(artwork by Zeke, age 4)
I have developed, through writing this blog for the past few years, a belief in the power of personal storytelling and art as important forms of activism. As much as we need facts and information — watchdogs, reporters, policy experts and organizers — to reach and change people’s minds, we need to find ways to reach people’s hearts as well.
In other words, oppression and inequity in our society cannot just be an intellectual issue. We must stir people’s souls if we are going to see real change.
I launched the Rise Up Music Project at the beginning of the year with that idea in mind, hopefully as a meaningful extension of the writing and advocacy efforts I continue to channel through the Rise Up for Students project. So, I am part of a cohort of six musicians dedicated to writing, recording and sharing a new original song every week in 2019. We each have our own day of the week (my new songs come out every Tuesday morning), and with every Monday featuring a new one-time guest contributor, we are releasing a brand new song every day of the year along with brief commentary from the artist.
Today I released my third song of the year, and it’s called “Chris McCandless,” named after the subject of the Jon Krakauer book, “Into the Wild.”
I had the original idea for this song a couple years ago now after reading Krakauer’s book for the first time and being introduced to this kid who just walks away from everything one day and starts living free and wild and on his own terms.
I was really struck by the beauty of his experience and his commitment to physically living with the Earth and letting go of whatever constrained him. Even if he seemed crazy to most people, or felt scared now and then, he lived out his principles fully, completely, and to the bitter end.
That really moved me at the time, and it has inspired me many times since to make braver decisions, or to follow my gut, or to put my foot down when I just know something’s not right, you know? McCandless has been a beacon in dark times reminding me of the power of my own life, my own intuition and my own individuality.
I am. We are. And so we must.
So, I found myself trying to write a song about McCandless almost immediately after finishing the book. I had an idea for a chord progression that moved through the 1-4-5 chords and their relative minors in a way that my mind pictured as circular, and I started playing with it and exploring melodies.
I liked the first line that came through: “If anybody thinks of me, let it be as someone who believed in something.” It felt like the beginning of what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t finish it. I made what seemed like headway now and then. I tried a few different choruses and different structures, but mostly I spent long periods just having forgotten about it. Still, it has lurked for years now in the back of my mind.
I wanted to do this subject justice at some point — or at least I wanted to feel like I had done my best in honor of Chris McCandless. This week seemed particularly like the time to take it on, to close the circle, finish the song and pay my tribute.
Our government has shut down because our president wants to build a border wall. And all this is happening even after children have begun to die in custody of our immigration agents. Meanwhile, the Canadian government just forcibly entered the unceded land of the sovereign Wet’suwet’en People and the Unist’ot’en Clan, using militarized police to enforce construction of an oil pipeline. Sound familiar?
A friend of mine — a fellow water protector I met in Standing Rock — was assaulted by the Seattle police on Friday during a peaceful show of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en People. He spent 28 hours in jail and, having now been released, seems hopeful that there is “no structural damage” to his spine. That’s good, of course. The fact that structural damage to his spine is on the table in the first place, though, is a brutal truth that we need to carry with us in our hearts as a reminder that we live in a militarized police state. If you protest, however peacefully, you may be assaulted. If you stand in solidarity, no matter how immoral the injustice, you may be assaulted. You may be locked up or killed. Probably not, right? But it’s possible, and we accept that as real instead of denouncing it as truly brutal and intentionally confining.
And then that effectively helps to continually buttress the current state of affairs — violent police enforcement of capitalist values — because it strikes genuine fear into good people. It keeps many of us home, separated, afraid for ourselves.
So, this song is also in honor of Ryan, who continues to put everything he has one the line in the name of what he believes in. It’s in honor of everyone who is standing up fully for what they believe in right now, in honor of everyone who is truly living out their principles in the uncompromising way that Chris McCandless reminds us is possible.
This is not a time to let our principles bend, not when it would mean something as inhumane and anti-life as a border wall that traps us in and keeps everyone else out. Not when innocent children are dying as prisoners in militarized police custody. Not when we all know what we know. Now is yet another time to loudly and clearly say no, and to show that we mean it.
As one final layer in all this, I learned last week that the National Park Service has an incredible collection of public-domain recordings of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. It turns out it’s just beautiful. And since part of this absurd government shutdown is that our national parks are shut down as well, this felt like the perfect time to try to honor those protected natural spaces that we treasure and the perfect subject to accompany with wildlife sounds. The creatures and habitats that made these beautiful sounds are threatened, of course, by the very same thought processes that led to the shutdown, and led to the mounties raiding indigenous land in the name of oil baronhood, and to the death of innocent migrant children. The animals, too, are calling for us to say enough is enough.
The recording starts with the hum of modern life, and our utter connectedness to it, and I tried from there to slowly transition to where I was more and more playing “with” nature, playing a song “with” the animals and “with” the Earth. Hopefully nature was indistinguishable from music at times, while also disappearing now and then to represent periods of solitude. I may have gone a bit overboard with the animal sounds. It’s hard to tell. But I tried to lean in that direction as opposed to playing it safe. It felt like that was the way that Chris himself lived.
I recorded the piano and the vocals first, and then started listening to and experimenting with the nature sounds. I tried to push myself to add texture with nature sounds instead of instruments or harmonies, and to add a prominent animal noise where I might have wanted a guitar solo or a horn melody, but to still keep it musical.
I tried also to let the animal sounds just exist as “whole” sounds, to use the unedited recordings with their natural rhythm — their own cadence — interwoven with mine. There’s an elk, a bear, a few birds and lots of wolves, and the song ends with loons calling. The sound of loons brings me back to my childhood and time with my family near the water, and so I liked ending the song with the loons trilling for that reason, but this particular recording of the loon calls was just so haunting as well that I couldn’t stop listening to it. I really liked the way it fit there, as something to melt away into in the end.
And honestly, listening to Jennifer Jerrett’s recording of a chorus of wolves through a decent pair of headphones brought me to tears. Hearing them singing along with my own voice for the first time was a really beautiful experience, even if it was just for me. So, here it is, to be shared, a song about Chris McCandless, sung with the wolves and the woods.
Don’t forget that it’s up to us, all of it. All of this. If we don’t upend the current state of affairs, who will? If we don’t fight oppression, who will?
We know what we know. I hope that if nothing else, this might inspire you to think hard. If you saw a movie with yourself as the main character, knowing what you know, what you would expect that character to do? What would that character find him or herself doing in the name of living out your principles?
Go, then, and do. We’re all in this together. I’ll see you out there, I promise.
The Rise Up Music Project for Jan. 15, 2019: “Chris McCandless,” by Matt Halvorson
New music posts daily to the Rise Up Music Project website: RiseUpMusic.org.