The Way To Ohio
He’s a rambler, a drifter--maybe a truck driver, maybe a shrimper, maybe an oil rigger, maybe a fish scaler, maybe he’s held down all the jobs a working man can hold down on the Gulf Coast, where Erin Durant grew up--but in her “Humming Song” we find him in a doctor’s office, where a nurse has stuck him for a sample of his “strange aging blood.” The two must have exchanged some small talk, maybe “Another day, another dollar,” acknowledging a bond of sympathy between them; but she’s all business, maddeningly humming a tune.
“What is that tune you’re thinking of?” he wants to ask, or at least to sing along. He knows it, from somewhere...but what is it?
What indeed? That’s just the question we might want to ask of Erin Durant’s tender melodies, full like Ophelia’s of fond familiar phrases--a haunted ”Long Black Veil” lives in there somewhere, along with a stout “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus,” as well as a nostalgic old folk song like “Shenandoah”--but like Ophelia’s, a little antic as well. Erin’s songs take us by surprise. Like the drifter in “Humming Song” trying to capture the uncapturable, she carries us aloft on a weightless feathery note, or away on a plangent new harmony, or even, in the lyric, to a new musical geography, where South is North and North is South, where thoughts stray not to some sunny sweet Alabam’ but to the “blackened hollows” of a mountaintop maybe somewhere along the West Virginia Turnpike, which leads to, of all places, the hills of Ohio, where a persevering back-to-the-lander in a pair of old shoes deals with his demons by splitting logs and purifying himself in a frozen pond. “I know the way,” she sings, “to O-hi-Oh.” There’s only one route, really, and it isn’t by car--you’ve got to “take a ride in those old shoes.”
Erin’s world is one to dream in, but not to dream about. That “strange aging blood,” or the invading crows that have driven off the native owls, or, in another song, “weathered skin holding onto the bone,” or a brace of dried up “icky old pens and ink,” a broken window through which a boy’s baseball has lost itself in an old abandoned house, or even the floor of a seafood processing plant, running red with blood--these are the clues, half-hidden in the corners of the lyric, that point not to a folk romance of wide rivers, open roads, and the salt sea, beckoning as they are, but to the “strange aging blood,” or the “constant malaise,” or even a dread disease from which her characters have turned away towards their own horizons of hope and relief.
Our drifter, I think, has been fishing for old coke bottles along that stretch of the Mississippi between St. Gabriel and New Orleans, lined with oil refineries they call Cancer Alley, or someplace very like it:
When the night it calls I go for it all
I pull up my socks and grab my old fishing rod
It’s bent over barges on the Industrial Canal
Catching bottles on the west border of Louisiana
“Born in the North”
How could it not have crossed his mind, with a needle stuck in his arm, that he may be, after all, sick--otherwise why would he be here? “Who am I to really tell?” Isn’t that why with an ineffably loving touch Erin’s voice sweetly lifts him up and spirits him away, soaring a whole octave on a lonesome modal chord, where he can imagine himself rolling down the river towards, it must be, a sweetheart whom he would like to “take by surprise,” to show up at her doorstep unannounced, magically transformed from rambler to healer and himself, we want to believe, and want him to believe, healed.
A song that, going confidently in one direction, turns on its heel and goes the other; or a chord change that leads us to a resting place only to bring us to our feet again at the very next note, or that gives way beneath us at the same moment as it bids us rise to the occasion, the situations intimated, pointed to, hinted at, only a word or two sufficient to conjure whole places and times...in those changes, as her melodies take hold, now permanently displacing the old irrecoverable songs, Erin’s music reveals itself as the sound of compassion, born of discernment as much as of sentiment, the fresh fruit of a young heart and a keen mind.
-Robert Cantwell, Chapel Hill, NC