Utica Crossing (the pallbearers song)


This month I dig deep into my roots playing a waltz I wrote to memorialize the passing of my great grandmother, Lola Clark Pratt (1900-1993) when I was asked to be a pallbearer.That is her in the photo above, which shows five generations of Pratts, the youngest there being my now 26 year old daughter.

In the video, I'm wearing the style of clothing my great grandfather wore every day of his adult life (as far as I know, and full disclosure, I skipped the long underwear) and trying to evoke the type of intimate recording that was done in the 1930's. That's a vintage microphone that Doug found, and we shot the video framing me as I played and sang into it in his isolation booth. It was a very nice way to record, although it took a couple of tries to get the microphone position right to balance between vocal and guitar.

The Song

This song is probably about as good as I've ever done lyrically. Here are the words

Caught between rivers with old indian names

The lights of the prairie go down

Towns in the twighlight drift by on the plains

Where the lights of the prairie go down

Last call now last night

the Lost and Found lounge

I was singing some slow song

While the last drinks went round

And outside the snow fell

And covered your ground

Where the lights of the prairie go down

The barns make odd angles, they feel gravity's pull

Where the lights of the prairie go down

In fields now all frozen beneath a parchmentlike snow

The lights of the prairie go down

A last waltz, this last time, with you by my side

I will sing you this slow song, while the family files by

Near Utica Crossing, where my people lie

The lights of the prairie go down

The US post office, it left here years ago

Left nothin' but these crossroads

Some corn rows, and crows

Near Utica Crossing, where my family lies

The lights of the prairie go down

The lights of the prairie go down

This is something of an imagined narrative built around events that I experienced at the time.

The first lines establish place and tone for the meditation. Iowa is bordered by two very large rivers, the MIssisippi and the Missouri. It seems everything in Iowa has an old Indian name, and I always liked the Shy Strangers song Indian Name that deals with being "just a one horse town, with an indian name". Doug Roberson, the guitarist/songwriter for these Pravda label mates of mine back in the day, was another eastern Iowan from Maquoketa, and I borrow his idea to get me started on this meditation on the midwest and the passing of a generation.

When grandma died I was in graduate school and was playing with my band again, mostly for fun to let off steam and be creative, though I will confess I couldn't shake the fantasy that somehow we would be discovered and find ourselves offered a record deal. We had a fairly regular gig at a very small club called the Lost and Found Lounge. Here I juxtapose myself playing at the bar at closing time, as the snow falls on the ground that will be Lola's grave.

I remember making the drive down to Fairfield for the funeral service and being struck by the desolate rural landscape. Southeastern Iowa always seemed like a tough place to eek out a living farming. By the 90's, a lot of the small family farms had folded, and the barns were left to decay and fall apart. Within this narrative, I have assumed that the late night snow from the previous evening, which can be gorgeous on a full moon night, has now crusted over with a brittle parchment. It seemed to me that very often, the day after a snow fall was cold as hell and that there was nothing as barren as stubbly corn fields under a layer of this brittle snow.

The remainder of the song describes the actual burial in a small cemetary near Utica, Ia. The last waltz is simply me fulfilling my duties as pallbearer. I did not sing, but the thought was in my head.

I remember a story that Ira Pratt, Lola's husband, and his brother had a general store in Utica and that it had the post office. I cannot say that I remember this accurately. It may have been another relative, in another location, but it is the narrative I relate in the lyric, and serves to support my general theme of loss. That these places and people are vanishing. Gone.

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