Saturday, October 10, 2009

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: The Magdalene Laundries

The Chieftains (with Joni Mitchell): The Magdalene Laundries


“Today, if you walk into the centre of Stephen's Green, just to the right of where a magnolia is stretching in full blossom sits a new wooden bench. On it is a metal plaque enscribed with small faceless heads and the words: ‘To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities - reflect here upon their lives.' “ - Meadbh Gallagher

There can, perhaps, be no greater violation than when an institution whose ostensible purpose is to protect victims is itself the source of abuse. In Ireland, starting in the early 1800s, institutions were set up by the Catholic church to house “fallen women”, those who had bourn children out of wedlock. Some of these were victims of rape or incest, but all were considered sinners who needed their souls saved. They were put to work in what came to be known as the Magdalene Laundries, and the women came to be known as Magdalens. Of course, Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who was forgiven by Christ. So this all sounds noble, if misguided.

But, in the mid 1970s, part of the High Park Convent in Dublin was sold by its owners, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, to developers. At that time, 133 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds. Denied forgiveness or a Christian burial, this had been the fate of the Magdalens there. An investigation, which eventually involved 250 state supported institutions run by the church, and most of which housed children, was launched. Survivors began to come forward and tell their stories. It turned out that boys in orphanages had been raped. The girls and women, including the Magdalens, were beaten and emotionally abused. One victim reported that the nuns’ weapon of choice for beatings was wooden rosary beads. Another told of punishments that awaited any girl who failed to get her period on schedule. And there is much more.

Although the story began to break 30 years ago, resistance from both the church and the government slowed the flow of information. A commission was finally established, and, nine years later, in May of this year, it issued its final report. In the mean time, laws were passed that shield the perpetrators from punishment for their crimes.

Joni Mitchell caught up with this story in 1994, and wrote The Magdalene Laundries. At that time, the full extent of the abuse was not known. But Mitchell had enough information to create one of her most heartbreaking portraits. The Chieftans had been collaborating with artists from the world of popular music for some time. It is only natural, this being an Irish story, that Mitchell’s song would resonate with them. As a bonus, I have included Joni Mitchell’s original version of the song for comparison.

Joni Mitchell: The Magdalene Laundries


Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Break the Cycle Edition

To wrap up my thoughts on this week's theme, I wanted to span the various ways women (and song) have dealt with domestic violence: confusing abuse with love... getting revenge on the abuser... walking away from the situation to make a better life - as Maya Angelou says, "when we know better, we do better"... and there is much emphasis these days, with the current generation, to Break the Cycle and do things differently...

1) It will only get worse.
2) I'm afraid for your safety.
3) I'm afraid for the safety of your loved ones.
4) You don't deserve to be treated this way.
5) There's help when you're ready. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

The Motels: He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)


Since I do not own, and was unable to find, the original version of this song by The Crystals, I am sharing The Motels' cover - from Wikipedia:

"He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)" is a pop song written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and recorded by The Crystals under the guidance of Phil Spector in 1962.

Goffin and King wrote the song after discovering that singer Little Eva was being regularly beaten by her boyfriend. When they inquired why she tolerated such treatment, Eva replied, with complete sincerity, that her boyfriend's actions were motivated by his love for her. The song was written and intended as a sort of protest song from the point of view of an abused woman. Phil Spector's arrangement was ominous and ambiguous.

“It was a brutal song, as any attempt to justify such violence must be, and Spector’s arrangement only amplified its savagery, framing Barbara Alston’s lone vocal amid a sea of caustic strings and funereal drums, while the backing vocals almost trilled their own belief that the boy had done nothing wrong. In more ironic hands (and a more understanding age), 'He Hit Me' might have passed at least as satire. But Spector showed no sign of appreciating that, nor did he feel any need to. No less than the song’s writers, he was not preaching, he was merely documenting.” — Dave Thompson (AllMusicGuide)

Upon its initial release, "He Hit Me" received some airplay, but then there was a widespread protest of the song, with many concluding that the song was an endorsement of spousal abuse. The song soon became played only rarely on the radio, as now. More here...

Eliza Gilkyson: The Ballad of Yvonne Johnson


From the Austin Chronicle:

In her autobiography, Stolen Life, Canadian Cree Yvonne Johnson spares little in the telling of her life of abuse, incest, rape, physical deformity, poverty, and crime. Yet Johnson, who won't be eligible for parole until 2014, doesn't point fingers, make excuses, or otherwise deny guilt for the murder that got her a life sentence. Instead, she has used the experience to not just rehabilitate herself, but to redeem her battered, brutalized spirit. When Eliza Gilkyson ran across Stolen Life in a Canadian airport, she was stunned.

"I just inhaled it. I knew then I wanted to write her story in song, but I didn't know how to do it right. So much detail; how was I going to get all these elements in, this history of abuse, the murder, how she found herself? How to convey that and the emotion? It was so daunting."

