Thursday, January 8, 2009

Baby Mine: My Baby Needs A Shepherd

Emmylou Harris: My Baby Needs A Shepherd


One of the few songs about babies and mothers to actually use the word "baby" in the title, My Baby Needs A Shepherd comes to us from 2000 tour-de-force Red Dirt Girl, an album which won Emmylou Harris a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category after years of self-definition as a country artist, and, perhaps more significantly, one which marked her true transformation from song connoisseur to poetic songwriter after a long career of coversong and collaboration.

Despite the literal title, Emmylou's narrative here is somewhat cryptic. Various sources have suggested the song is both "pro-life and pro-love and pro-motherhood" and "a tragic look at the struggle to find the strength to live this life"; Emmylou herself, in liner notes and interviews, has focused on the song's sonic texture more than its literal meaning, suggesting that it is "like a medieval fable colored by Middle Eastern sounds", letting the loss, rather than the circumstances, remain the focal point.

But though nominally about a baby, this is ultimately a song about a mother; as such, the power of the unspoken goes a long way here. Most listeners agree this is Emmylou at one of her finest and most powerful moments, crying for an absent baby lost along the way, decrying her own fault in letting go of her hand, and her inability to guide her to salvation now that she is gone. Her despair is palpable, and all the more potent for its placement in a mother's voice.

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