AT THE MERCY OF ANOTHER ONE'S DREAM
In 2004, folk singer-songwriter Sam Baker released his first album, Mercy, filled with a sweeping array of songs ranging from personal accounts to fictional stories to hymn-like melodies. Perhaps most fascinating and deep-cutting, however, are the songs where Baker sings about war. Sam Baker is no stranger to war himself. In 1986, Baker was in Peru on a passenger train from Cusco to Machu Picchu when, in his own words, he found himself involved in “someone else’s war.” A Peruvian terrorist group known as The Shining Path had placed a bomb in the luggage rack in the train car Baker was riding in. Baker nearly died in this attack, suffering a cut artery, a cut vein, almost complete hearing loss, gangrene, and the permeant permanent mutilation of his left hand, but after fifteen reconstructive surgeries, Baker survived. Informed by his own experience, Sam Baker’s war songs are among the most beautiful and heart-wrenching works of contemporary poetry I’ve ever heard.
The third song on Mercy, simply titled “Baseball,” appears, on the surface, to be nothing more than a sweet song about children playing ball. With quaint and unassuming lines like
“Another Saturday comes and goes,
it’s another south wind comes and blows.
Another baseball field, another pot fly,
another bunch of boys, there’s another blue sky.”
But hidden, almost in plain sight, is a much sadder story. In fact, the song opens with the chilling line “There are soldiers in the way of harm.” Hearing the rest of this song through the lens of this opening, it becomes quickly apparent that there is unrest and violence in this world and suddenly there is a clock ticking for the boys playing baseball. The first verse of “Baseball” goes like this:
“There are soldiers in the way of harm,
a girl holds a baby in a blanket in her arms.
There’s a man with a flag, he leaves for work,
a woman pulls a thread from the hem of her skirt.”
And, with just four lines, the scene is set. There is a war and we’re a part of it, but it isn’t here. The affects of this war, however, still seep into daily life back home. The girl holding a baby is likely the girlfriend or wife of one of these young soldiers and the mother of his child. The man with a flag might be the father of a soldier or one of these girls or maybe just a patriotic American. The woman, it seems, is likely a grief-stricken mother. And, then, there are the boys.
The song transitions from here into the chorus, the boys playing baseball. These young boys are careless and innocent, joyfully playing ball with each other on the weekend. But, as the line “another Saturday comes and goes” tells us, time is passing. This song isn’t set in an isolated moment frozen in time. No, there is progression. These boys are getting older. And the song tells us from the beginning what happens to boys as they get older. Just as Pete Seeger sings in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” young men turn into soldiers and soldiers die.
It is apparent, too, that the song doesn’t follow one singular group of children. There is always “another bunch of boys.” They don’t know it yet, but many of these boys will die soon, moving from the outfield to the battlefield. They don’t know it yet, but we do. These boys will die, but not just yet. Until then, “boys laugh, / boys play.”
The second chorus jumps us forward in time just a few years.
There’s a kid at bat and there’s a kid on first,
there’s a mother in the stands, she’s dying of thirst.”
The mother in the stands is the girl from the first line and one of these boys, the baby she held in her arms. Again, we see that these boys are growing up, closer and closer to becoming men. And the clock ticks a little faster.
Baker, then, repeats the song’s first verse. But the context here is changed. The girl with the baby from the first verse has becoming the grief-stricken mother in the third. And a new girl holds a new baby in her arms, likely the child of one of the boys from the second verse. Those boys now the soldiers in the way of harm. But, as always, there is another bunch of boys. And clock resets, but it never stops ticking.
“Baseball” isn’t an isolated case, however. Two songs later, on a track titled “Things Change,” Baker once again explores the way far-off wars affect people back home. A song about a small town changing over the years, “Things Change” tells us something poignant about the nature of war in a capitalist society. A group of wide-eyed boys desiring toys from the window of a Five and Dime store is introduced in the first verse, but by the second verse
“Those same little boys
they went away to wars.
And when they came home,
all the jobs had gone away.
They went back to the places
where they’d fought so far away.”
The final three lines of this verse are particularly interesting because of their inherent double meaning. The “they” in the second to last line could either be taken to mean the returning soldiers or the jobs. In the first interpretation, we see the harsh reality of men coming home from war and, finding no job opportunities at home, being forced to re-enlist to make a living. Reading “they” to mean the jobs, however, paints an equally bleak picture of American jobs being moved abroad to save money, once again leaving veterans jobless.