The rest of the article here...

Kristina Olsen: Keeping This Life of Mine (Song for Battered Women)


This song won the New Folk songwriting contest at the prestigious Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival in 1985 - in Kristina's words:

"I wrote it about a friend of mine who was in an abusive relationship. She ended up in the hospital and at that time realized she had to get away from this very abusive man, but she had no self-esteem left. She finally said, "I'm keeping this life of mine" and walked away. I was so impressed with the courage it took her to do that that I wrote this song from her point of view. The nice tag to her story is that she's doing great now."

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Strong Enough

Sheryl Crow: Strong Enough


On the face of it, Sheryl Crow's 1993 triple-Grammy debut doesn't seem to speak explicitly to this week's theme. But as I alluded to at our week's beginning, the threat of domestic violence lurks constantly in the way society portrays gender relationships.

As evidence, I note that I have always wanted to hear a male voice cover Strong Enough, with no other changes to the lyrics save one: changing the repeated refrain "Are you strong enough to be my man?" to "Am I strong enough to be your man?"

It's a different song, to be sure, when the roles are reversed - a song of masculinity, sarcastic and sensitive all at once, with undertones of anger against so many women's acceptance of violence as strength. But as an exercise, it also reveals the violence Crow's original narrator owns throughout. That it requires re-thinking the song to see this reveals how easily we overlook or excuse violence as just part of the gender dynamic of modern culture. We are all, in the end, part of the problem.

Which is to say: although my own gender-transformed lyrics reveal an interesting sense of self-as-perpetrator, aware and unapologetic, just under the surface, until someone with a strong, sensitive baritone takes on my challenge to cover the song, Strong Enough already contains its particular violence. Specifically, it is one of those rare songs which positions the female as offender, thus showing that domestic violence is not, in the end, a "woman's issue", but a human one.

Here's the lyrics, as modified for a male delivery.

God, I feel like hell tonight
Tears of rage I cannot fight
I'd be the last to help you understand
Am I strong enough to be your man?

Nothing's true and nothing's right
So let me be alone tonight
Cause you can't change the way I am
Am I strong enough to be your man?

Lie to me
I promise I'll believe
Lie to me
But please don't leave

I have a face I cannot show
I make the rules up as I go
It's try and love me if you can
Am I strong enough to be your man?

When I've shown you that I just dont care
When I'm throwing punches in the air
When I'm broken down and I can't stand
Will I be strong enough to be your man?

Lie to me
I promise I'll believe
Lie to me
But please don't leave...

Millions of men both gay and straight become victims of domestic violence each year, though numbers are hard to collect, as men are notoriously shy of reporting. For help and more information, online resources for and about battered men are available at MenWeb.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Domestic Violence : Family murder-suicide edition

Suicide : Frankie Teardrop


Doc & Merle Watson : The Lawson Family Murder


Two songs which are worlds apart musically, but which deal with the same subject : how men suddenly go amok and kill their whole family before comiting suicide. The first song by Suicide is probably one of the most frightening pieces of music ever made with its cold synthetizers and Alan Vega's inhuman screams.

The second one is a topical folk song about a real murder committed in 1929 by a tobacco farmer in North Carolina (the Watsons home state). Doc Watson took it from the Stanley Brothers. In contrast with Suicide's brutality, he sings it with a gentle voice and on a peaceful 3/4 beat, which make the story even more terrible.

While in the Suicide lyrics the killer acts out of desperation, the reason why Charlie Lawson killed his whole family is still mysterious, although there have been rumors of incest in the family, as you can see here.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Dream, My Girl

Jo Serrapere: Dream, My Girl

[purchase] (scroll down to My Blue Heaven)

I first heard Jo Serrapere, a musician from the Detroit area, at our 1999 South Florida Folk Festival, where Dream, My Girl won the songwriting competition for "Best Ballad" - it's a contemporary song that sounds traditional, a lulling yet starkly-told tale of a woman who endures abuse for twelve years, never giving up the dream that "someday the burden will cease"... and it does...

Three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner each day in America, on average.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: You Don’t Have to Take It (Like I Did)

Gaye Adegbalola: You Don‘t Have to Take It (Like I Did)


I’m going to tell a story. It may not seem to have anything to do with our theme or this song, but bear with me. I promise, there is a connection.

When I was just entering my teenaged years, my oldest brother told me and my other brother something. He was in quite a state, and he had to tell someone. I don’t think he felt that he could talk to my parents about it. One of his best friends had had a bad trip, “flipped out on acid” as they said then. Said friend wound up being institutionalized, and as far as I know, he was never right again. My brother told all of this in more detail, and it was clear how shocked he was. I don’t know to this day if my brother had any intent, other than getting this off his chest, but the story had I powerful effect on me. When my opportunities to experiment with drugs came, I never tried anything stronger than weed. And this was why.

