How shall we sing the Lord‘s song in a strange land? -Psalm 137:4
By the rivers of Babylon
Where he sat down
And there he went
When he remembered Zion
Well, it was only a matter of time before I got around to writing a post about Linda Ronstadt. It’s no secret that I’ve always held a strong affinity for the SoCal country rock scene of the early 70’s, and Linda was certainly it’s First Lady.
Lately, even our President has confessed to having had a crush on her in his earlier years. She definitely was one of mine, not only for her timeless beauty, but for that “big as a house”, “neck hair raising”, “chill bump inducing”, voice that God graced her with. She has certainly had an effect on me; ever since first hearing her with the Stone Poneys in 1967, I’ve been smitten with brown eyed brunettes. (and yes, I married one)
For the wicked carry us away
Captivity require from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land
Linda was not a songwriter; she was a song whisperer (if there is such a thing). A master interpreter of songs from the kings (or queens) of rock, country, soul, bluegrass, gospel , American standards and international themes. As my wife once said, “I love Elvis Costello’s songs…when Linda Ronstadt sings them.”. The list of artists she’s covered is like a songwriter’s “Who’s Who”: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Webb, Mick Jagger, John David Souther, Warren Zevon, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Lowell George, Karla Bonoff, Ry Cooder, Jimmy Cliff, Elvis Costello, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. Country legends like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Mel Tillis, and Phil Everly. R&B greats like Smokey Robinson, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Martha Reeves and Booker T. The list is endless. And, most of the time, her cover versions trumped the originals (appropriate bias applied here). 🙂
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight, over I
I’ve chosen two of her songs here, “Rivers Of Babylon” – written by the Jamaican reggae band, The Melodians , and “Many Rivers To Cross” – written by Jimmy Cliff. Both songs were featured in the movie, The Harder They Come. The two songs were on “bookend” LPs from 1975 (Prisoner In Disguise) and 1976 (Hasten Down The Wind). I personally think that Hasten Down The Wind was Linda’s absolute best album. And I defy anyone to challenge the trilogy of albums that Linda produced from 1974-76 (Heart Like A Wheel, Prisoner In Disguise and Hasten Down The Wind): all three having gone platinum in sales.
The lyrics for “Rivers Of Babylon” come directly from Psalm 137, describing the feelings and heartaches of the Jewish people following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BC. Given the current happenings in Israel, I think it’s a good time to give it a listen.
Many rivers to cross
But I can’t seem to find my way over
Wandering I am lost
As I travel along white cliffs of Dover
While “Rivers Of Babylon” shows off Linda’s ability to harmonize (with almost anyone), “Many Rivers To Cross” is a perfect showcase for Linda’s soaring vocal style. I’m not sure if these two songs were meant to be correlated, but it seems to me that there was some sort of cosmic connection at play here.
Many rivers to cross
And it’s only my will that keeps me alive
I’ve been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride
The Jews are God’s chosen people. And certainly, they have had the will to survive, all the while fighting for their place and forced to live in exile. Jimmy Cliff wrote the lyrics to “Many Rivers To Cross” to share his feelings of despondency as a struggling young artist, just trying to find a home and acceptance in the musical world. And if Jimmy’s version of the song doesn’t have a prayerful, “take me back to church”, gospel feel to it, then nothing does.
Many rivers to cross
But just where to begin
I’m playing for time
There have been times I find myself thinking
Of committing some dreadful crime
As for Linda, she’s had her own share of river crossings; passing through her nearly 50 year career migrating from her country roots, to SoCal rock, to New Wave, to 40’s standards, to pop and country, Latino traditional and beyond.
It was studying the album liner notes for Linda’s albums (along with Jackson Browne’s and James Taylor’s) that taught me the ability to appraise the quality of an album before ever popping the shrink wrap. If I looked at the artist credits on a new album and saw the likes of Andrew Gold, Dan Dugmore, David Lindley, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Wendy Waldman, Nicolette Larson, Emory Gordy, Danny Kortchmar, Don Grolnick, Rick Marotta (and many many more) featured…well you knew it was gonna be good.
Linda’s singing voice has recently been silenced by Parkinson’s, but if you listen to just a few of her tracks; you know it will live on forever.
Listen to a few samples here: