[Editor’s note: This piece is the third in a series begun by Mark Geil called “Old Favorites,” where various contributors to the blog reflect on some of the most beloved, well-worn albums and songs in their collections. Today, we hear from Helena Sorensen about Sandra McCracken’s song “Dynamite.”]
It was 2008, and I was seated on a mercifully cushy chair in the auditorium of Christ Community Church. Jon and I had recently moved to Nashville, and I’d gone to see Sara Groves and whoever came with her on the Art*Music*Justice Tour. I was fidgeting, wondering how many bathroom breaks I’d have to take during the event, when the singers took the stage. There was Sara, lovely Sara, brilliant as always, and a couple of guys I couldn’t pick out of a lineup (bless them), and this other woman, as pregnant as me, balancing a guitar on her baby bump and singing like, well, like she knew me. You know the feeling. Her name was Sandra McCracken.
I don’t remember any of the songs she sang that night, but I went out and bought Gypsy Flat Road and Red Balloon, and when an opportunity arose to see Sandra perform again, I grabbed it. In that second concert, I was introduced to “Dynamite,” and I fell in love. Friends, I fell hard. It wasn’t a “that-was-good-and-I-might-look-up-the-lyrics-later” kind of love. It was a “what-just-happened-because-I-stopped-breathing-and-passed-out” kind of love. The setting may have been a factor: it was an outdoor venue. We brought blankets and chairs and sat under the stars while Sandra and Julie Lee and Sarah Masen sang in a lit pavilion and fireflies flickered above the tall grasses. Then again, I’ve heard Sandra sing that song in a poorly lit, unremarkable room with the barest accompaniment, and it was every bit as magical. I played it on repeat while I wrote my second book, Seeker, and after thousands of repetitions, my heart still aches when I hear the opening notes.
If you’re familiar with Sandra’s more recent albums, but you’ve never heard her singer/songwriter stuff, let me encourage you to venture out. Or rather, venture in. Her songs have a personal quality, an aura of secrecy that leaves you wanting to lean close and ask, “What’s this about?” Knowing Sandra a little now, I can tell you that her response wouldn’t be simple or straightforward. She’d offer some sort of glancing wisdom that raised more questions and sent you off with an eagerness to unearth new mysteries in the music. That’s Sandra’s way. She’s shy of hitting things head on.
Sandra understands that if you want to engage with the question of desire, it will take a journey—and a thousand images and contradictions, and freedom, and pain, and hope, and stories, and songs—to come anywhere close to an answer.Helena Sorensen
Her reticence, for me, is crucial to her appeal. In “Dynamite,” I imagine that someone has come to her and asked, “What is this desire I feel? Is it good? Is it bad?” And Sandra, knowing it to be an intimate and an impossible question, knowing that, in matters of the human heart, a hammer and chisel will get you nowhere, approaches gently, with circumspection. She approaches, in the words of John O’Donohue, “with the kindness and reverence of candlelight.” She understands that if you want to engage with the question of desire, it will take a journey—and a thousand images and contradictions, and freedom, and pain, and hope, and stories, and songs—to come anywhere close to an answer.
So she takes the listener—the seeker—on a journey that begins with a dream: I had a dream that the mountains cried like a child for their mother. My throat catches when I hear it. The question of desire is huge, as big as mountains. But instead of throwing them down and making a level plain or casting them into the sea by means of a dramatic faith act, Sandra begins by grieving for them. What is more in need of comforting than a child longing for its mother? This towering, ungainly desire, she suggests, needs first to be treated with tenderness. It needs to be held.
But in the next heartbeat, the image changes. Desire becomes destructive, overwhelming; familiar places are flooded, and the land is black with smoke. The image of the inconsolable child is traded for the image of a soldier, a nuclear holocaust. “Here,” Sandra says, as the melodic line descends by a dramatic octave and a half, “is desire left unchecked. Here is the absurdity of mankind, seeking to name itself by what it can own, what it can break.” The hush, the chill, the iron will of man, sweeping everything in sight with dynamite. I am silenced by grief and horror.
And that’s just the first verse.
The second verse, in a movement that feels like whiplash, returns the listener to a scene of childhood and unbridled freedom. I had a child, and her spirit was like wild horses running. This time the trajectory is not toward destruction and abuse of power. It’s toward something smaller and more fragile than a child: a leaf. In the purest desire, and in genuine need, the leaf bends toward the light. What else can it do? Yet somehow, even this ends in destruction. Out of nowhere, the last word of the verse lands like a dropped bomb, and I want to ask why. I want to know how the leaf survives if it doesn’t yearn for sunlight. I want to know how we grow if we don’t lean into desire.
Sandra ignores my questions and hurries on to the chorus. Those who have ears when the smoke clears will see things as they are. To bend the will, you first must change the heart. This is not about answers. Sandra is trying to show me something. She’s setting contradictions side by side and waiting for me to catch the glints of light that move along the cords that connect them. I think I can almost see them. While she’s singing, I think I almost understand.
But before I become fixated and confused, before I lose the heart of the question, the third verse opens. I dreamed I heard the sound of the last ‘Great God-bird’ singing. There is no space for thinking here. In this forest where ax-machines are leveling the trees and the last of a species is singing its farewell song, all I can do is weep. This is a fable she doesn’t want to tell, one I don’t want to hear, but there is no avoiding it. It’s placed in my hands with a parting question, a beautiful and terrible gift: Will we choose the noise of our desire or the hope that makes no sound?
In a matter of seconds, the music stops. The strings are still and Sandra turns to go. “But wait!” I want to say. “What does that mean? Is desire good or bad? Is it always noisy and hope always silent? What should I do now? I don’t understand!” She responds with an enigmatic smile and disappears. She hasn’t answered my questions, but like the Spirit, like an artist, she has “stirred the embers of (my) heart.” So I hit the Repeat button and take the journey again, weeping for the childlike mountains and the last lonely God-bird. I catch glimpses of the light that runs along the cords that connect everything. My desire is cleansed by my tears, transformed by my seeing, and I’m thankful still and yet and always for the woman who stood in a room full of strangers, propped a guitar on her belly, and sang the Mystery.
Click here to read the first entry in this series, where Mark Geil tells us about Andrew Peterson’s album Clear to Venus, and here to read the second entry in this series, where Jonathan Rogers shares his experience with Arthur Alligood’s One Silver Needle.