Justin Townes Earle

Charles Lewis: Music helps us ask simple question: Why?

  • September 3, 2020

Music is a great comfort. It raises deep issues of the soul and then expresses them in a way most of us never could. Many kinds of music are deeply spiritual, from Gregorian chant to country to rock.

In the past few months, due to the pandemic and my own physical struggles, music has been the perfect companion. Not necessarily leaving me elated or even calm but more introspective about ordinary things … more awake to the small things that make up life.

Think about the Psalms. They are music. No doubt many of today’s musicians first learned to sing in church choirs or listened to faith-inspired country music.

Like the Psalms, their music is often angry and full of despair of the state of the world. Though there is an optimism built on having faith in something greater than what we see in our immediate view.

Consider Psalm 13:

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

The Psalms offer a spiritual relief because they reflect the universal condition. And even when the psalmist complains, he knows God has not gone missing.

Two songs in particular made me think about how music can ask hard religious questions even if the singer is not what you would call conventionally religious.

The first was “Georgia Lee,” by Tom Waits. “Georgia Lee” is based on the real-life murder and abduction of a 12-year-old black girl in California in 1997. She had been abandoned to the streets and the streets swallowed her up.

Waits writes:

“Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out on the street

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?”

What struck me were those last lines, which like a psalm, asks: Where were you God? 

Someone who was an atheist would not ask where God was. Every time I listen to “Georgia Lee” I am overwhelmed by that plaintive cry of how someone so young could die such an awful death. Of course it happens all the time but when the victim is given a name somehow it seems all the more painful. It is the difference between a statistic and a person.

The second song is the title track off an album called The Saint of Lost Causes. It was Justin Townes Earle’s eighth and final album. He died of a drug overdose in August at the age of 38.

I loved his music and had the great honour of seeing him perform a few years ago in Toronto. Alone with a guitar and no back-up band he devoured the stage and mesmerized the audience.

Much of his presence was rooted in anger and struggle. He suffered from all kind of addictions and no amount of critical adulation and love seemed to quell his demons.

In that title song he sang:

“For so long, I was like a wounded hound
Backed into a chain link fence
The world at large was just a big, mean kid
Poking me through the fence with a stick….Just pray to the Saint of Lost Causes

“Now it’s a cruel world
But it ain’t hard to understand
You got your sheep, got your shepherds
Got your wolves amongst men
It can be hard to tell.”

I think many of us instinctively turn to the Bible or books of Catholic spirituality in times of need. But sometimes we also need to hear the voices of those men and women all around us — those who with their music make us cry and soften our hearts to ordinary things in this weird life. Those who are never afraid to ask God one simple question: Why?

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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