Greg Brown – Songwriter and Storyteller

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The lyric to follow here is a one-off: whilst Brown is a songwriting lyricist, the storytelling of Ina Bell Sale is a writer’s comic tour de force of mock-evangelical preaching and is grotesque as well as hilarious – it bears reading, but it is hearing Brown perform this that delivers the ultimate impact. When singing live [there are YouTube clips you can access] he does adapt the role of preacher setting up the actual delivery.

It is a dynamic brisk account of a person, her death and subsequent yard sale: absurd as much as it is believable. I have used this in the classroom, with post 16 student writers, to generate feelings/ideas for similar narratives, monologues that can tell Ina Bell’s own story, or imaginings of alternative viewpoints. I wrote one as exemplar about visiting the sale, I think, or something about describing items in the sale.

Here is Ina Bell Sale,

InaBell is dead, Savior, and we pray that Thou wouldst give us the strength
To lift her and carry her to her grave. InaBell is dead, and, Jesus, we’ll
Never again hear her gravel-on-the-window voice, her tail-in-the-door
Voice. We’ll never again see her goiter shake like an old apple in a
Windstorm. InaBell is dead and gone home to Thee, oh Precious
Lord. Welcome her with open arms and spread ’em wide. She’s dead, oh
Precious Lamb, we’re sure of it this time. She went over in her kitchen
With a thud, scattering her Chicken Surprise for her ill-tempered, little,
Pop-eyed, slobbering dog, who ate most of it. InaBell is dead and gone and
Left us here to carry on and carry her big, fat, annoying ass out to the
Grave and bury her deep so she won’t get up even in dreams to HOLLER HER
INSANE SHIT AT US! THANK YOU, JESUS! THANK YOU, LORD, FOR TAKING
INABELL!. I bet she was hard to lift, even for Thee.

InaBell is dead. She killed her husband, poor old Pete. She screamed and
Hollered him to death with her helium woodpecker voice, pulled at him and
Yelled at him and hit him and screamed at him until he had fits and slapped
His own face and talked in tongues (talks in tongues) at the dinner
Table. OH, SWEET JESUS CHRIST! INABELL IS FINALLY
DEAD! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH AND AMEN!

There’s a big sale on Tuesday. Big sale on Tuesday, who will buy her angry
Purse, forty pounds of frozen pot pies? Who will buy her stiff hairnets
For failed perms, her fly-speckled glasses? Who will buy her girdle that
Didn’t? Who will buy her hippo bra, and her nylons that woulda fit
Pylons? Hey!

Who’llgivemeanickelwho’llgivemeadimewho’llgivemeanickelwho’llgivemeadime,
Who’ll give me sumpin’ for this SHIT?! Who’ll buy the little plastic
Church that used to light up, the busted pink hairdryer, and half a carton
Of menthol cigarettes? Who will buy her cracked bowling ball and enough
Knickknacks to sink the Titanic?! Who will buy her sidewalk made out of
Storm doors and cardboard and a blown Pontiac full of sparrows and
Saplings? Oh, who will buy? Who will buy? Step right up! Who will
Buy? Who will buy? Who will buy?

Put a big ol’ stone on top of her that says, “InaBell finally shutup and
Kicked the bucket!” Big sale on Tuesday.

Brown doesn’t need the support of his clearly being a keen reader/writer to validate the crafting of his Ina Bell story, but he is nonetheless keenly interested in poetry/narrative and its place in songwriting. One obvious example is his album Songs of Innocence and Experience where he sets some of Blake’s poems to music.

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This is a cute, genuine album from 1986, one that could have been quite pretentious and/or disastrous, but Greg Brown places the poetry of William Blake within simple, delicate folk melodies, or, as with The Echoing Green, jaunty blues which really does add a sweet lightness – especially the harmonica, fiddle and bottle-diddle-lee-do [an approximate translation] vocalisation.

The Tyger gets a swamp-blues presentation, the harmonica and fiddle again dancing provocatively as musical backdrop. It’s not so much threatening as – cool. The warm baritone [now rather grizzled] of Brown’s singing adds warmth to Infant Sorrow; and Ah! Sun-Flower makes an interesting comparison with the version by The Fugs: the latter played to my class in secondary school by a dynamic supply teacher which ignited a teenage interest in poetry, as well as that iconoclastic band/ensemble, and if I was still teaching today I’m sure I’d be in a different classroom armed with both versions. The Little Vagabond has a pretty country folk melody with harmony vocal and is another example of these Blake poems re-presented with Brown’s careful creativity.

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