a literary review
The first time I heard Emily Rose, a friend and I were slow-dragging Guiness at Detroit’s Gaelic League. My friend and I were deep in conversation about dog training when Rose took the stage amidst a rotating cast of local singer-songwriters. I got cut off mid-sentence so we could listen to a song about Rose’s grandfather called “Missouri River Bridge.” During the song’s bridge, my friend tipped me off to a devastating pre-chorus that was about to come in the next verse:
I could not bear to say
the only bridge your daddy built
was the one he used to walk away
Four years and four Detroit Music Awards for Rose later, I’m still obsessed with this song. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it. Spotify won’t give me that information, though I’m sure it has to be at least a hundred. The only metrics on Detroit songwriters Spotify has given me has been making fun of me for listening to one local songwriter and asking if I listened to another to be ironic. But I’m sure my number of listens to this song number in the dozens.
“Missouri River Bridge” makes you think of Springsteen at his best moments in Nebraska or The River. In this quintessentially midwestern song, a mother tells her youngest child about the accident their father died in while working on the titular bridge and the struggle of raising six children as a single mother. While there’s so much to love about this song, what interests me the most is the narrative situation in which the mother addresses the child.
The lyrics are often rhythmically and linguistically syncopated. What I mean here is that the linguistic accents often don’t fall on the beat, or that Rose finds a way of making musical rhythms and stress work against those of language. It makes for a more memorable melody, to my ear, by how it frustrates the stress patterns we expect from language. Rose’s lyrics derive so much catchiness from this; they stick out by how they’re sometimes more aligned with musical accent than linguistic.
For example, in the lyric “iron workers worked on the Missouri River Bridge,” Rose creates stress on the second syllable of iron by dropping it on the offbeat and carrying it over to the next. And then there’s the Missouri River Bridge itself, where Rose accents the first syllable on the beat and subdivides the rest on the off-beat. Rather than giving us mis-SOUR-i, we get MIS-sour-i, and so we also hear the homonym of “Misery.” It’s a sly and subtle effect that plays out later in the song.
Rose further exhibits this kind of sophistication with her chord progressions. They have a very modal sound owing to how the song’s chord progression uses chords from three different but related keys. The verse runs in F and slides down into C before the pre-chorus, which has extra flavor from the Db chord it nicks from F minor before shifting back into C. And then, the chorus in A minor. In effect, the song vacillates between F and C. The song continues on in A minor for the bridge between the second and third verses. A mandolin solo of rising, unrelenting sixteenth notes bridges the second and third verses. Where it had been relatively subdued and playing nicely with Rose’s intricate fingerpicking before, it now takes off, leaving the guitar behind. Not unlike the father leaving the family, and the bridge he really built, as we find out in the final next verse:
When you’re forty years old,
you’ll receive a telephone call
This is when you’ll find out
that the story isn’t true at all
They’ll say we regret to inform
you that your father has just died
You’ll tell ‘em you got that
news as a little child
I could not bear to say
The only bridge your daddy built
was the one he used to walk away
The lack of narrative context throughout the song intensifies the myth-shattering here. “I could not bear to say,” calls attention to the question of how and when the mother offers up this confession. Its epistolary mode also makes me wonder what the form of address is. A letter, offered up because of the pain of both the father’s leaving and the aim of sparing the child the more difficult news that the father made the conscious choice to abandon them? A verbal confession contextualizing the whole story? I love this multivalence.
It’s so smart how Rose’s vocal rhythms get a bit out of joint again here. Once again, it’s not just that the rhythms are syncopated, but also the linguistic accents, which don’t fall on the beat. “THE sto-RY isn’t true at all.” And the way this syncopation abuts the stressed “isn’t” and the BA-bum BA-bum pattern only reinforces this. This syncopation is a perfect choice for this moment where the narrative itself pops out of its joint.
Musically, the confession landing in the pre-chorus gives also supplies its significant punch, as does putting “bear” on that out-of-leftfield Db chord. As she does with her linguistically-syncopated lyrics, Rose spotlights the mother’s emotional motivations for the myth’s necessary fiction through the very modal pre-chorus and how it frustrates our ear’s expectations of the chord progressions within a given key.
The pre-choruses themselves are brilliant in how—as parallel structures—they make a narrative thread of the mother bearing the weight of the father’s leaving and her resolve to deal with it. Rose creates weight through repetition, as the mother says “each morning / I’d watch him go.” She is always watching the father leaving. “Each morning / wake up brave.” Every day, for the whole day, mustering up courage. It’s the kind of snowballing heaviness Macbeth speaks of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
Maybe what I love most about “Missouri River Bridge” is how we get to share the child’s emotional experience of a myth’s undoing—a myth made for the child’s emotional protection—and the struggle to understand the heavy weight the mother bore in trying to protect the child’s innocence by hiding the truth of their abandonment. We’re left with only an inkling of the mother’s hard labors in what Detroit poet Robert Hayden called “love’s austere and lonely office.”
Emily Rose is a songwriter and poet from Michigan. She is the recipient of several Detroit Music Awards. Her latest release, Wake Up Brave, is a collection of confessional songs from various narratives. She is currently at work on an album about animals.