I encounter a lot of new music via my drawing class, where the model chooses the music from the studio’s collection of over 1000 CDs. For two days solid, I have been singing to myself the bits I can remember from a folk opera of the Orpheus story, Hadestown, by the songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, with Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, and Ani DiFranco among the other singers (arranged by Michael Chorney). Since we usually change the music after each break, and the model takes a break every 20 minutes, I’ve heard the first half of a lot of albums, including this one. So I don’t know whether the end is as terrific as the beginning, but I will when the copy I’ve ordered arrives.

Hadestown puts me in mind of Neil Gaiman, which is always a compliment, as he’s one of my favorite writers. The connection is oblique: no explicit overlap, but a shared steeped-ness in mythology and Gaiman’s knack for moving fluidly between ancient myths and modern events, concerns, and language. Specifically, it’s reminding me of American Gods, even though the memorable underworld scenes there draw on Egyptian and Norse stories, and actually, of the dozens of gods Gaiman portrays and plays with in that brilliant novel, the Greek pantheon barely makes an appearance. But Greg Brown as Hades sounds like the kind of thing Gaiman would approve.

I am not a big fan of Mitchell’s voice, which can attain a level of cute-little-girlishness that makes Nanci Griffith sound gritty, but the opening lyrics were so arresting that I kept listening hard. That first song, “Wedding Song,” sounds like it must have grown over the centuries, as if Mitchell found it instead of writing it. It’s a dialogue:

Lover, tell me if you can
Who’s gonna buy the wedding bands?
Times being what they are
Hard and getting harder all the time

Lover, when I sing my song
All the rivers sing along
And they’re gonna break their banks for me
To lay their gold around my feet
All a-flashing in the pan, all to fashion for your hand
The river’s gonna give us the wedding bands

Lover, tell me, if you’re able
Who’s gonna lay the wedding table? etc.

Photo by Bob Tubbs, released into the public domain

The other song I can’t get out of my head is “Why We Build the Wall.” Mitchell has remembered that Hades, god of the underworld, is also god of money, and when I hear this song I think of all the walls we “haves” put between us and the “have-nots.” Literally walls–why else do I lock my front door, except to keep people with less property from making off with some of the stuff I’ve accumulated?–and then there’s the fence between the U.S. and Mexico, the wall between Israel and the territories it occupies, the Berlin Wall, the wall once outlining a stockade in New Amsterdam that probably gave its name to Wall Street, Robert Frost’s wall that his narrator keeps mending, though he would prefer to let it collapse. Figuratively, it’s about everything that these and other walls stand for: the way we shut others out and, in the same act, shut ourselves in; or shut others in, and in the same act, shut ourselves out.

This song is also in dialogue form: Hades catechizing a chorus that represents Cerberus. (Or as we Harry Potter fans call him, Fluffy.) (ETA: Now that I have the CD, I see that whatever website I pulled the lyrics from was wrong. There is a character Cerberus, but that’s not who is singing; it’s the chorus.)

HADES
Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?

CERBERUS
Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
How does the wall keep us free?
My children, my children
How does the wall keep us free?

CERBERUS
How does the wall keep us free?
The wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
Who do we call the enemy?
My children, my children
Who do we call the enemy?

CERBERUS
Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Just as the “War on Poverty” turned into a war against the poor, the enemy seems to be not poverty itself, but poorer people. Hades says we build the wall “Because we have and they have not!,” and when he asks, “What do we have that they should want?,” Cerberus replies with chilling circularity:

We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall . . .

That same circularity is what keeps the poor always with us. Divide ourselves, conquer ourselves, and fight, not want, but those who want what we have got. That suits the powers that be (the powers that have the most) very well.

Mitchell evokes the irony of how, even while we cut ourselves off from each other and the vast possibilities on the other side of the wall, we’re often motivated by a desire “to keep us free.” The driven, chain-gang chanting of Cerberus makes it clear that it isn’t working.

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