We suffer, in this world, though it may seem absurd to say so, from an overabundance of supremely talented singer-songwriters. Yeah, I know—nice little problem to have. So many You Tube clips, so little time…
The downside of this decidedly First World problem likely falls most seriously on the supra-talented artists themselves. Most of them labor too long and deeply in relative obscurity, jostling for exposure, name recognition, gigs and income in all the ways artists have always struggled to continue answering the siren call of their art.
Answering it, of course, without wearing themselves out in day (or night) jobs driving cabs or giving music lessons to kids who are often resentfully there under the watchful eyes of parents dead-set on them developing their “artistic side.”
What he’s after is the essential truth over which a thousand theologies trip, stumbling over their dogmas, creeds and codes while missing the universal poetry of the human heart.
But the overflowing treasure trove of musicians plying their trade also means that music aficionados can’t possibly keep up with and benefit from the dazzling multiplicity of talent available a few random mouse clicks or purposeful Internet searches away.
Take for instance, Mark Erelli, one of a legion of singer-songwriters who had the ill fortune to come of age in his artistic development just as the entire music and most every other industry was being turned upside down by the digital revolution.
At age 48, the Boston, Massachusetts-born Erelli (he now lives 15 minutes down the road in Reading with his wife and two teenage boys) has birthed 18 albums since his 1997 debut. The last five of them have been self-released, some with the help of fan-supported Kickstarter campaigns in this age when record labels barely give artists a look until they can reliably fill concert halls many times the size of your typical coffeehouse where most singer-songwriters hone their artistic voice.
And oh, what a voice the man has, by which I mean not merely his singing voice, which is perfectly pitched to the folkie storytelling mode that makes for an unstrained listen, but even more so his lyrical voice, which is positively Dylanesque (with shades of others he admires and is often compared to :John Prine, Chris Smither and Bill Morrissey. It is a voice that poses questions and probes mysteries large and small, intelligent and emotional, haunting and tender.
As it happens, Erelli released an album of his newest material just last week (brief discussion and the entire album on You Tube below), after I’d stumbled upon another song of his a month or so ago. But we will delve here into the song, “Mother of Mysteries,” from his 2009 album, “The Darwin Song Project.”
Though accomplished Scottish musician Karine Polwart shares the song’s co-writing credit, the lyrics clearly stay true to Erelli’s longstanding exploration of science, evolution, and religion, given the twin facts he alludes to in introducing the live performance below: his “lapsed Catholic” upbringing, and his subsequent master’s degree in evolutionary biology, which he studied on the way to realizing music was calling him all the more.
Here are the lyrics in full:
Oh, I wish I believed if only for you
In a Sweet Ever After beyond the blue
In an Eternal Father who after the fall
Cast us all out of the garden
Now I’ve found an Eden I can believe in
Leavened with nothing but time
There is grandeur in this view of life
Where one becomes many through struggle and strife
But the mother of mysteries is another man’s call
Why is there something ‘stead of nothing at all
Why is there something ‘stead of nothing at all
If the devil’s own chaplain is leading the prayer
From a book that’s been written with sorrow and care
Then his hand is indifferent but it isn’t unkind
There’s no evil design in his sermon
For I hear a chorus of those gone before us
Scored upon pages of stone
Oh, what an utter desert is a life without love
Would that your blessing alone was enough
To banish my doubt in the veil of your tears
Oh my dear how the fabric has fallen
For I’ve found an Eden I can believe in
Free from the master’s design
“The Darwin Song Project” wasn’t merely Erelli’s album title. It also grew out of Darwin’s birthplace having been Shrewsbury, England. On the occasion of his 200th birthday in 2009, the long-running local folk festival there hatched the inspired idea to honor his seminal role in human history by assembling eight musicians at a farmhouse in rural Shropshire for a seven-day songwriting and playing extravaganza that would culminate in a live recorded performance and resultant CD.
Given his background and discography, Erelli was a natural fit. “Mother of Mysteries,” along with a thematically related meditation called “Kingdom Come,” proved more than enough to help fulfill the project’s purpose of commissioning music with a “resonance and relevance to Darwin.”
“Oh, I wish I believed if only for you,” goes Erelli’s first line.
Oh, if only I had a dollar for every half of a religiously mismatched couple who has expressed the same sentiment.
Erelli here reflects the skeptic’s hesitation to believe in a sky God, the “Eternal Father” who was quick to expel his children from paradise at the first sign of their disobedience.
But his son Mark Erelli doesn’t linger long pining for return. By line five, he’s singing, “Now I’ve found an Eden I can believe in/Leavened with nothing but time.”
Sure, he and his girl were riven, but far from it making him into a jaded and cynical Atheist of the Angry Kind, he parlays that belief in his own Eden into a view that matches believers grandeur for grandeur, without claiming any specialized knowledge of a “Sweet Ever After beyond the blue.”
Nor, for that matter, bothering much with the 17th century German philosopher and polymath Leibniz’s conundrum, “Why is there something ‘stead of nothing at all?
No, that “mother of mysteries is another man’s call,” he sings. It’s a mystery he sees no need to solve.
