Renmin Park, volume 1 – Stranger Here
Some songs aren’t really “about” any one thing. Sometimes a song will start off heading in one direction, come to a fork in the path, take the unexpected turn, double back on itself, and then head off through the brush and blaze a completely new trail. Sometimes you write a song or start to write a song thinking that you know what you are writing about and then your life unfolds and you look back on the song and think, “so that’s what it’s about”. Stranger Here is such a song. It was started a few months before we even went to China, the central premise of alienation was more a reflection on a song that I had written almost two decades ago, Black Eyed Man. The title and the repetitive refrain were already set as the cornerstone to build the song around. But I abandoned the song, which at the time was nearly finished, because I didn’t know where it was suppose to go or what it was “about”. The Southern Gothic images of the body floating in the river, the character getting drunk and passing out by the well and the scene on the gallows are all reflections and an update on the story told in Black Eyed Man of an innocent man, a scapegoat, framed, unjustly accused, and executed. But in this updated version of the story the accused doesn’t seem as virtuous or, necessarily, innocent. His declaration that he is “the righteous man”, his insistence that he is the “one we are looking for” make him suspect and the fact is, he is guilty of being a “stranger”. I had all of this before we went off to China. When we returned I revisited the song and I, of course, had a whole new perspective on being a “stranger”. Not only had a I spent three months being a complete outsider, experienced in ways which I had never before been so intensely exposed, but my idea of what makes one an outsider had also changed. Many of the people who we met and who had befriended us had often expressed their sense of alienation in their rapidly changing country. The rules were constantly changing and most of them were being left outside by these rule changes. The older generation in particular was completely baffled and alienated by a society that had abandoned so many of the principles that they had struggled and suffered for. And, of course, the “righteous man”, his sayings, his teaching, his little red book, no matter how quaint it now all seemed, floated above them all, a long ago abandoned promise.
When we returned from China I added the second verse and it gave the song a personal grounding that made it all make sense to me. “Smoke in my eyes/ Strange taste on my tongue” is a pretty obvious reference to anyone that has traveled outside of their own culture. The line, “the legend will be told / about the boy never hungry never cold”, is my little aside to our family adventure. While in China, my son, who is tall and pale and blonde, was a true sensation wherever we went. People wanted their picture taken with him, old ladies would wander up and touch his hair and other kids would follow him around just to gawk. At the best of times, he is a picky eater and even in a Canadian winter he will more often than not abandon his coat on a playground and wander around in just a shirt when the rest of the city is bundled up in scarves and parkas. In China, we were invited to share in many meals, and my son never ate a bite at these feasts. There was constant fussing, chattering and concern and those that had shared a meal with us in the past would explain to the newbies that he just doesn’t eat. When the weather turned slightly colder (we were in a southern climate, similar to Virginia) all of the children would be bundled in layers of clothing that would have seen them through a Montreal winter, but my son would continue to wander around in his shorts and sandals. This caused as much consternation among the adults as did his lack of eating, and among the kids, well, he might as well have been naked. So by the end of the trip we figured that the most lasting impression that we would leave on the community was the legend of the boy “never hungry, never cold”.
If you want to read an impressive discussion about this song check out this CFLP thread on the Message Board (the CFLP always humbles me with how they are able to dissect my lyrics, I am always honoured by their attention). Here are the only two drafts of the song, through which you can get a sense of how quickly the song evolved and here is my demo for the song.