It would be easy to mock the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real”, with its lurid and rather literal cover. Easy that is, until you listen to a song of evident sincerity. We are all surely familiar with doing things against our better nature, against our best interests, for no good reason, repeating the same patterns of destruction (whether overt or silent destruction). We have all experienced Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, or the corrosive effect of hatred, or the numbing effect of indifference. The Louvin Brothers, or rather the Loudermilk brothers, themselves had turbulent lives, and it would be a fool who would mock this song of all the broken people baffled by the incomprehensible entry of evil into their lives. Which, sadly, will turn out to be all of us.
From the Republic of Conscience was written by Seamus Heaney in 1985 at the request of Mary Lawlor, then head of Amnesty International in Ireland. While I find it perhaps a little bit too cutely virtuous as it goes on, I do love the opening image – or rather soundscape. To hear the curlew, you need
When I landed in the republic of conscience
It was so noiseless when the engines stopped.
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunder storms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
The call of the curlew is its best known feature – indeed, the potential disappearance of this sound from the soundscape of the countryside is one of the most potent emotional factors that gets people’s attention about their plight. Here is a haunting piece of music inspired by the call.
Twenty millennia ago
when we made spears,
we did so, gazing at you.
We chipped flint
and sang our bison songs
in soot and pigment.
We begged old bones for marrow.
Wrapping sinew, binding
stone to wood, we crouched
on red clay
inventing new vocabulary:
to stalk, to hunt, to terrify
against every sharp thing
we painted our faces
ochre, stretched skin
till it pounded,
and gathered twigs
to feed your crimson
fury. Your blood-flame
sears our eyes; we raise
our sulfured veins to you.
The white smoke rises.
We scream your fire.
peering through dark branches
you glowed approval
so we made you
God of War.
You lurk in lovely places.
Like Normandy. Sparta. Hastings.
You galloped with Genghis Khan,
loaded longbows at Agincourt,
stiffened limbs at Gettysburg.
Sun Tzu wrote your biography.
In the killing fields of Khmer Rouge,
you stirred the pot, and grinned at us.
In mustard gas and mushroom cloud
and shrapneled flags you beckon;
at bloody dusk your colors flap
while both sides slip away.
When Augustus howled
for his lost legions,
demanding their return,
it was you who whispered, “…Never.”
What did you think of us, I wonder
when you crouched in the phalanx
at Thermopylae, and picked your teeth
on the Persian arrows? Were you
ashamed when we dared show
mercy? Or did you blush with pride
at the slaughter, at the wailing
and waste, the endless parade
of penetration? We remain
your eager children, grateful
for the chores. You spoil us
in skirmish, in genocide, in famine.
And if we’re very, very good
perhaps a holocaust. Meanwhile,
the Tooth Fairy tiptoes in
and leaves a hand grenade.
Your black-bearded sons-
flash scorpion smiles,
forked tongues flicking,
while you circle closer now
than ever before.
to revel in the embers
to sift the white ash
to splash the black puddles
to gnaw the young bones.
to smell the charred cinders
and touch the cold stones
of every fire
we light for you.
They weren’t the Louvin Brothers, but unlike The Walker Brothers, they were actually brothers – Ira and Charlie Loudermilk. Charlie died in 2011, while Ira died in 1965 in a car wreck. Married four times, and notorious for drinking and his short temper, Ira certainly knew the dark side of things… more of which tomorrow. The Louvin’s music with its exquisite vocal harmonies can, at its best, capture something transcendent, “something far more deeply interfused”