The chorus of “Things Change” tells us that “Things change, they change a lot. / Things change.” But, perhaps, they haven’t changed enough.
And, again, two tracks later on the song “Kitchen,” we receive another domestic perspective on foreign wars. “Kitchen” takes on the point of view of a woman in her kitchen, watching television, Oprah talking about religion, reports of newly-found sunken treasure, The Sopranos, and, of course, news of war. The song opens with “They are fighting door to door / at Jerusalem’s gate,” a clear reference to the on-going Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But, most striking, is the song’s next line: “Billionaires play baseball.” While the first line, much like “Baseball” let’s us know that there is a war somewhere in the world, this next line tells us that something about this situation is different. No longer is baseball a game for innocent boys, still unaffected by the horrors of war, but, rather, a job for the rich elite.
The song’s chorus further supports this shift in domestic opinions on war. Baker sings of this woman, “You are sitting in the kitchen / and you don’t give a damn.” Where “Baseball” paints the picture of a society with war constantly at the fore-fronts of their mind, “Kitchen” shows us an America unaffected and numb to the bloodshed overseas. War is just something that happens, alongside talk shows and dramas and baseball. It’s become “someone else’s war.”
As Baker moves into the second verse, this point, again, becomes clearer. This verse opens with “a white thoroughbred is born in Kentucky” before telling us that “bombs fall in Cashmere.” War is no longer the opening line, informing the rest of the story. Now, it’s just another part of the endless news cycle. Further Baker continues, “Waiting for the war to begin, / in your underwear, drinking beer.” War has become almost a spectacle, another dramatic story to watch unfold every night on the screen. Baker paints for us a horrifying picture of a society that has not only become unaffected by war, but one that gains some kind of pleasure from it.
While this is the last mention of the ways far-off wars affect daily life in America, Mercy’s exploration of war’s destructive and violent nature doesn’t end here. Rather, it simply transitions into Baker’s own experiences with war, the bombing at the hands of The Shining Path, that almost took his life decades earlier. Baker addresses this on the albums final three songs, “Steel,” “Angels,” and “Mercy.”
The first of these songs, “Steel,” is a straight-forward account of the bombing, beginning with the lines
“Sittin’ on a train to Machu Picchu,
a passenger car explodes.
There’s not enough time to say ‘goodbye,’
there’s not enough time to know.”
In this song, Baker makes the strong assertation that “no one is just an observer.” Whether you’re watching your son play baseball, filled with worry about what his future may hold, denying jobs to returning veterans, or watching bombs falling on the TV in your kitchen, you are complicit in war.
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in 2013, Sam Baker said that after the bombing, “One thing that changed was the sense that all suffering is universal, that we suffer, you suffer, that we all do...And the faith that I got was the faith in us as a group, as humans.” Baker’s near-death experience and his new-found belief in universal suffer did not, however, leave him jaded or cynical. In fact, it seems to have done just the opposite. Despite the often bleak subject matter of his song, Sam Baker is one of the liveliest people I’ve ever met. His live shows are often filled more with corny jokes and stories than they are with songs. One of the most impactful displays of Baker’s joyous outlook on the world is the way he interacts with my mother. Every time he sees her he gives her a kiss. On one of these occasions he told her, “I’m going to kiss you every time I see you because I don’t know when I’ll see you again and we have to be grateful for the moments we do have.”
This sentiment is in full display on the song “Angels,” a song about a young girl with angels that “flutter around her heart.” These angels, employed by this little girl, visit the people she loves when they find themselves in distress and “they ease all suffering, / they heal all pain.” Baker’s appreciation for human life pours out of this song, but so too does his worry. He sings, “Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.” We are all affected by war. Baker, by either fate or chance, found himself at the mercy of a violent and destructive dream, part of someone else’s war and someone else’s dream. But, at the same time, we are at the mercy of hopeful dreams as well. There is a little girl and her angels, dreaming of love and an end to universal suffering. Baker finds himself at the mercy of that dream too.
Mercy ends with a self-titled track, a beautiful eight-minute instrumental. On NPR, Baker described this final song as “a reflecting pool after that one line,” a chance to sit with the line “everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.” Baker gives us this chance to consider not only the dreams of others that we find ourselves at the mercy of, but to reckon with our own dreams, the ones we subject others too. We have a choice: to dream of destruction and hate and war like The Shining Path in “Steel” or to dream of angels and love and healing like the little girl in “Angels.” I choose love every time.