a literary review
Many of us know Cornelius Eady as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet and co-founder of Cave Canem, but in addition to being a major poet, Eady is among the most prolific and important contemporary American songwriters. Whether he is working with his eponymous trio, featuring top-rate guitarists Charlie Rauh and Lisa Liu, or accompanying himself on guitar or dulcimer, Eady is incessantly writing memorable songs that are tailored to our troubling times. The mood of his music oscillates between sad resignation and righteous anger. Many of his tunes function as tender elegies, others lift us up in kairotic anthem. Eady’s voice, with its distinct timbre, rides atop his music with vivid clarity.
Beginning back in March, it became clear to anyone following his writing that he was in the middle of a frantic, impassioned songwriting stretch. Every week his Soundcloud queue was filling up with new tunes, some he’d written and recorded solo and others that he’d collaborated on remotely with Charlie Rauh and Lisa Liu. Then there was also a trio of songs Eady wrote himself and recorded with soundscape artist/producer Jenny Johnson. All of this recent work speaks to our historical moment with a profundity and artistry that seems almost prophetic. In these compositions, we find dramatizations of healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, anthems denouncing police brutality and racist violence, as well as elegiac numbers naming those we have lost to these forces.
The following is an incomplete catalogue of just a few of the many numbers Eady has written and recorded in recent months:
“Anthology (for Ahmaud Arbery)”
A soundscape collaboration with the artist Jenny Johnson. The track begins with a repetitive digital beep that could be a piece of malfunctioning medical equipment or a metronome set to a painfully slow tempo. A swishing sound like a sheet of lined paper being struck with an eraser head. Mixed low in the background an explosion, voices shouting something indeterminate followed by the phrase “more of the same.” Eady repeats the line, I’ve written so many of these, too many over and over again with slow resignation. The listener can feel his exhaustion with the seemingly interminable brutality of history in the performance. At the 2:55 mark, an ominous synth organ begins to play a minor ascending pattern alongside the increasing digital noise. This track is heavy with sadness and meta-commentary on the songwriting process. “Anthology” is Eady at his most fatalistic. He’s written so many of these and yet justice seems no more attainable. Black people continue to be murdered in the streets of their own neighborhoods. Given this fact, Eady asks himself if he can still believe in the power of the protest song. The answer is inconclusive, yet he must continue to write them, even if at moments they seem to have no utility in spurring justice. He can’t stop because naming the murdered remains a necessary civic function, especially where real justice is absent. The performative beauty of this track. The bleak insistence.
“Nurse Red Line”
Angels are working overtime, the wings are sore from flying. Carry the wounded, carry the dead. Check your pulse and keep on trying… This is a labor song, but it’s more than that, too. Nurse Red Line is an allegorical figure in Eady’s tribute to our essential workers. There’s a tent in the rain where all the crates are the same. They’re stacking up the overflow.. It’s New York City last April, a preponderance of death. An unfathomable number of human lives lost to the virus and a generation of hospital workers with harrowing memories they’ll never be able to rid themselves of, untold horrors they cannot un-see. Sad minor chords on an organ synth, hybrid picking patterns on a nylon-string guitar carving out counter-melodies reticular as the rain falling on the island of Manhattan in the song.
Oh Lord, please don’t cheat me of my days, oh Lord, oh Lord. Oh Lord, I’m only 17, oh Lord, oh Lord… Eady doesn’t shy away from the fact of death, and he highlights the threat of early death that young black males in our country live with daily in this chilling lament. This song is full of both fear and empathy. Eady varies the apostrophe in each verse slightly to accent different connotations. Oh Lord, raise this virus off of my mind… Here we are in the interminable, yet perilous present, a moment that stretches out like an epoch. Yet Eady also reminds us that while existence is ephemeral, this ephemerality isn’t distributed evenly, that it mirrors the cruel forces of history. Oh Lord, don’t evict me from my breath.. is a prayer no 17 year old should have to proffer. The harmonic interplay between the dulcimer and guitar haunts us, as do the distinct memento mori we encounter in each verse. A gorgeous song that conjures the recent dead without giving up their names.
A dense signifier overburdened by the romantic claims laid upon it. Eady is too smart to mythologize though. This isn’t some rhapsody to the Greenwich Village (where Eady has lived since the late-80s BTW) of Dylan and Baez. No, because the police round up the homeless and drive them to the camps. You see there ain’t no place in this town for economic dissidents. This is a song about the income inequality, poverty, and homelessness that exist in the shadow of obscene opulence. The incisive hook and chorus: This is New York City, New York town, if you can’t cut it, baby, you won’t stick around. You look so pretty stepping off the Greyhound. A reel played on a violin coming out of each chorus, sounding somehow plaintive, a leftover relict from a time we think we might remember. A necessary riposte to the oversimplified maundering of the Fred Ebb lyrics made famous by Sinatra.
Eady’s songs are momentous and unique. There is precision to the playing and the performance dynamics that other folk and Americana acts could learn from. And, of course, there is that poetic gaze buoyed by the precision of resonant proper nouns and incisive observations. This is stunning music that everyone ought to be listening to.