[I can't find a YouTube video of the studio version of this song, so clicking on the image will take you to GrooveShark in a new tab.]
I’ve been a big Richard Shindell fan since I listened to Cry Cry Cry, a one-off collaborative album of covers created by Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Shindell. His songs on that album, particularly Cold Missouri Waters and Shades of Gray, caught my imagination and sent me off to get his Reunion Hill album. That was on my 2009 top ten, followed by his Sparrows Point in 2010, and now Blue Divide.
Why Shindell? Mostly because he is such a consummate storyteller. Almost without exception his songs are little plays, generally told in the first person. They are tiny but crystal-clear windows on the lives of other people. I don’t know another songwriter who does this.
In this selection, Fishing, he sings the part of an INS interrogator, trying to persuade an illegal immigrant to disclose the names of other immigrants in exchange for his own safety. The song is described better than I can do it by Glenn McDonald in his review of Reunion Hill:
The officer, whose monologue fills most of the song, vacillates between threatening to go after the deportee’s family and friends, and reminiscing, prompted by reading in the man’s file that he’s a fisherman, about the summer fishing trips he and his friends used to go on when they were younger. I can’t tell whether he’s changing topics deliberately, in order to unnerve the man, or whether his attention simply wanders, and if he’s doing it deliberately I can’t tell whether he thinks he’s drawing on the common experience of fishing in order to get the man to drop his guard, or is trying to intimidate and belittle him, emphasizing their different social stations, by contrasting his leisurely summer vacations with the deportee’s low-wage hard-labor. In the final verse the deportee finally responds, but even then all three possibilities seem plausible.
Next time: an underrated album by a truly great band — one of only two non-folk albums on this year’s list.