Sunset Limited

I’m freeloading on someone’s wireless connection during a stopover in El Paso, Texas. The train is running a bit ahead of schedule so we’re sitting at the platform for a little while. I took a walk alongside the train, and it’s pretty windy but much warmer than in New York right now. So I’m taking the opportunity to upload yesterday’s episode of song-blogging, a new song about New Orleans and Louisiana.

On Monday, I left New Orleans on the Sunset Limited, which goes due west across Louisiana, through New Iberia (home of Dave Robicheaux), Lafayette (hometown to some of my favorite Cajun bands), Lake Charles and then on to Beaumont, Texas (a trip immortalized on Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On a Gravel Road).

The extremes of history and music and beauty on the one hand, and poverty and toxic waste and corruption on the other, inspired today’s song, “Sunset Limited.” Playing faux-accordion on a D harmonica, and for the first time on this trip mixing in some Photo Booth performance footage with video and photographs shot from the train (and, in the second half of the third verse, Sunday night in the French Quarter), I put this video together on Monday evening.

I didn’t invent the word “song-blogging” but I can’t find any instances of it used as a verb meaning writing songs as real-time documentation. It’s very different from any songwriting I’ve done before — it resembles the speed-writing of February Album Writing Month but the pace is faster and the songs are more immediate, about the things I’ve been thinking about on that day’s travels. If I’d gone to Louisiana or New Orleans on a different day, or if the paper I was reading at Cafe du Monde had not had a huge story on the levee reconsctruction (or lack thereof) I might have written a different song.

Making the accompanying videos is a great way to illustrate the trip and, I think, more interesting than the usual photostream on Flickr. I mean, I’m doing that too, but lots of photos are in the videos that won’t be on Flickr either because they aren’t that good or because there’s just too damn many of them.

“Sunset Limited” also illustrates a few of the problems with doing this. The performances are usually first or second takes of brand new songs and, as a consequence, are pretty rough. And, since I cannot write and take pictures at the same time, I sometimes end up writing about things I didn’t manage to photograph. There are no photographs to go with the verses about the dog on the chain and the kids playing outside, but they went by too fast for me to put down the guitar and get the camera.

Observant people will notice two things about the video of me playing the song on the train. Yes, the video is flipped, since Apple’s PhotoBooth application behaves like a mirror, and yes, the train is moving very slowly; we ran into some traffic and while I would have preferred to have the scenery flying by, I was running out of daylight. And no, the video is not lip-synched, but like every Apple application, iMovie has some brilliant features and some staggering deficiencies, one of which is that you cannot intersperse photos with video and keep the soundtrack of the video running. So I had to split them up, and then synch the video back to the sound by hand.

Sunset Limited

I’m on the noon train out of New Orleans
The Sunset Limited to Los Angeles
Riding through Bayou Blue
Spanish moss hanging from the cypress trees

Tarpaper roofs on the shotgun shacks
Broken down cars beside the railroad tracks
Refineries with miles of pipeline
Gas flares burning against the skyline

It’s Lousiana, full of legends and song
How could a beautiful place go so wrong
Full of pollution, full of poverty
Full of too many people in misery

Faded paint on cinderblock bars
A broken down house with a dog in the yard
He lunges out to the end of his chain
Snarling and barking at the train

Christmas lights blinking on a doublewide
Three little kids playing barefoot outside
Their clothes are thin and it’s getting chilly
But they’re laughing and runing and being silly

Nawlins is back are back they rebuilt downtown
But come another flood everybody gonna drown
They never fixed the levees and they got no plan
They let the poor people manage as best they can

Tourists stagger down Bourbon Street
Ignoring beggars asking them for something to eat
They got their takeout beers in their plastic cups
They were down at Pat O’Brien’s living it up

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