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9 December 2016

How two Canadians helped me get America into perspective

It’s only a few days after the election when I go to see Chaim Tannenbaum sing.

By Tracey Thorn

Four weeks on from the US election and, for the sake of my sanity, I’m expending a lot of energy trying not to think all day long about the current state of things. But it’s quite hard to talk about anything else, isn’t it? I spend the afternoon with an American friend who says, “Oh I knew he’d win – Americans are mad.” I think she’s lived here for so long that she is using the word “mad” in the British sense, but who knows? The same evening, I go for dinner with a different group of friends and, as we sit down, one says, “Shall we just agree now not to talk about him?” Everyone nods with guilty enthusiasm, relieved at the thought of an evening’s reprieve.

In the midst of this, I’m grateful to Tracey MacLeod, who twice takes my mind off the news by taking me out to a gig. First we go to see Chaim Tannenbaum, the 68-year-old Canadian folk singer and philosophy teacher who has just released his first album. Over the years, he’s worked with Loudon Wainwright III and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, but this is his first solo record and the gig, low-key and subtle, shows off a voice that is restrained, yet plaintive and piercing.

It’s only a few days after the election, and I know I’m still shocked and feeling battered, but it’s not until he sings “(Talk to me of) Mendocino”, with its evocation of a journey across the United States – the beauty of fall on the east coast, the western plains, the rise of the Rockies, the sun setting on the Californian redwoods – and I find my eyes brimming with tears – that I realise how sad I am. How sad.

It’s a song about longing and belonging, about a Canadian falling in love with the beauty of America:

 

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I bid farewell to the state of old New York

My home away from home

In the state of New York I came of age

When first I started roaming

And the trees grow high in New York State

And they shine like gold in autumn

Never had the blues (from) whence I came

But in New York State I caught ’em . . .

 

Most of us British musicians who have toured the US know exactly what this means and what it feels like. The long bus journeys that open your eyes to unimagined natural wonders, and to a sense of distance that is hard to grasp, leave an indelible imprint.

Our relationship with the country is musical and poetical. We perceive it through the language of the songs we’ve all grown up with and sung, which tell of the thrills of New York and the snows of Wichita. So much resonance, everywhere you look. We all have our own American dream – whether it’s going to Graceland, or walking in the New York footsteps of Sinatra, or making a pilgrimage to Woodstock, only to learn that the festival happened sixty miles away.

America looms large in all our imaginations, and so, at a time when many of us are sad and frightened about what seems to be happening to it, this song of love for the place finally sets the tears rolling down my face.

A week later, Tracey takes me out again, this time to see Joan As Police Woman at Heaven, the nightclub. Before the show begins, the two of us are sitting on one of the few perches in the place when a voice says, “Hi, Tracey,” and we look up expectantly. It’s Rufus Wainwright, who Tracey M knows well, so it is to her that he’s speaking, but we all chat for a while and I try to conceal how thrilled I am.

But suddenly it strikes me – that song, “Mendocino”, which floored me a week earlier, and has been looping round in my head ever since, was written by Kate McGarrigle, Rufus’s mother. I can’t begin to tell him this story in a noisy club in the tunnel arches under Charing Cross Station, but the unexpected encounter with him feels like a moment of joy in the middle of all the sadness and dismay. I manage not to utter those awkward words, “I’m your biggest fan.” But I will always remember this as the night I met Rufus Wainwright in Heaven.

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump