Unlikely Lullabies

By  |  September 3, 2012
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut Wikimedia Commons

During the colicky first weeks following the birth of our son, Beckett, my wife and I took turns rising in the night to get him back to sleep. Without recourse to breast milk or the pacifying whispers Emily floated into his burning little ears, I often resorted to dancing him around the living room of our termite-infested rental on Capitol Hill, all the while singing whatever lyrics I could call to mind.

For whatever reason, the one song that presented itself wholesale was “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” the cantering Sonny Curtis number that Keith Whitley took to the top of the country music charts in 1989. More Dante’s Inferno than “Frere Jacques,” “I’m No Stranger” is hardly a lullaby. The verses map one maverick’s trek through heartache, high water, and hellfire. “I fought with the devil,” Whitley sings. “Got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me.”

In Whitley’s version, the Dantean undertones are amplified by personal misadventure. A titan of Music Row, childhood friend of Ricky Skaggs, husband to Lorrie Morgan, his sound a mix of Merle Haggard lilt and Eddy Arnold polish, Whitley could not, for all his triumphs, ever whip the bottle. He died from alcohol poisoning the summer after “I’m No Stranger” hit No 1.

Night after humid night, unable to summon an innocuous cradle song, I wrangled my voice into Whitley’s smeared baritone, looked into Beckett’s tear-swamped eyes, and began:

I’m no stranger to the rain
I’m a friend of thunder
Friend, is it any wonder
Lightning strikes me?

That I remembered the words was a shock. Although I grew up outside of Nashville, just down the street from Whitley’s house, it had been decades since I had heard “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” Perhaps the reshuffling of the song to the top of my mental playlist was a fluke. Perhaps any old berceuse would have flown. But there is something in me that wants to believe in a living music that advances and prevails upon us at formative moments, corralling our chaos, if only for the space of three-and-a-half minutes, into the simple, liberating stockade of verse, chorus, verse.

The truth was that Beckett had been born amid a fit of trials and disenchantments not out of keeping with the litany set out in the song.

In our first year of marriage, Emily and I had lost our jobs and our confidence. We had moved from D.C. to the Midwest to take over a failing magazine. When the economy crashed later that fall, taking the magazine and much of our savings with it, we U-Hauled back east. We slept on couches and blow-up mattresses in friends’ basements. We sent out resumes and tried, in the meantime, to piece together enough odd jobs to pay the bills.

Emily landed an internship. I took a position editing online textbooks. Just as things started looking up, we found out that Emily was pregnant. The news stunned us and sent us scrambling to find steadier work and better health insurance, which we eventually secured when Emily’s internship turned into a full-time gig.

Somehow we pulled together enough money to put down a deposit on a place in town. Nine months later, feeling nine years older, we carried Beckett through the front door.

Backlit by these anxieties, “I’m No Stranger” proved a prescient lullaby. Here was a song a father could sing his son without feeling like he was lying. The lyrics had—have—verisimilitude. The bridge, in particular, is a frank admission of human frailty. “It’s hard to keep believing / I’ll even come out even / While the rain beats a hole in the ground,” our troubadour confesses, before disclosing, so as to add immediacy to the forecast, “And tonight it’s really coming down.”

For all its straight-shooting, the lingering tone of “I’m No Stranger” is bullish. Rough handles, after all, produce calloused hands. The rain-soaked narrator has become an ace at auguring the weather and has learned, consequently, how to hunker down. “I’ll put the clouds behind me,” he goes on. “That’s how the Man designed me / To ride the wind and dance in hurricanes.”

Dancing in a hurricane. A brilliant image, it is also the least believable line in the song. Up to that point, “I’m No Stranger” unspools like a countrypolitan revamp of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the folk ballad popularized by Ralph Stanley, in whose band Whitley had received his first break. Sure, there’s a touch of triumphalism in the lyrics but no revelry, no gloating. This makes the detour into “Singin’ in the Rain” schmaltz all the more unpalatable. Whitley, for his part, seems to concede as much. His voice peters out here on a belch of a bass note.

Dancing, we suspect, is the last thing on earth this narrator would do. He’d pull on his cigarette, curse a bit under his breath. He might stomp the floor with his boots but never heel toe do-si-do. Then again, dancing was the last thing I expected to be doing either and yet there I was, in those hurricane hours of early fatherhood, dead tired, drowning a little, and doing just that.

What song and dance, I wondered, had I been swept up into? Was this a danse macabre, that medieval allegory that fashioned life as a great swaying together toward the grave? In paintings and lithographs, death, typically pictured as a skeleton, unites the hands of kings and beggars alike. Strangers, even sworn enemies, become partners by virtue of their shared state and destination.

Beckett and I were partners all right—even before we left the delivery room, I had pledged myself forever—but our harried turns about the house were far more of a practical solution (and a pathetic one at that) than the stuff of art history.

We had been brought together by colic, not by death, which is to say, we had been brought together by life. Judging by the volume and intensity of Beckett’s cries, and my inability to ease his pain for any length of time, death, by comparison, seemed at times like it might have been more pleasant.

A catch-all term for various stomach issues in newborns, colic has no medical cure. There is no medicine you can administer, no shortcut you can take. You’re left on your own to find temporary cathartics until the child outgrows the pain.

Even so, I was hell bent on getting Beckett to quit screaming before he woke up the upstairs neighbors, who, for all I knew, might well raise a stink with the landlord, who, in turn, might try to turn us out. I was equally bent on getting back to bed myself. How many days can you operate on little-to-no sleep before your boss takes notice?

I lived for the moment when the wailing and contorting gave way to a sighing and slumping into calm but when that moment did come and sometimes for quite a while afterwards, I went on singing and the whole thing seemed to morph into something else entirely.

I had never felt urgency like the urgency I felt in fatherhood. Even in the first days of Beckett’s life, I wanted to transfer to him everything I’d learned and experienced. I wanted to keep him from being blindsided by life as I had been. I didn’t know where or when or how to start.

What I knew was a song about rain from way back and as I sang it in hopes of shushing Beckett’s screaming I felt the screams and anxieties in my own head opening, easing. A kind of grace, it had come floating back unbidden to dance me through the hurricane.

 

Drew Bratcher, an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, is at work on a book about Nashville’s changing music scene.

More from Drew Bratcher