Song of the Day: Ron Block

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And so the Song of the Day comes back around to the B’s. Last time I chose a live version of a Ron Block song that Alison Krauss sang at one of the Behold the Lamb Christmas shows. This time it’s a pair of instrumental songs from his latest record Doorway. The first is called “Secret of the Woods” and the second is “I See Thee Nevermore”, both based on a passage from a George MacDonald book. This represents a gloriously unlikely convergence of two of my favorite–no, three of my favorite things: fantasy literature, great acoustic music, and the Gospel. The Rabbit Room exists for such a thing as this.

From Ron’s website:

Originally a 3-part instrumental, I cut off the first part because I didn’t like it. The story begins with Anodos running from the Ash tree in the woods. This section was the part I cut off, but it’s important to the tension and release in the instrumental.

Great drops of rain began to patter on the leaves. Thunder began to mutter, then growl in the distance. I ran on. The rain fell heavier. At length the thick leaves could hold it up no longer; and, like a second firmament, they poured their torrents on the earth. I was soon drenched, but that was nothing. I came to a small swollen stream that rushed through the woods. I had a vague hope that if I crossed this stream, I should be in safety from my pursuer; but I soon found that my hope was as false as it was vague. I dashed across the stream, ascended a rising ground, and reached a more open space, where stood only great trees.

Through them I directed my way, holding eastward as nearly as I could guess, but not at all certain that I was not moving in an opposite direction. My mind was just reviving a little from its extreme terror, when, suddenly, a flash of lightning, or rather a cataract of successive flashes, behind me, seemed to throw on the ground in front of me, but far more faintly than before, from the extent of the source of the light, the shadow of the same horrible hand. I sprang forward, stung to yet wilder speed; but had not run many steps before my foot slipped, and, vainly attempting to recover myself, I fell at the foot of one of the large trees.

Half-stunned, I yet raised myself, and almost involuntarily looked back. All I saw was the hand within three feet of my face. But, at the same moment, I felt two large soft arms thrown round me from behind; and a voice like a woman’s said: “Do not fear the goblin; he dares not hurt you now.” With that, the hand was suddenly withdrawn as from a fire, and disappeared in the darkness and the rain. Overcome with the mingling of terror and joy, I lay for some time almost insensible.

This is where the first part of the instrumental, “Secret of the Woods”, begins:

The first thing I remember is the sound of a voice above me, full and low, and strangely reminding me of the sound of a gentle wind amidst the leaves of a great tree. It murmured over and over again: “I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree.” I found I was seated on the ground, leaning against a human form, and supported still by the arms around me, which I knew to be those of a woman who must be rather above the human size, and largely proportioned.

I turned my head, but without moving otherwise, for I feared lest the arms should untwine themselves; and clear, somewhat mournful eyes met mine. At least that is how they impressed me; but I could see very little of colour or outline as we sat in the dark and rainy shadow of the tree. The face seemed very lovely, and solemn from its stillness; with the aspect of one who is quite content, but waiting for something. I saw my conjecture from her arms was correct: she was above the human scale throughout, but not greatly.

“Why do you call yourself a beech-tree?” I said.

“Because I am one,” she replied, in the same low, musical, murmuring voice.

“You are a woman,” I returned.

“Do you think so? Am I very like a woman then?”

“You are a very beautiful woman. Is it possible you should not know it?”

“I am very glad you think so. I fancy I feel like a woman sometimes. I do so to-night — and always when the rain drips from my hair. For there is an old prophecy in our woods that one day we shall all be men and women like you. Do you know anything about it in your region? Shall I be very happy when I am a woman? I fear not, for it is always in nights like these that I feel like one. But I long to be a woman for all that.”

I had let her talk on, for her voice was like a solution of all musical sounds. I now told her that I could hardly say whether women were happy or not. I knew one who had not been happy; and for my part, I had often longed for Fairy Land, as she now longed for the world of men. But then neither of us had lived long, and perhaps people grew happier as they grew older Only I doubted it. I could not help sighing. She felt the sigh, for her arms were still round me. She asked me how old I was.

“Twenty-one,” said I.

“Why, you baby!” said she, and kissed me with the sweetest kiss of winds and odours. There was a cool faithfulness in the kiss that revived my heart wonderfully. I felt that I feared the dreadful Ash no more.

“What did the horrible Ash want with me?” I said.

“I am not quite sure, but I think he wants to bury you at the foot of his tree. But he shall not touch you, my child.”

“Are all the ash-trees as dreadful as he?”

