The Power of Mournful Music in Tragic Times, From Jason Molina on 9/11 to Nina Simone on MLK

On 9/11, the late, great Jason Molina was supposed to be recording with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts at Oldham’s brother Paul’s Kentucky farmhouse. Instead, they spent all day watching the news, distraught, terrified, and lost. By night they put to tape some reckoning with what they had just seen. This song, posted online last week by Molina’s label Secretly Canadian with a brief introduction from Roberts, is titled simply: “September 11, 2001.” It is in many ways absolutely remarkable. Though oblique, Molina’s images cannot belong to any other moment. He describes the “pre-world dark,” conjures ash on “a weeping wind,” asks, repeatedly, about the “blue gospel flames.” At various points he exhorts the other players to “cast your offering,” Roberts scraping a bow against dulcimer strings, Oldham stumbling over piano chords. Even now it is frequently a painful listen.

Perhaps most striking, this song — incantation, really — seems to contain the experiences of all those who watched the tragedy from afar, even if the expressed experience feels so singularly Molina’s. His language brings out moments I was too distraught to watch, even as I couldn’t look away. “We can hear them ringing the rescue bell,” he sings. “It’s like a tempest.” He captures the moment’s pure unreality by portraying what was for many the most real aspect of it: the grief at the precipice of that moment, as Roberts describes it, of “the last twilight of an old world.” Recorded without insight into the attacks, the song cannot even pretend to politics, taking stock only of this one shell-shocked moment.

In the wake of tragedy, the impulse to sloganize our disbelief powers all manner of action, and, as we have seen with “Never Forget” and, most recently, “Je Suis Charlie,” these phrases can be used to knit together solidarity where none previously existed. We can act, we can stand, we can help. These are all valuable purposes, and in times of crisis art reflects this, providing frames through which to view the ground as it shifts beneath our feet. But a song like Molina’s gains its strength not because it aspires to clarify, or to know, but because it doesn’t aspire at all, merely looks down at the cracks and begins to sing.

It is not alone in this approach. Sleater-Kinney’s “Far Away,” from their deeply political 2002 album One Beat, finds Corin Tucker wondering about this new, post-9/11 world her kids will grow up into, where the potential for disaster hangs over every moment. It is a song I assume my parents, considering my sisters and me, would instinctively understand. This song and others like it need not represent a single tone, whether somber or angry, or musical form, and you sense a similar inwardness, a desire to echo as opposed to explain, through time and across genre, from William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops to Paul Robeson’s immortal version of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” Whether it is in the moment of significance or decades down the road, these recordings require us to dwell, to take stock. The time for sloganeering comes later.

As usual, no one does it better than Nina Simone. From “Mississippi Goddamn” to “Old Jim Crow” to the definitive take on “Strange Fruit,” Simone had her fair share of “message songs” — but she also grappled with the pain of political tragedy on distinctly personal terms. In “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” Simone muses, with no clear answer, over Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, pulling all her fury and uncertainty out to the surface to explain what can never be made adequately explicable. Composed by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor in the immediate aftermath of King’s murder, the band first performed “Why?” only three days later, and in the recording it writhes and shakes inconsolably, asking: “What’s gonna happen, now that the king of love is dead?” Listening today, you are tugged right back to the moment when Simone, when everyone first heard the world-shattering news. Even now she carries his life’s weight in her song.

If art can be described as a struggle to ascertain what is impossible to possess, then these songs make that disconnect palpable. I was struck by a similar feeling when listening to recordings of keeners, Irish women who made it their trade to weep and wail at funerals. You can find comparable traditions the world over, from Albania to India, in which women ground the preparation and the burial with their grieving, dredging up all the anger and frustration and fear from those in attendance and laying it bare. As they cry, the reality of death, the separation between the life spent and that to come, manifests in the room. And there solidified, it provides us with no concrete explanation, only that we must reckon with it, and on our own terms. To take “ten paces,” as Molina says, “over that stark black earth,” and see the devastation for ourselves.