Thursday, December 15, 2011

Miss Iris Dement: An American Treasure

For the longest time all I knew of Iris Dement was her hilarious duet with John Prine, “In Spite of Ourselves,” which is not exactly catechetical in a strictly Catholic sense. It is a duet for eccentric lovers who don’t spare the salty language.

But then came the Coen Brothers’ film of “True Grit,” which used Iris’s version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which is so powerful that it struck my friend Lorraine who brought the sheet music to our School of Community so that we could sing it together. I posted on that great song-film pairing here.

Pretty soon, I was hearing Iris almost every day on a Pandora station I started, “By the Mark Radio,” named for a song by Gillian Welch. Here’s a link to Gillian’s great song, and here are the lyrics:

When I cross over
I will shout and sing
I will know my savior
By the mark where the nails have been

By the mark where the nails have been
By the sign upon his precious skin
I will know my savior when I come to him
By the mark where the nails have been

A man of riches
May claim a crown of jewels
But the king of heaven
Can be told from the prince of fools

On Calvary Mountain
Where they made him suffer so
All my sin was paid for
A long, long time ago

I discovered that “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” could be found on Iris’s amazing album of American revival classics, “Lifeline,” which I am giving to several friends for Christmas. Iris calls the tunes on the album “old church songs.” In her liner notes to the album, she writes,

When I was growing up and things would get to be too much for my mother, she would run, sometimes in tears, to the upright piano crammed between her and dad’s bed and the wall and pound out some old church song.

She always looked up to the sky while she was singing, like somebody was there and she was talking right to them. I wouldn’t say I knew what was going on or that any of kids did. We just knew when mom went to the piano, things were getting serious and you’d better be quiet. 

Another tune from that album is “He Reached Down,” which begins with a well-known parable:

Iris’s mom story continues:

When she finished singing, there was always a calmness about her. I could feel it spilling over on to me. It was a good feeling of knowing everything was going to be okay.

Not long ago, I called my mom from out on the road. I was having some of those hard times again and started crying on the phone. My mom, not hesitating one second, said to me: “Well, Iris! You gotta get a pe-yan-a!” 

My favorite tune from “Lifeline” is “God Walks the Dark Hills”:

I’ll end with a shout- or sing-out to my CL friends, for whom “The Mystery” is synonymous with God.

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