Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Mason’s Children

First order of business: if you have a query that needs critting, get thee on over to Agent Carrie’s blog, where you could get your query critted by an agent who knows her stuff, AND you could get your first 100 pages critted. Go, go!

Now on to the matter at hand. If you don’t know I’m a Deadhead, you haven’t been paying much attention. The hint would be the number of times I post a video here, or reference a song. Anyway, I’ve often been tempted to do a post titled something like, “My 5 Least Favorite Grateful Dead Songs.” Why? Because it would be kind of fun, and because, quite frankly, it’s a lot easier than picking my top 5 favorite songs. Favorites are changeable, at least for me. Depending on the time of day, the time of year, my mood, or what I’m listening to, the lineup of favorites can shift, with things moving up or down the list, or dropping off entirely. Least favorites, on the other hand, are pretty well cast in stone. Am I the only one who feels this way?

Anyway, I decided not to do it, largely because I figured it might only actually be fun for me, and, quite frankly, if any of you actually listened to something like Let Me Sing Your Blues Away* you might throw yourself off a bridge, and I wouldn’t want to have that on my conscience (At this point, you might be tempted to follow that link. Don’t do it. Or at least don’t blame me if you do–you have been warned).

But one of those songs that’s immutable on the bad list has been worming its way into my brain lately. When I sit down to write, I usually go to the Live Music Archive’s Grateful Dead section and click “Shows on this day in History”. January, 1970 was the busiest January in Grateful Dead history, and this song appeared in about half the shows. So it comes up a lot when searching this way. It’s called Mason’s Children, and here it is as performed on January 2, at the Fillmore East, their first song of 1970:

This period was an interesting one for the band, a time of transition. They were still jamming and putting together long blocks of music, but they were also writing more songs with maturing lyrics and, influenced in part by their friendship with Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young) and their own interests in folk and bluegrass, their sound was changing. In 1970 they released two studio albums, about five months apart, that sounded nothing at all like their three prior studio albums. The stripped-down, almost country sound to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty stood in such sharp contrast to Anthem of the Sun or Aoxomoxoa (yeah, I don’t really know how to pronounce that one, either) that they might have been recorded by a different band entirely. In a way, maybe they were.

The band recorded Mason’s Children during the Workingman’s Dead sessions in the spring of 1970, but by that time they had already dropped it from their live shows after 15 total performances. No one from the band ever said why it went; it might have been that it was too difficult to sing well, though that certainly never stopped them from performing other songs. I suspect the reason they dropped it is because, quite frankly, it didn’t fit. Though it was written after songs like Casey Jones and Uncle John’s Band, both of which ended up on the album and get radio play to this day, Mason’s sounded nothing at all like their new material. It sounded, in fact, like something that belonged on their debut album (listen to this to see what I mean).

As writers, we often have a lot of stuff lying around, clamoring for our attention. The short stories that we intended on shaping up for publication. The novel that couldn’t get an agent. The novel that did get an agent, but couldn’t get a publisher. These are pieces that we often hold close to our hearts, personal stories, first stories, maybe, and it’s always tempting to go back and revisit them–they’re good, we think, they deserve to be shared. And maybe we think that when this next thing gets published and does well, we’ll be able to leverage our success into getting these pieces out there–it certainly happens. Rather than spend a whole lot of psychic energy or precious writing time on those pieces, we really need to consider something: just as a singer’s voice changes with time, so do our voices, and so do the things that matter to us. The themes and stories we were so driven to write about when we were 25 might not feel quite so important two, three, ten years later. The voice may be all wrong. Sometimes we can look at an older piece we loved and think, “That doesn’t even feel like me!” Maybe its day has come and gone, and the best thing to do is to leave it alone. Move on to something new.

Have you ever left a piece behind because it just no longer fit? Do tell. Thanks, and have a great weekend!

*I feel the need to point out that, though this song is truly awful, I have nothing but respect for keyboardist Keith Godchaux and the amazing contributions he made during his years with the band.

5 Responses

  1. Wow. I was all poised to write a comment, but when I read Donna' comment above and then my brain seized. Full stop.

    Or, "Dead stop", as it were…

    I guess it's a sign of ever-increasing age and realization that so many of the things I think are immutable, timeless pillars of the making of me are really temporary, passing things.

    Just a transitive nightfall of diamonds, as it were…

    Jerry's been gone 20 years — young adults have lived their entire lives on a planet without Jerry Garcia on it (and it's been Forty-Two years without Pigpen).


    Ah well — let me look at the bright side: Maybe your post has inspired some younger people to check out some of the music and a few new Dead fans have been hatched.

    But as to your post — you're right. Mason's Children would be a bottom dweller in my list of best Dead songs, too.

  2. Thanks for the info abut Carrie's critiques. Unfortunately, I won't be querying until next year at this rate. I totally agree with you about our voices changing. We experience new things, we grow, we change. Naturally, what we write about and how we approach it will evolve too. Have a great weekend! 🙂

  3. Donna H.–I suppose we are, and we're not. I never dropped everything to go "On Tour" so I'm probably not as Deadhead-y as some. There were folks who would spend weeks or months at a time following the band from city to city, living off the strange economy associated with the scene.

    Chris–yet if you read comments on the live music archive, you see plenty of people weighing in who were born after Jerry died who have come to the music and love it. Furthur came up here a few years ago and, while I did not go, 'the scene' was pretty much as I remember it: lots of people, young and old, and generally a good vibe all around. Perhaps not immortal or immutable, but lasting and still growing to some extent.

    Lexa–all things in their own time, right? I agree with you (obviously) and believe that we all need to cut the cord with much-beloved stories/ideas once in a while if it's just no longer right. Not always an easy thing to do, however.

    Donna–Thanks! I'm glad you found something of value here!

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