Iris Dement's “My Life”is song that never ceases to amaze me.
The song is simple, three and a half minutes. A piano part I suspect nearly anyone could play, a plucked violin that swells and recedes quietly underneath the plaintive vocal, nothing else. Dement's voice is a strange, tender thing. A country voice, but one that's worlds away from not only the pop sheen of modern country but also from the brash twang of the 60s and 70s. A voice you might hear on a Carter Family 78 or Harry Smith's Anthology, a voice that swims up from the crackle and hiss and the weight of decades.
The lyrics are simple. Some would even say trite—“I gave joy to my mother/and I made my lover smile/and I can give comfort to my friends/when they're hurting/and I can make it seem better/for awhile”—goes the chorus, but just viewing the words does nothing to explain the way that Dement makes something so simple the cradle for enormous profundity. Its opening verse—“My life, it don't count for nothing/When I look at this world/I feel so small/And my life, it's only a season/a passing September that no one will recall”—makes personal humilty into a supremely beautiful, heroic thing.
It truly astounds me, sometimes, that human beings can carry so much beauty around inside themselves. It further astounds me how any one of us can look out at the world and not be utterly crushed by its limitless possibility. It's been a long day but I'm still awake, listening to this song and feeling my head spin. The sentiments are nothing new, nor are they expressed in any way that could ever be considered complex, but the song is better for it. You can feel lifetimes pass while it plays.
Columbia University Magazine
1 week ago