Joe Crookston (Take 3)

Joe Crookston’s show was one of my first house concert experiences. (Not the first, I’ve since remembered.) Since that first show back in 2013, I’ve seen him two more times. Each time I experience his show and his music, I’m moved to laughter and tears (2nd show here). Last night was no different.

In times like these, we need music like Joe’s. I think of him as more of a troubadour than a songwriter. My perception of a troubadour is one of a story teller. It’s not just about the music, it’s about the story the music and lyrics weave together.

Joe started his stories off with a Simon and Garfunkel cover: “America.” During that first song, I was near tears. “All come to look for America.” Lately, I’ve been disappointed with what I’ve found. The lyrics are as poignant today as when they were first sung decades ago.

He followed up “America” with another cover. “Mercy Now” by Mary Gauthier. I always forget this is a cover song because his version touches me so deeply. And, again, in this political climate, the words are so incredibly meaningful. “My church and my country, they could use a little mercy now…” I don’t have a church, but my country needs mercy now as much as it did during the suffragette times, WWI, WWII, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and many more times… I cried so hard during this song. Some call it ugly crying. In the midst of a room of consisting primarily strangers, it felt that way. Yet I also felt like I needed it. I’ve cried plenty since November 8, but there’s plenty of emotion that’s been held back too.

But Joe is so masterful at his craft that he can have you laughing moments after tears. And he moved me there as he described his process of perfecting his song “Darkling and Bluebird.” He thinks he’s finally got it the way he wants it after 22 versions. He might be right!

The middle of the set stayed a little more light. Songs about women who are a little nice and a little mean, and he accidentally pointed at the show host when describing the song. A song about feeling love at midnight on the highway. After that song, he said he was changing his songwriting ways and was only going to write/sing 100% factually accurate songs to combat all of the lies being spread about via other media. He followed that statement with a song about children, lovers, empires rising up and falling. It felt pretty accurate.

His next song made me doubt his claim to only sing songs that were 100% accurate. It was titled “Rum Girl.” In Beaufort, SC, the 12-year-old daughter of a marine merchant died at sea a long time ago. Her father brought her home in a barrel of rum to preserve her, and then they buried her in her rum keg. Now she plays with adolescent girls when they come visit at the cemetery her during the day. Joe introduced the song with a story of he and his daughter going. The pictures of his daughter by the grave turned out fuzzy when other photos did not. A doll bonnet dropped from a tree, and there was no telling where that bonnet came from. So, of course, Joe wrote a song about it. Creepy…

After “Rum Girl,” Joe moved into dark, yet hopeful, territory again with “Blue Tattoo.” This song is about a woman who escaped the Holocaust with her daughter during WWII. The format is a conversation between mother and child, refugees in their new land who escaped persecution from the Nazis. This song moved me to tears again. I could only think about the refugees being denied entry to our borders to escape the same types of persecution as I sat and listened to that song. I listened, and I wept. How can we be fighting the same battles that were waged in Nazi territory 70 years ago?

Joe moved me back to laughter when describing an outdoor festival setting where he sang his next song. A water mocassin interrupted the festivities, and the memory had Joe jumping at shadows. The song itself, “Woman in the Black Dress,” is a somewhat serious one. One of love despite hardships. But I remember the laughter of the introduction story the most.

The rest of the evening went much the same way. Emotional highs and lows. Reminders that there is still a lot of good in the world, and life is a cyclical thing. At one point he shared that his equipment was recently stolen. Someone set up a crowd funding effort for him, and donors quickly contributed to enough to buy replacement instruments. The bad replaced by the good…

He started set two with what was near a change of “Broken, cruel, beautiful.” And life is certainly those things. Taking pieces of “Riding a Train” until he wove the entire song together.

He took a request from Maureen, a fan from when a friend produced Joe’s first T-shirts. Joe dubs his fans “Joe-heads.” Maureen had been to 16 of Joe’s shows ranging through the years (perhaps more-I may have misheard). Her request? “Fall Down as the Rain.” Life is cycles. When one thing ends, another begins. Another timely song in times that are dark. 

“Good Luck John” emphasized that reminder of a cyclical life. Good things happen, and we say, “What good luck!” Bad things happen and we say, “What bad luck!” We never really know how things will turn out from those good and bad moments in time. All we can do is keep on living and make the best of it.

John gave a little luck to a young musician. Joe brought him on stage to provide rhythm to the piece. It was cool seeing the seasoned veteran with the up-and-coming percussionist.

“Big Sky and “Tuesday Morning” are two of those story songs that Joe does so well. The first describes his meeting of Rose Mary on a train trip from North Dakota to Washington. The song is one of loss, of love, of those we love. But it’s also one of hope and new beginnings. I get the same sort of feel from “Tuesday Morning,” a song about a window washer of one of the New York highrises post-9/11. His squeegee washes away the dirt from the fallen towers of 9/11. Though it occurred to me during the song, that it might be about a window washer who was killed during the 9/11 attacks. I forgot to ask Joe. I like to think that this particular window washer got a front row seat to something terrible, but survived to tell his story and live on with his little girl.

Joe ended the night with “7 seconds of sublime.” The song was longer than that, but it was a nice reminder to honor those small moments of love and life. Even in the midst of darkness, we have those epiphanies that we are loved and that we love. 

I left that concert feeling exhausted. I cried half the night. Fought tears for part of it. Laughed, took pictures, sang, ate, caught up with house concert friends. Mostly ups, some intense downs, and a lot of in-betweens.

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