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The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine
In September it will be 20 years since Iron and Wine burst onto the scene with a subtle, lo-fi masterpiece.
I was alone in my cubicle at a giant corporation the first time I heard The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine. It was 2003, but let’s set the stage a bit. This was the beginning of a new blogging trend, short for web-logging. A blog is or was a public-facing diary website that served as one part creative writing outlet and one part reality show, except written daily. People were registering domain names, signing up for Blogger accounts, and just writing for no audience. Some found niches like cooking, sports, or music, and some spent their days bleeding all over their keyboards. I didn’t always have a lot to say, and I was never good at sticking to a niche, so I became a generalist. I’d talk about what I cooked, what I watched on TV, why I hated a player for an opposing team or the latest band I was obsessed with. Why did I do this? I was so miserable with my life that I needed an outlet other than alcohol and cigarettes. When I wasn’t writing, I read and commented on other blogs that I checked daily, thanks to my trusty RSS reader. One of the most interesting writers at the time was Heather Armstrong, who went by the name Dooce at dooce.com.
Dooce was internet famous for being fired from a job for something she posted on her website. It really was “a thing.” According to Wikipedia, in 2009, Jeopardy! had an answer (or a question?) that used the definition of “Dooced” which means being fired for something written on your website. She is a good writer, and was a fascinating person. She wrote about her depression, her struggle as a former member of the Mormon church. She eventually brought her readers along as she had kids, eventually divorced, and everything in between, but that’s not the point here. I loved her site.
On March 31, 2003, she posted a photo gallery on her blog, and under the heading she posted:
Iron and Wine, Southern Anthem
with an MP3 link.
I clicked that link. I listened to that song and immediately went to my illicit website to find illegal full albums to download and download The Creek Drank the Cradle. I’ll eventually get to the actual music and the “band” Iron and Wine that’s really just a man named Sam Beam and his rotating cast of touring bandmates, but not until we properly use this album for its time-machine-like properties. Let’s go. The Creek Drank the Cradle is this week’s Album of Record.
Can we talk about internet piracy for a minute? By 2003, it wasn’t anywhere as easy as it had been when I was still in college in the late 90s with the Napster, Kali, and Kazaa days. We spent so many hours talking about the ethics (or lack thereof) of pirating things off the internet, but to some degree everyone did it. In those days, I could listen to albums that I’d pre-ordered weeks before they hit the store shelves. I had thousands of CDs and I was a “completist” so if I liked something I always bought it. We were a long way away from being able to use Bluetooth to listen to music on the go, so for me, I needed something to load into my car CD player. I wanted that album art too, so I was buying the stuff I liked. For me, pirating was almost exclusively a preview tool and enabled me to get stuff early. I was a voracious fan, so I justified it. It wasn’t right, but I excused it for myself because I was doing it, but I was still being noble and buying stuff, usually on pre-orders. Suffice to say that I pirated my first Iron and Wine album, but I bought it and everything else he/they released over the next five years.
So back to “Southern Anthem.” That song played through the headphones I kept at my desk in my cubicle at ginormo-corp. What I heard was a lo-fi-sounding acoustic guitar and some equally lo-fi-sounding vocals. It was so jarring in the hangover period from the late 90s where everything was mixed loud and compressed to hear something like this that I honestly thought it was a folk band from the 60s or 70s that I’d just never heard of. The first few days that I listened to Iron and Wine I had no clue that they were a current band because Sam Beam had recorded it alone at home on a four-track recorder as demos. Beyond the production what I heard was a slow grinding tempo and harmonies that brought to mind Elliott Smith but more hopeful.
After the album finished downloading, I started at the beginning with “Lion’s Mane,” and I was a fan of folk music for the first time in my life. There was a sadness to these tunes. A deep longing and a sense of loss seemed to project from every note. As I’ve noted before, I’m not a big lyrics guy, but with Iron and Wine, it’s impossible not to notice its poetry. “Lion’s Mane” begins,
Run like a race for family
When you hear like you're alone
The rusted gears of morning
To faceless busy phones
We gladly run in circles
But the shape we meant to make is gone
But man did I fall hard for this. I grew up on metal, hard rock, alternative, grunge, and college radio music. I got way into indie and emo in college, which felt like extensions of alternative, but I hadn’t ever fallen in love with an artist or album like Iron and Wine or The Creek Drank the Cradle.
I had started playing guitar myself at that point and I was starting to perform at open mic nights with just myself and an acoustic guitar. I played nothing like Iron and Wine because I’m just really loud when I sing, but this fit right in with what my peers at these open mics were playing at times. Where I played guitar like a drummer, accentuating percussive strumming rhythms, some of these men and women at the open mics could play so intricately and delicately interspersing chord changes with subtle vocals. Sam Beam took that folk open mic style and did it so expertly that it couldn’t be ignored. And The Creek Drank the Cradle just keeps delivering.
