Archive for memory

My Father

Posted in Lateness with tags , , , on June 16, 2013 by Richard

judycollinswhoknowsJudy Collins’s ‘My Father’ first appeared on the artist’s 1968 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes. The song tells of the promises made by the narrator’s father, the most memorable of which involve living in France and “boating on the Seine”. The song operates as a kind of memoir, as the narrator recalls her childhood in Ohio, her father working in the mines and the dreams he would share with his daughters. A second verse adds mature experience, recording the disappearance of the narrator’s sisters to the distant cities of Denver and Cheyenne. Left behind, she witnesses the disappearance, too, of her father’s dreams, the colours of which “faded without a sound”. The third verse moves to the present, where we find the narrator living in France with her children and telling tales of her father’s life; perhaps her father is living with them, staying true to his promise, for the closing lines describe the narrator watching “the Paris sun / set in my father’s eyes again”.

Collins’s father was a blind singer and radio broadcaster who, by her own accounts, had a strong influence on his daughter’s life. He died in 1967 and there is little doubt that this song was inspired by his passing. That said, it is not “autobiographical” in the sense of being all about Collins or her father. He is not the miner mentioned in the first and third verses, the family did not live in Ohio and Collins did not have any older sisters. As for the role of Paris in the song, this seems to be entirely fictional, though we cannot be sure of the veracity of the father’s promise. Clearly, then, the song is a “fictional” narrative, written and sung by Collins as both author and vocal actor. Yet the sadness of the melody, the sense of loss evoked by the lyrics and the reference to the sun setting in “her” father’s (blind?) eyes cannot help but evoke the notion of a direct remembrance of Collins’s own late father.

Nina Simone, of course, approached the song as a cover version, a move we might assume would further remove the possibility of any authorial connection to a father that might be considered “hers”. Yet, in much the same way that Collins’s fictional song is still somehow about her and her father, so Simone’s reading removes the fiction dividing the song’s singer from its subject. A fragment of a recording session released in 1998 shows that the singer intended to cut the song in 1971. This suggests that she had been listening to Collins’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes, the title song of which she had recorded in late 1969. In this first recorded attempt, Simone changes the first line to “My father always promised me”, but then only gets through six lines of the first verse, stopping after “He worked in the mines” to declare to those assembled in the studio, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not [for?] me. [Pause] My father always promised me that we would be free but he did not promise me that we would live in France”. Simone then collapses into laughter. A male voice asks “How about Brooklyn?” to which Simone immediately responds, “No. My father knew nothing about New York at all. He promised me that we would live in peace. And that maybe I can still get”. She then removes the song from consideration in that session.

simone_baltimoreSimone did come back to the song later, including a version on Baltimore (1978), her first album of new recordings for many years.  She was later dismissive of the album, claiming she had had no control over the choice of material, but this seems doubtful in the case of ‘My Father’ given the attempt to record the song earlier in the decade. Simone presents the song as three verses, omitting Collins’s fourth verse. As in the earlier reading, she sings “My father always promised me”, singularizing the object pronoun. Other notable changes include her adjustment of the last line of each verse. In the first, she hovers on the final word “time”, letting it drift for six seconds (1:27 to 1:33) so that it becomes more of a hum or drone than a word, before resolving the melody with a repeat of the last two words, “in time”. In the second verse a similar expectation is set up in the second half by a slight vocal drone on “alone”. Simone then alters Collins’s words to sing the couplet “Hoping that my father’s dreams / would someday take me home”. “Home” features a vocal drone (2:50 to 2:53), aligning it with the end of the previous verse (“time”) and with “alone” from this verse. There is a slightly longer pause than in the previous verse and then a repetition of “take me home”. At the close of the third and final verse, Simone again alters the lyrics, seemingly due to a mistake: “And watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes … again”. At the place where the vocal drone had been in the earlier verses, she offers the word “eyes” (4:17 to 4:22), starting out on the same droning note as before but quickly moving into a soft melisma that lets the word float briefly before the resolution of “again”. Simone’s reading of the song, then, serves to emphasize crucial words to underline a narrative of loss and yearning. Meanwhile, this yearning is backed up by an “aching” string arrangement that builds gradually during the first verse and then soars at significant moments of the narrative in the second and third verses: “grown up dreams”, “danced alone”, “children dance and sing”, “I sail my memories of home”.

The words that Simone emphasizes – time, alone, home, eyes – may remind us of a relationship made by Walter Benjamin between gaze and familiarity:

Inherent in the gaze … is the expectation that it will be returned by that on which it is bestowed. Where this expectation is met (which, in the case of thought processes, can apply equally to an intentional gaze of awareness and to a glance pure and simple), there is an experience [Erfahrung] of the aura in all its fullness.

Following on from Benjamin, Eric Santner writes, “Home … is first and foremost that place … where one finds the aura constituted by eyes that return a gaze”. The narrator of ‘My Father’ seems to articulate the quest for such a place. Home is here a remembered past but one that is never stable in that it resides in a place of constant dreaming, of escape. It is mostly spoken from a place described by Benjamin as “an intentional gaze” – or from memory, which we could figure as a search for a past that looks back at the searcher – but the only explicit reference to eyes is that of the final line of the third verse. In Collins’s version, it is tempting to read into this lyric a reference to her father’s blindness, yet Simone’s handling of these lines is perhaps more fascinating. The curious slippage that leads to “watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes…again” compels us to dwell on the notion of the gaze. The sense of confusion here – who is watching what? – emphasizes gaze as process over any obvious sense of someone looking or someone or something being looked at. If we do pick apart the meaning, however, we seem to be left with this: where the “correct” version had a narrator watching the sun reflected in her father’s (possibly blind) eyes, this version emphasizes the father’s own watching, with the narrator’s watching now resigned to a secondary place, a watching of a watching.

It is tempting to read this secondary watching as a kind of determination, such as that settled on by Simone after what she felt was her father’s betrayal of her trust. Overhearing him lie to one of her brothers about the importance of his role in the family – a role reduced in reality due to ill health – Simone was shocked and found herself making a vow not to see him again, a promise she kept even as he lay dying. Hers was a refusal of familiarity and home, a refusal to go back to a place that would return her gaze. The secondary watching described in the last line of ‘My Father’ can be read as the passive awareness of a daughter waiting for her father to die: “I knew I was hurting Daddy and myself more,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but there was nothing I could do: I was helpless because of the vow I had made, the vow I had to obey”.

This hurt was one that would continue to grow in Simone in later years, leading to regret that she had not reconciled herself with her father. It is perhaps the replacement of that earlier refusal of the gaze with a subsequent longing for it that explains Simone’s return to ‘My Father’.  This certainly seems to be the case in the film La Légende, where the song is played over footage of Simone visiting her father’s grave in Tryon, her home town (from 5:04 in the clip above). The father represents the lure of the promised land (“freedom”, “peace”, “France”) which he cannot deliver, leaving the daughter to seek it out herself (“maybe that I can still find”) even as she fears utopia may be not be a place that lies ahead but one she has abandoned long ago, leading to what Santner calls a “utopian libido … a yearning for a space of specular mutuality”. Furthermore, “The absence of a space where eyes return a gaze initiates … all those quests for and conquests of new territories of auratic experience, new searches for the gaze that would finally authenticate one’s worth and reality”. In this context it is worth repeating Simone’s view of this search: “Sometimes I think the whole of my life has been a search to find the one place I truly belong”.