When the Old Becomes New

Lucinda Williams’ gravelly voice, now slurred with age and use, is like an arrowhead found along a creek bed, dulled past its prime but still revered and recognizable in its ability to pierce the heart. When I had an opportunity to catch Williams perform this week, I was excited to have an evening with a great friend, forego the ritual of a bedtime-protesting toddler, sip cinnamon walnut-infused bourbon, and hear a voice that has sung songs of grief, joy, and redemption throughout my life.

Williams can be a musical bright-line of sorts. She often defies categorization as a musical artist. Is she country? Folk? Rock ‘n’ roll? She has, of course, won Grammys in all three genres, yet most of us who love Lu would argue she sings the blues. However one categorizes Williams and her music, she continues to rock out at age 66. She has outlived some of the men she sings about: Austin songwriter Blaze Foley (“Drunken Angel”), former flame Clyde Joseph Woodward, III (“Lake Charles”), and her father and poet Miller Williams (“Dust”), to name a few.

But it was Williams’ performance of “Concrete and Barbed Wire,” from her hit-maker 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, that really got me to thinking. Williams told the audience assembled on Thursday night, most of us nodding along and tapping our feet in rhythm in the manner of folks who once rocked but are now too tired or pragmatic to stand through a whole concert, that this song has taken on a whole new meaning from when it was first written about the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1991. With that bit of historical context, Williams launches into the lyrics:

This wall divides us, we’re on two different sides

But this wall is not real, how can it be real?

It’s only made of concrete and barbed wire

Concrete and barbed wire, concrete and barbed wire

It’s only made of concrete and barbed wire

I began to think of all the other songs that were written for a different era that take on a new meaning as the proverbial creek of time continues to run its course.

Bob Dylan’s 1964 “With God on Our Side” was a perfect protest song for Vietnam, and it is just as meaningful and relevant today when you think about any enemy-as-other doctrine we may be taught 55 years later.

Or Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, “What’s Going On.” Renaldo “Obie” Benson, one of the three composers along with Gaye and Al Cleveland, was inspired to write the song after witnessing police brutality in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. When “What’s Going On” played after Michael Brown Jr.’s death five years ago, the song still kept its shape and heft. The lyrics still remained as powerful as when Gaye sang them 43 years prior: “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality.”

Not to mention John Hartford’s 1976 country lament, “In Tall Buildings,” which feels just as timeless as more and more American workers construct professional lives in a gig economy that may not involve skyscrapers but surely confront the sad realization that the best years of our lives may be consumed with work that does not make up for the sacrifices many of us make to eke out a buck.

So, as I listened to Williams’ “Concrete and Barbed Wire” for the umpteenth time, I thought of not just the physical walls we build but also the emotional ones, too. How we convince ourselves that we know how a particular story will end because we think we have heard it all before.

Yet, assuming an old song has nothing left to say, is so far from reality. There are hungry new ears who are waiting to reconnect with the past, to know that what they are feeling may not be unique or isolated. There are young graffiti artists in Portland, Maine who are tagging “Enya” on brick walls (supposedly unironically, too) and legions of new Toto fans who know every lyric to the 1982 hit, “Africa,” which has become a song-based meme.

These repurposed songs’ success hinges on the emotions and poetic wisdom they rekindle: borrowed nostalgia, possible answers to hard questions, and road maps for survival.

Concrete and barbed wire, then, become so much more than the symbols Williams sings about. They become sonic shorthand that we have been here before and perhaps this time we might take a different path.