“Bird Stealing Bread” felt like the biggest song on the album at the time. It’s certainly one of the prettiest songs. Once again, the lyrics are vague and gorgeous and evocative for a person who generally doesn’t even think about lyrics very much.
Tell me, baby, tell me
Does his company make
Light of a rainy day?
How I've missed you lately
And the way we would speak
And all that we wouldn't say
Do his hands in your hair
Feel a lot like a thing
You believe in
Or a bit like a bird
Stealing bread out from under your nose?
“Do his hands in your hair feel a lot like a thing you believe in” gives me chills to this day. As a young man who listened to many blunt lyrics in other genres of music, this was actual poetry with artistic merit. It goes from being kind of trite and sweet to paying off with something contemplative and thought-provoking.
You’ve heard me say it before if you’ve read this site, and I’ll repeat it. I just had to see these songs performed live. My friend Todd and I drove up to Detroit in October of 2003 to see the show at The Magic Stick in Detroit. It was an adventure, to say the least. The Magic Stick is in an interesting neighborhood. When we arrived, the club wasn’t open, and fans started lining up on the street below. Suddenly, two homeless guys across the street got into a physical altercation. One guy smashed a bottle and started going after the other one. The fans clamored to be let into the venue as it was also pissing rain at the time. Finally, after what felt like forever, the doors opened.
Inside, we found a stage off to the side of a giant billiards room. After waiting for the show to start, Sam Beam came out with his sister singing harmonies and started to play. And so did the people playing pool.
Despite the insanity of trying to listen to Sam and his sister make beautiful music with the occasional crack of a pool break, it was a magical show. The dichotomy of Iron and Wine music being played delicately and sung with eyes shut tight while a rapt audience sat attentive and quiet on one side of the building while others wagered on billiards on the other side… anyway. It was incredible. I loved every minute of it. Those songs from The Creek Drank the Cradle became even more precious to me after getting to share that physical space and the moments live with the band and audience.
No song is better, prettier, or more perfect live in that stripped-down, true-to-the-album version than “Upward Over the Mountain.”
However, this part is important, and, unfortunately, I’ll end on a somewhat pessimistic note about Iron and Wine. Listen to the album version of “Upward Over the Mountain” and imagine me hearing that beautiful, plodding, melodic version in that Detroit pool hall back in 2003 and what kind of emotion it evoked from the audience. Imagine the shared experience between Sam Beam and his sister harmonizing deliberately and delicately. It was everything I ever wanted Iron and Wine to be, and I’ve been chasing it pretty much ever since.
Iron and Wine has become a bit Counting Crows-esque in that Sam prefers to change up his songs, sometimes to the point that they’re different vibes and/or unrecognizable. It’s maddening to me as a fan, personally. Check out what he did to “Upward Over the Mountain” sometime later with his full band. He took this emotional tune and turned it into a foot-stomping boogie. Yuck. He also plays it in different keys that saps the emotional energy of the original.
And look, he’s the artist. He can do whatever he wants. I don’t want to dictate anything to anyone, and if you’re an Iron and Wine fan that loves his shows as they are today with the new versions of the songs, I’m happy for you. I’m just saying for me personally, I don’t want it. If you're going to write a boogie, go for it. I might even like it. Just don’t turn a delicate emotional song that I came to love for what it was into something else entirely. Write a new tune. At least that’s what I would recommend if anyone cared what I think.
After a long concert-free period during the pandemic, I decided to see Iron and Wine at the Cleveland Museum of Art recently, and it was just Sam and his guitar. He delivered a few incredible performances, especially his solo version of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” from 2007’s The Sheperd’s Dog. I probably hadn’t seen Iron in Wine in over ten years, and it was a great show, but I think it might be my last one. Sam Beam closed with “Sodom South Georgia” as his final encore, and I don’t believe the vocal melody approximated the one we’ve come to know. Again, that’s his choice, and I don’t need to hear the album version exactly, but you know, maybe leave the melody alone.
All the songs I came to love were influential in my life. And the reason why I care so much is because of The Creek Drank the Cradle. It represented the first time I ever gravitated to anything folky and soft. It was the most soothing and prettiest thing I’d ever heard that made me a fan. It was one of those musical forks in the road for me. I don’t know if I’d be as big a fan of Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, or James Vincent McMorrow without beginning with Iron and Wine. Even though none of those bands sound like Iron and Wine, they all vibe in a softer way that makes me think of them in the same forked path from where I had been previously.
It’s hard to believe that this was released 20 years ago. It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing that long and that I’ve known about blogs for that long. As a friend of mine has been known to joke, “Man, some of you guys are getting old.”