I’m working work through the whole of Whistle Down The Wind week by week, in order except saving “The President Sang Amazing Grace” for last. Last week, I discussed the title track. This week I have a go at the second track, penned by Josh Ritter, titled “Be Of Good Heart”:
It’s the third most popular, by views, on YouTube (at 3,481 it sits behind “Whistle” (4,521) and “President” (11,780) but well ahead of the rest which are between 1k-2k). I suspect that that accomplishment is more “organic” as it hasn’t appeared on any of the big promotions (TV or radio). I see a bit of mention of it here and there. My impression is that there are a lot of Josh Ritter fans. (I’m out of touch so these are the first songs of his I’ve heard.) I tend to prefer “Sliver Blade”, his other song on the album, but this is certainly a good song.
Both “Whistle Down the Wind” and “Be of Good Heart” are songs of resignation. The narrator is offering a good wish to someone who might be leaving them forever. Consider the opening verse:
I never had a crystal ball
I never had a crystal stone
I never claimed to know it all
All I know is what I’ve known
And I know that what we’ve had
I have never had before
So if you really wanna go
Be of good heart evermore
And compare with the last verse:
And I know that I just may
Have been a way to pass your time
Just a stop along your way
As you were a stop on mine
But even so it’d still be worth
All the loneliness in store
And, if you really gotta go
Be of good heart evermore
We get very few details about the relationship at all or even, really, the moment of breaking. Each verse consists of 6 lines of regret, sadness, explanation (though no real pleading) then, abruptly we get the conditional blessing.
I’m not sure what the “good heart” being wished is. It’s not clearly happiness or love. A potentially darker reading is that a person with a good heart generally is kind and beneficent, so perhaps there’s a implicature that the target hasn’t been of good heart thus far. That makes the whole thing a lot more bitter which isn’t suggested by the performance.
Musically, there’s a lot of picking. There’s a nice, subtle structure to the build of each verse, e.g., you get a descent after the odd lines, each one a touch more elaborate or intense. There’s also a more global modulaton at line 5 in each verse and a general “thickening” of the arrangement as the song progresses. Pretty standard in shape but well executed.
I’m not strongly connecting with this song. Which is a touch surprising because I generally like this sort of subject. It seems a bit static without being usefully static. The verses don’t give a clear progression to my eye…they express the same issue with roughly the same intensity. 6 lines of “I’ll miss you” or “This sucks” and 2 lines of “see ya, I guess”. Some of the imagry is ok, but not super strong. When I try to put myself in the recipient mode, I more easily find it drawn out and whiny and kinda insincere. Perhaps the good wishes should come only at the end? As a discovery? When I think of songs like this, my touchstone is Ferron’s “Ain’t Life a Brook”:
It’s so dynamic even with the repetition of lines. They are different at each stage. The whole song compresses the break up, aftermath, and resolution perfectly. It sketches a huge emotional journey sparely. The movement is continuous but gentle (in part because of the repetition). And the lyricism!
And when first you left
I stayed so sad I wouldn’t sleep
I know that love’s a gift, I thought yours was mine
And something that I could keep
Now I realize that time is not the only compromise
But a bird in the hand could be an all night stand
Between a blazing fire and a pocket of skies
She juxaposes the mundane and the sublime effortlessly.
Zoe also has a song in this space on Small Brown Birds, “Backdoor Key”:
Again, it’s in a slightly different place: Ritter is just pre-loss, Ferron covers from pre-loss to resolution, and Zoe is at resolution. Hmm. Ferron and Zoe might be closer as reflections from resolution.
Anyway, I can certainly see why people like it even if “Be of Good Heart” doesn’t quite work for me.