"And I sat with a girl from Boston, playing cards for cigarettes..."
My friend Mary and I are working on this new performance piece that’s part storytelling and part music. The other day, while I was out driving, my music player shuffled up a song I thought was perfect for what we’re working on. “Let’s throw this in as a cover,” I suggested to Mary. The song has long been one of my favorites, it inspired the back story of our characters, and I think she could sing the heck out of it.
But, even as I was sending the email, I found myself wondering, “Am I alone in my appreciation of this singer, this song?” I knew I wasn’t, but I’ve certainly always felt a little like he was a secret I was keeping to myself.
I first encountered Ellis Paul and his music at some sort of folk festival that my college sent a few of us to during either A) orientation weekend or B) the first week of school (this was 1995, so please forgive my tired, old brain). I distinctly remember roaming through this big public park with my friend Tori. I don’t remember why we were there, though it might have been to volunteer or do community service of some kind. But, whatever the case, I was mesmerized by Paul’s music as we passed by the stage, and I bought his CD on the spot.
The song I sent to Mary was on the CD, so I didn’t hear that until later, and so the song that really sticks out from that day in 1995 is one called “3,000 Miles.” I remember Paul telling us a story about it and then telling us a story with it, the first time that I remember distinctly thinking about songs as narratives. Sure, I’d heard songs that were stories before that, but I didn’t realize what I was hearing.
After purchasing the CD that day—which, no joke, was called Stories—I underwent a fundamental change in the way I listened to music. Sure, I listened to a lot of the same old pop bubblegum trash I always did, but I started looking for songs that did what I tried to do with comic books and novels. I went out in search of folk music, whether it was marketed as such or not. I didn’t just want pretty words anymore, or catchy turns of phrase; I wanted plot. I wanted characters. I still do.
“My name is Robert Wilson,” Ellis Paul sang to us that afternoon in Lawrence or Hampton Beach or wherever it was the bus took us. “I am from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I’ve been living out of a suitcase now for fourteen days.”
It’s one of my favorite short stories of all time. It just happens to be sung out loud instead of written down.