September 2, 2011
The other night I was driving through Canton, Ohio. The sun was nearly down. Headlights appeared and swerved. The McKinley Monument moved in and out of trees.
I listened to Doug Burr’s The Shawl as I drove. I grew still. I felt strangely connected to the many lives travelling beside me, ahead of me, behind me, into the dying night. Existential questions concerning life and light, pain and turmoil, washed over me, and as cars and lives raced around me, I felt no sense of aloneness.
The nine songs of The Shawl are fierce Biblical psalms that Burr put to instrumentation. They are mostly obscure, overlooked among David’s more familiar pleas for deliverance. The words are at times reverential, at times bleak, as the psalmist, as Burr, achingly calls out to God and awaits His answer.
Return O’ Lord, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Thy loving kindness.
So arose his lamenting voice as I sped forward, flashing red lights lighting up the sky ahead of me. In the glow of those lights, in the unknown misery that lay beneath them, the sadness of the psalms, the melancholy, became like fire again, as if the words had been frozen for some time, or lay dormant in a long hibernation.
Burr told me that the project began in his little girl’s bedroom. At night, when he had run out of songs to sing her to sleep, he would build new songs out of the psalms. After a few years, when he had some downtime between projects, he began to take the idea more seriously.
In June of 2008, he and a group of musicians met at Texas Hall in Tehuacana, a partly dilapidated structure that had been built in the late 1800s to house Trinity University. It had seen many years of use, slowly suffering the same fate as every other human thing: that of deterioration. The photograph on the album’s cover tells much of its story: peeling paint, boarded windows, broken floorboards. But there is light, a powerful white light bursting through the windows. And there is life. It’s in the bitter, terrifying, triumphant words of the psalms, and in the heartbreaking delivery of Doug Burr, as he embodies the cries of the broken.
Burr is no stranger to issues of brokenness, or of deterioration. He has grappled with the mysteries of darkness for many years. “I’ve always been fairly obsessed with the idea of death and the afterlife…I don’t care much about things that don’t deal with more than one layer of this existence”. In college, when those around him were concerned with having fun and living life, Burr was silently wrestling with mortality and what he calls, “the triviality of life”. He had always been sensitive to such things. At that very transitional point in his life, he became somewhat paranoid, scavenging the bleak, ignored corners of the psyche, questioning the morality of existence, asking, as the sacred harpist, “Am I born to die?”
Through prayer, through scripture, through the love and support of his wife, whom he met towards the end of his college days, he slowly came to terms with the darkness, finding some peace in the restorative promises of God.
Burr has drawn upon this darker, more introspective side throughout his career as a singer/songwriter. He has continuously chronicled the murkier regions of the human experience, as well as the gray areas that lie where the spirit and flesh collide. Though explicitly Biblical, the Shawl is no leap heavenward for Burr. Many of the psalms were written in hours of darkness, at a very human level. The psalmist could very easily stand next to many of Burr’s own embattled characters. But interspersed among their sad utterances, among his tales of sin and consequences, are glimpses of hope, emerging as light through a window.
Burr and his band recorded the songs over a 27-hour period, with little sleep and little rest. Most of the album was recorded live, with some additional instrument tracks added toward the 27th hour, and with the exception of the final track, “In the Lord I Take Refuge”, which Burr recorded without accompaniment. The sound of birds chirping in the background, moving through rafters, he sings,
“…For behold, the wicked bend the bow,
They make ready the arrow
upon the string,
To shoot in darkness at the
upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
What can the righteous do?”
It is a sentiment as disheartening as the dying walls of Texas Hall. But Doug doesn’t languish on that thought for long. Though his voice is still weary, he sings in triumph,
The upright will see His face.
Information was gathered through an interview I conducted with Doug Burr.