As I said, I don’t know if my brother had any intent. But there is certainly intent behind our theme this week. And I feel sure that many of the songwriters we are hearing this week had an intent. Gaye Adegbalola, with You Don’t Have to Take It (Like I Did), hopes that by sharing her story, she can save at least one other woman from falling into the same trap that she did. It is my fondest hope that our posts this week will serve the same purpose.

Incidentally, the other lead voice on this track is Rory Block.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Behind the Wall

Tracy Chapman: Behind the Wall


I thought a good follow up to Suzanne Vega's "Luka" would be to post Tracy Chapman's "Behind the Wall". I wasn't able to find any internet confirmation, but I was always told that this song was Tracy's response to "Luka". The song is a haunting a cappella song from the perspective of Luka's neighbor, to whom Luka is speaking in Vega's song.

Like in the song, in reality, many outsiders feel helpless to do anything when confronted with domestic abuse around them. We are either silenced by social rules that tell us to stay out of other people's affairs, or we reach out only to find our attempts fail because the powers that be are unwilling or unable to step in.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse: Southern Can Is Mine

Blind Willie McTell: Southern Can Is Mine


Sometimes, needing a break from the music, I'll turn on the police scanner for a diversion. The amount of calls to law enforcement for domestic violence is never ending.

A little research on the subject revealed that the difficulty in determining the precise numbers for domestic violence in the U.S. is that incidents often go unreported, there is no organization that collects information from local police departments about substantiated calls and reports, and there is disagreement about just exactly what should be included in the definition of domestic violence. However, there is data and estimations. One yearly estimate I read is 2 to 4 million U.S. women will be assaulted by a domestic partner. It is also estimated that physical violence will occur yearly in the United States in 4 to 6 million intimate relationships. Nearly 2 out of 3 women know their attacker. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner. According to the American Medical Association, almost 100,000 days of hospitalizations, almost 30,000 emergency room visits, and almost 40,000 visits to a doctor occur yearly in the U.S. as a result of domestic violence. Staggering.

Keeping someone in a state of fear, intimidation and control are also forms of domestic violence. And that is the premise of this song by "Blind Willie" McTell (also recorded by The White Stripes in 2000). Control by intimidation with threatening violence. Even though McTell recorded this in '31, this kind of mentality is still, sadly, very much alive in the United States. Stop The Violence.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Luka

Suzanne Vega: Luka


One thing that happens in abusive relationships is that the abuser isolates the victim. She knows that any attempt to reach out to the outside world will be met with violence. To protect herself from this, the victim tries to maintain the illusion for outsiders that nothing is wrong. Even when the evidence to the contrary is almost overwhelming. This is Luka in a nutshell.

For the art for this post, I have used an image by Ieneke Jansen, from her series The Different Colors of Domestic Violence. To see more and purchase prints, go here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Me and a Gun

Tori Amos: Me and a Gun


I will never forget the effect this song had on me when I bought the CD upon its 1992 release - it has the same effect on me now: the hair prickles on the back of my neck, goosebumps raise on my arms and I have a difficult time breathing...

Listening to Tori's a cappella rendering of a rape at gunpoint makes me hope I am never in that situation - the fear, shock and numbness is palpable in her whispered vocals, cracking at times, as she tries to envision the island of Barbados and soft biscuits in Carolina, anything to escape in her head what is happening to her body...

The song is based on a true story - Tori later went on to found RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), a non-profit organization operating America's only national hotline for survivors of rape and sexual assault. The RAINN hotline is toll-free and 100% confidential. RAINN has helped more than 276,300 survivors and connects with more than 830 crisis centers around the country.

Tori's Survivor Story

"I'll never talk about it at this level again but let me ask you. Why have I survived that kind of night, when other women didn't?

How am I alive to tell you this tale when he was ready to slice me up? In the song I say it was Me and a Gun but it wasn't a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn't needed more drugs I would have been just one more news report, where you see the parents grieving for their daughter. And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralyzed for years. That's what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.

I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night and that now I'm trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability."

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse: Run For Your Life

The Beatles: Run For Your Life


This week's theme finds our hardy band here at Star Maker Machine turning to a serious topic in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Posts will likely run the gamut from victimizer and victim's voices to tales of acceptance, regret, looking the other way, fighting back and more.

A quick perusal of my own music library finds this to be a rich subject, which speaks volumes about how much this issue remains a serious and necessary pursuit. As evidence of how ingrained our cultural acceptance of violence has become, we kick off the week with a familiar, cheerful little ditty in which the narrator - a "wicked guy" with a "jealous mind" - makes no secret of how he will respond if he catches his girl with another man.

Donations to the cause can be made to your local YWCA or any one of these violence against women organizations. More importantly: if you think domestic violence is happening in your home or neighborhood, now is the time to speak up by calling the police, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.