Transcript: Rosanne Cash on being honored with the Edward MacDowell Medal on July 1, 2021 for her contributions to the American songbook and for being seen.
Kurt, thank you for that. To be seen like that is the greatest gift, and I really treasure our friendship. And thank you Roz Chast, who was generous enough to speak with me yesterday at the library. I hope we can continue the conversation for the rest of our lives.
And thank you to Emmylou Harris, my friend of 40 years.
When I was making my first album, I nearly quit in exasperation because I kept comparing myself to Emmylou. But I had to learn to stand in awe of you, Emmylou, without sacrificing myself. In the fulcrum of the late 1970’s hot stew of rock and roots music, your exquisite instincts … and that voice … lighted the path for so many of us, myself included. The fact that she’s here on this day fills me with so much gratitude at the full circles have closed. Thank you so much.
And I must thank everyone in the MacDowell community for creating this really unusual Medal Day, through all the trouble, and for making it so beautiful, and welcoming me so warmly. My visit with the artists-in-residence yesterday was so inspiring and gave real context for this.
Every year when I get a new datebook, I write the same quote in the front cover, the same quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. And it says, “Do not the great always live extempore, mounting to heaven by the stairs of surprise.”
So I may not be ‘great,’ but I do find myself on the stairs of surprise quite often. Like today.
Artists are in a service industry — the premier service industry for the heart and soul. We are bound by an imperative to create, connect, reveal, and to practice artful subversion. I live by that imperative, but I have never created a single thing in a vacuum, or provided any ‘soul service’ outside of a larger power composed of all the writers, composers, and performers I admire, the traditions I build upon, my own DNA, and this numinous creative force that can’t be defined. I stand on shoulders, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those whose attention span is longer, and whose musical ability is more refined, like my husband, John, who is also my best Reader, my North Star, and who is kind enough to tell me when something I’ve written or sung is not worthy of my instincts. AND, he mostly tells me in a nice way.
(laughter from attendees)
We should all be so lucky to have that person in our lives, the person we dream of before we meet them. I should say that in the last couple decades John has been my chief collaborator, too.
I moved to New York City 30 years ago, and really began to understand myself in the backdrop of the city — as you talked about, Kurt — in the midst of writers and artists working at the top of their game, which provoked this healthy sense of competition, and also by the anonymity which, as a performer, I perversely crave, and in the inspiration just outside my door every single day. I also fulfilled the adage: ‘we always thought she was weird; it turns out she’s just a New Yorker.’ (laughter) But my list of aberrations is so satisfying and what got me here today: This implacable curiosity and serial obsessions that sometimes drive me to the point of madness and at the same time give ballast to my melancholy, a sense of urgency, and the need to connect.
When I was young, I dreamed of the rhythm of language and the prose of notes, and of learning to navigate those mysteries. But they were all raw potential, and if I could only learn to assemble them into something that resembled art, I knew I would find myself. As I began to work with those native materials, I discovered that in my mind, songs look like paintings before they become songs. I think that’s why I feel such a powerful kinship and attraction to visual artists. Many of the songs I’ve written have begun with an image — headlights on a Texas road, a woman who lost an election, walking on a beach, Shakespeare and my father arguing in the afterlife, little girls like dolls in party dresses who are struck numb with loss, a ship carrying my children, sailing over the curvature of the earth, into their future and away from mine. Inside these pictures, I found, are chord changes, and keens, and backbeats, and harmony.
Along with dreams of creating, I longed for a community of like-minded souls who spend their lives navigating their own beautiful compulsions in the heart-and-soul service industry. I just didn’t know MacDowell existed back then. And here I am, and here you are, so yearning must be alchemy, because we manifested each other.
You honor me as the first woman in composition, but you also honor the particular genres I work in. It’s an essentially American songbook — as Kurt mentioned — of folk, blues, Appalachian, country, and all of the feeder streams that go in and out. That acknowledgement is an added thrill.
As far as I can tell, the only absolute truth is in nature. There is no artifice in nature. Nature doesn’t panic over imperfections or regret over what didn’t bloom. It doesn’t measure the petunia against the rainforest. And nature doesn’t attempt to manipulate the market. There is nothing but pure expression, freed from theory and self-consciousness, but realized with exquisite precision. A fractal is truth.
But we have our individual truths. Sometimes misremembered or discounted and secret, and we are like radios, trying to pick up each other’s signals: What happened to you? Where did you come from? What floods you with the revelations you most require for your own sanity and sustenance? What colors have sound? Which sounds are iridescent? How deep is the eye of your inner beholder? Which blue is the sky, and which are the blues of the songs of suﬀering?
Those questions are really an answer, and the answer is: ‘I see you.’ And that’s how we walk each other home through this world.
Receiving this Medal … it tempts me to look in the rear-view mirror, back to when I felt myself in that maelstrom of unformed desires, and desperate with this need to create, curious to a pathological degree, but lacking the skills to execute these ideas that are in feelings and images. But I’d love to travel back and show my young self this day — or just play Kurt’s speech for her — like a scene from a play by another Medal recipient, Thornton Wilder — like my own version of Our Town, but with only half the anguish of the omniscient. (laughter) My younger self would still have to figure out how to get from there to here, but the knowledge that this day waits in her future might sustain her during the inevitable moments of despair and insecurity that are liberally scattered through the years, and that, still today, arrive, and I expect, always will. But she should also know that those dark moments are as necessary to the journey as learning to play a G chord.
I am more relentless than gifted, truly, but relentlessness is also a gift. My early feelings of urgency have never gone away, and are more intense now because the Sword of Time hangs over me. Nothing is perfect, thank God, but the search for it fuels the happy desperation.
I have mournful Celtic ballads and Appalachian laments, and the songs of suﬀering from the Delta in my cellular memory, and strangely, they all make me happy. I’m an acolyte of the patron saint of minor chords, (laughter) and she’s an exacting but generous mistress.
The stairs of surprise exist outside linear time. I don’t have to travel back to give the news to the girl of my past because she’s emerged from her tunnel of noisy colors and happy desperation, with her fractals as benediction against perfection, with her North Star by her side and her radio tuned to your station, to say, I see you. And thank you for seeing me.
(ovation from the room)