“Oh, no. They are all disagreeable selfish creatures — (what horrid men they will make, if it be true!) — but this one has a hole in his heart that nobody knows of but one or two; and he is always trying to fill it up, but he cannot. That must be what he wanted you for. I wonder if he will ever be a man. If he is, I hope they will kill him.”

“How kind of you to save me from him!”

“I will take care that he shall not come near you again. But there are some in the wood more like me, from whom, alas! I cannot protect you. Only if you see any of them very beautiful, try to walk round them.”

“What then?”

“I cannot tell you more. But now I must tie some of my hair about you, and then the Ash will not touch you. Here, cut some off. You men have strange cutting things about you.”

She shook her long hair loose over me, never moving her arms.

“I cannot cut your beautiful hair. It would be a shame.”

“Not cut my hair! It will have grown long enough before any is wanted again in this wild forest. Perhaps it may never be of any use again — not till I am a woman.” And she sighed.

As gently as I could, I cut with a knife a long tress of flowing, dark hair, she hanging her beautiful head over me. When I had finished, she shuddered and breathed deep, as one does when an acute pain, steadfastly endured without sign of suffering, is at length relaxed. She then took the hair and tied it round me, singing a strange, sweet song, which I could not understand, but which left in me a feeling like this —

“I saw thee ne’er before;
I see thee never more;
But love, and help, and pain, beautiful one,
Have made thee mine, till all my years are done.”

I cannot put more of it into words. She closed her arms about me again, and went on singing. The rain in the leaves, and a light wind that had arisen, kept her song company. I was wrapt in a trance of still delight. It told me the secret of the woods, and the flowers, and the birds. At one time I felt as if I was wandering in childhood through sunny spring forests, over carpets of primroses, anemones, and little white starry things — I had almost said creatures, and finding new wonderful flowers at every turn. At another, I lay half dreaming in the hot summer noon, with a book of old tales beside me, beneath a great beech; or, in autumn, grew sad because I trod on the leaves that had sheltered me, and received their last blessing in the sweet odours of decay; or, in a winter evening, frozen still, looked up, as I went home to a warm fireside, through the netted boughs and twigs to the cold, snowy moon, with her opal zone around her.

Part two of the instrumental, “I See Thee Nevermore,” begins here and leads Anodos on his journey:

At last I had fallen asleep; for I know nothing more that passed till I found myself lying under a superb beech-tree, in the clear light of the morning, just before sunrise. Around me was a girdle of fresh beech-leaves. Alas! I brought nothing with me out of Fairy Land, but memories — memories. The great boughs of the beech hung drooping around me. At my head rose its smooth stem, with its great sweeps of curving surface that swelled like undeveloped limbs. The leaves and branches above kept on the song which had sung me asleep; only now, to my mind, it sounded like a farewell and a speedwell.

I sat a long time, unwilling to go; but my unfinished story urged me on. I must act and wander. With the sun well risen, I rose, and put my arms as far as they would reach around the beech-tree, and kissed it, and said good-bye. A trembling went through the leaves; a few of the last drops of the night’s rain fell from off them at my feet; and as I walked slowly away, I seemed to hear in a whisper once more the words: “I may love him, I may love him; for he is a man, and I am only a beech-tree.”

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


4 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Janna,

    Yes, this is Phantastes – a dreamlike sequence of events containing a lot of truth. Phantastes, along with Lilith, is one of my favorite books.

    I had the bright idea one day to read this section as fuel for a guitar instrumental. I read it, really entered into it (not just reading in order to write an instrumental, but really imagining and deeply enjoying the experience). When I finished I picked up my guitar and played the first chord of the song, which sort of led me into an exploration of some different structure than I normally use. Once I’d laid down a chord structure, I improvised the melody. It took a few hours to get it all straight, but when I finished up the feeling that I’d had reading was inside the music.

    When I began to conceptualize my second cd, DoorWay, I thought I’d use these tracks as a guide and redo the whole thing – it was recorded on a Tascam DA at 24 bit, but I was using ProTools now and thought it wouldn’t match up. As I got closer to mix I realized I wouldn’t be able to recreate the feeling in the track – so I dumped the whole thing into ProTools, fixed a couple of things that bugged me, and used the original. I’m glad I did, because while I can recreate that feeling live (I’ve played both with Sierra Hull lately) it’d be hard to put it all together again. Such is the nature of improvising. Gary Paczosa, longtime engineer for Alison Krauss and Union Station, did his usually stellar job of making it match up with the sounds on the rest of the record.

    Right now I’m working on improving my guitar and banjo skills, technically – but in the near future I intend to do a lot more literature inspired instrumentals. It combines my love of reading with my love of playing, and filters the feelings through my consciousness and heart to come out in the music (if I succeed at it – sometimes I don’t).

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