What he’s after instead is the essential truth over which a thousand theologies trip, stumbling over their dogmas, creeds and codes while missing the universal poetry of the human heart: “Oh, what an utter desert is a life without love.”
Leaning into that love is the work of a lifetime, whatever tools one uses to do so. For Erelli, his “Eden” is clearly the creative life and his family.
Late in 2020, he was diagnosed with retinal pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease that severely limits his night and peripheral vision and could someday render him blind. The news was bracing, but Erelli did what most artists do who manage to avoid the twin scourges of drink and drugs to fend off their suffering: He created more art.
Last week’s release of “Lay Your Darkness Down” is intended to do just that as Erelli explores themes of grief and fear, interdependence and hope, loneliness and love, channeling Leonard Cohen in the title song: “Shadows lie upon the ground/to show us where the light is coming from.”
One can’t help but think the light will be unwavering for Mark Erelli whatever happens with his sight. It seems to come, if our own hearing and seeing is believing—from deep inside, quite beyond the reach of any dread disease.
And one more: “Kingdom Come,” the companion piece from the Shrewsbury Festival gathering…
See more about Mark Erelli at https://www.markerelli.com/
A list of brief lead-ins to all previous 35 songs in this series is available here.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Dark cloud formation by Dag Ågren, Turku, Finland https://www.flickr.com/photos/paracelsus/with/315719985/
Stages of evolution by Johannes Plenio, Munich, Germany https://unsplash.com/@jplenio
Mark Erelli by Dan Tappan, Boxborough, Massachusetts https://www.flickr.com/photos/dan_tappan/
Shell by Here’s Kate, Sydney, Australia https://www.flickr.com/photos/thedepartment/
Wow, Andrew, did this ever resonate for me. Like this gifted man, my passions–my lenses on life–are evolution and music, and, like him, I wrestle with some physical degeneration that has made both more challenging. And he’s alluded to one of my favorite quotes, the final sentence of On the Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This is from the first edition. By the second, someone had persuaded Darwin to insert a reference to a creator providing that original breath. I suspect Mr. Erelli would embrace the earlier version.
Such beautiful music, such thought provoking images in those lyrics. Complex and yet so, so accessible. His dedication to this work, to render this theme so lovingly, is an inspiration.
My first exposure to Erelli was through another song (brilliant? you can decide) called “Look Up” which examines the glory of the Sistine Chapel from 3 perspectives: the janitor who daily cleans up after all the tourists, the jaded Michelangelo, and perhaps an equally jaded God. Equally beautiful and thought provoking…
Julie, I’m so pleased to link you up with Mr. Erelli, given all you share in common. Lot of treasures in that discography! Thanks for that little Darwin anecdote, which I was not aware of. The weird thing, at least to me, is that he found endless wonder in the cosmos, but without a creator in his lexicon, he’s been branded by religious zealots as some kind of Stalinist hater of all things human and divine. Years ago (just looked it up, 2006, whoa!) Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio interview show ran a segment that made a strong case for him being a highly evolved, even spiritual person who never condemned religion but simply took a benign view of it while he tended to the marvels in front of him every day. It’s here, if you want to listen or peek at the transcript: https://onbeing.org/programs/james-moore-evolution-and-wonder-understanding-charles-darwin/
Brilliant song indeed, that “Look Up,” Mary. Stroke of genius for him to have looked up at that ceiling himself and one day be struck with the idea to do the same for the three voices he assumes. Poetic to its core, thanks!
Yesterday as I was driving around with my personalized “USB stick” (old school) of my alphabetized list of favorite musicians (Louis, Luciano, Ludwig, Marty, Nat, Neil, Otis and so on) I thought about your “brilliant song” entries. Their variance, beauty, and often relative obscurity make them a pleasure to hear and read. Thanks for those moments.
Glad to hear this, Robert. Every now and again I think to highlight a ridiculously well-known but nevertheless fabulous song that merits discussion simply because of its fabulosity (is that even a word? Scrabble alert!). But I seem to have always thought the better of it. I think it goes back to my initial comments above: So many songs, so little time… Better to explore the more obscure ones and give them their due.
Finally got around to this post – another gem, deeply appreciate your continued vigilance as you probe the world of singer/songwriters and other forms of music. As a lifelong music lover (like most of us!) I find I keep returning to those I’ve long loved (e.g. Richard Thompson, Rhiannon Giddens, Lenard Cohen, etc) which is wonderful but I miss exploring the new (or at least new to me) artists like Mark Erelli, will keep an eye out for him in case he gets to the Bay Area! I suppose I’ve made my peace with this lovely but impossible journey (no way to stay up on all the incredibly talented musicians) and just keep bumping along. In that spirit, don’t know if you or your readers have come across John Craigie -(https://johncraigiemusic.com/) but he’s a delight! Bumped into him at the Kate Wolf Festival a few years back and was floored, he could make it as a stand up comic to boot.
Thanks again for continuing to enhance our musical banquet!
I feel your pain about too much great stuff and too little time, though not quite sure I’ve made peace with it yet, Kevin. (Depends on the day!) Thanks much for the Craigie tip—one gem after another in his work. Stay tuned!