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I do this thing where a band floats around on the periphery of my world for many years until, finally, one of their later singles becomes my touchtone and doorway back through their catalog.
I did it with Ani DiFranco, with Tori Amos, with Radiohead, and in 1997 I unknowingly did it with The Indigo Girls – it just took another five years for me to really feel the impact.
I had heard of the Indigo Girls before, in passing. My friends sang “Closer to Fine” in a talent show and I had to have heard “Least Complicated” at some point to explain my later familiarity with it. Yet, it was “Shame On You” that clicked in my adolescent brain in the fleeting years of when alternative rock radio that would still play an acoustic song by a female singer.
Even before I was a guitar player I appreciated the utter simplicity of this three-chord tune with it simple I-IV-V progression. It reminds me of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and every time Amy Ray says “la la la, shame on you” I always want to shout back, “sha la-la la-la la-la la, la ti da!”
(I swear, I had no thoughts of how politically relevant this pick would be when I made it a few weeks ago. That’s folk music for you.)
Despite hitting all the right Lilith Fair influences to make me love it, the song resonated with teenaged me on another level because it was one of the few songs on the radio at the time aside from Rage Against The Machine that was making a statement about anything. The song starts with Ray relating the story of her friends the window washers.
My friends they wash the windows and they shine in the sun
They tell me wake up early in the morning sometime
See what a beautiful job we done
I say let’s put on some tunes sing along do little all day
Go down to the riverside take off our shoes wash these sins away
The river said, “la la la,” it said shame on you
This was a different sort of blue collar nod than you’d expect to hear in a Springsteen tune. Ray wasn’t saying she was an every-woman, or bemoaning the plight of an underclass. She says “my friends” as she introduces these people who hang from the sides of tall buildings while she’s on the road as a rock star.
Her friends want her to appreciate their windows like they appreciates her music. She wants to take off her shoes with them and head down to the river, where they’re all the same and they can hear the water burble “shame on you” as their sins wash past downstream.
In retrospect, is this sort of romanticism of blue collar ideals from someone far outside their sphere more of a downward punch than Springsteen similar everyman vibe? Usually I’d say “yes,” but Ray continues…
I go down to Chicano city park because it makes me feel so fine
When the weeds go down you can see up close in the dead of the winter time
But when the summer comes everything’s in bloom and you wouldn’t know it’s there
The white folks like to pretend it’s not but their music’s in the air
And you can hear ’em singing, “la la la,” they say shame on you
And you can feel them dancing, “la la la,” they say shame on you
She has now identified herself, the narrator, as an outsider to all of the beauty that she witnesses. Is that patronizing or is it acceptance and affection for the other?
I was particularly struck at the the time at the gently accusatory way she says, “the white folks like to pretend.” Isn’t she a white folk, too? Or, maybe that’s only a label for those pretenders, and everyone else are just people.
And who is now admonishing “shame on you”? Is it the white folks, clucking at the Chicano culture? Or, the Chicano clucking in response that the white folks refuse to enjoy it even when it puts a smile on their face.
My friend Tanner she says you know me and Jesus we’re of the same heart
The only thing that keeps us distant is that I keep fuckin’ up
I said come on down to Chicano city park wash your blues away
The beautiful ladies walk on by
You know I never know what to say
And they’ll be singing,” oo la-la-la-la-la, shame on you”
They’ll be dancin’, “la la la,” they say shame on you, shame on you
Wow. Had I heard anyone on the radio before so casually state their attraction to someone of the same gender? Who’s the shame on now? Ray for being attracted to them, or Ray for never knowing what to say?
That’s why I am so convinced this song isn’t punching down, not even punching up at the white folks. It’s not about punching. It’s about dancing, and finding those shared little moments of humanity with people who aren’t like you in the slightest. It’s about the shame in not admitting how much you just want to kick off your shoes and dance along.
Oh, wait, there is the one punch…
Let’s go road block trippin’ in the
Middle of the night up in Gainesville town
There’ll be blue lights flashing down the long dirt road
When they ask me to step out
They say, “We be looking for illegal immigrants can we check your car?”
I say, “You know it’s funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.”
And I said, “oo la-la-la-la-la, shame on you”
That line has always stuck with me, and it has never before felt so relevant as it has this year. Or this past week.
How can you turn your nose up and close your doors completely to the immigrants who want to forge a life in America when that’s how all of us got here … except for our indigenous people, to whom we all owe a debt that we can’t ever repay for destroying their land, their people, and their culture? Who are we to want to build a wall between us and Mexico when they have an actual, persistent culture to bring into our melting pot of customs imported from afar?
I wasn’t ready to really love The Indigo Girls until I borrowed their older CDs from my first boss, Laura, back in 2003, but as soon as I heard those records I realized that I already loved this band, and I probably always will.
(And, in a fun tie-in to yesterday’s post: E and I walked up the aisle together to a cello version of “Least Complicated!”)