus:]
But nobody, nobody knows
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders
Don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all
We are all our hands in holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun
But this I swear to all

A monument to build beneath the arbors
Upon a cliff the that towers towards the trees
But every vessel pitching hard to starboard
Lay it’s head on summers freckled knees

[Chorus:]
And nobody, nobody knows
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders
Don’t carry it all don’t carry it all
We are all our hands in holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun
This I swear to all, this I swear to all

Buried wreath of trillium and ivy
Laid upon the body of the boy
Lazy will the long come from its hiding
Return his quiet certitude to the soil

So raise a glass to turnings of the season
And watch it as it arcs towards the sun
And you must bear your neighbor’s burden within reason
And your labors will be borne when all is done

[Chorus:]
And nobody, nobody knows
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders
Don’t carry it all don’t carry it all
We are all our hands in holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun

And this I swear to all

Southwood by Carson Ellis MeloyWhether it beckons us to our own back yard or to a magical garden beyond an pinewood threshold, Meloy’s music draws us to respond. We “raise a glass to turnings of the season / And watch it as it arcs towards the sun / And you must bear your neighbor’s burden within reason / And your labors will be borne when all is done.”

While Wildwood draws together otherworldliness through art and lyric, The Decemberists do so in song. Even the melody is spiced with sea-salt air and strung with ivy. As far as day jobs go, I think that Colin Meloy has chosen well, and we are richer for the effect he weaves in his fantasy literature.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to The Wildwood in The Decemberists

  1. I MUST thank you for clearing up a mystery for me. For years I have remembered my father quoting “someone” about Cellar Door being the most beautiful combination of sounds in the English language. Surprise!

    And thank you for introducing me to this wonderful poet lyricist.

    Like

  2. elly2122 says:

    Great post! I love the Decemberists and I was unaware Colin Melot wrote a children’s book. I will definitely be checking it out!

    Like

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