I surprised my sons with tickets to a Josh Ritter Concert. Ritter is their favorite rock star. They have chosen well. He has real truth and joy and artistry in him. So I pulled the boys from school and we rented a tin can of a car and drove north five hours to Portland Oregon. We arrived in time to walk down to the best bookstore in America and I bought them each a book by Kurt Vonnegut (another truth teller who I once had dinner with and interviewed when I was in college and who, like Ritter, knows his Bible) as a souvenir.
We ate at the Ringler, a McMenamins pub, then headed upstairs to the Crystal Ballroom and stood just beneath the man himself, right up against the railing. First thing you should know about Josh Ritter: he will always be the most joyful man in the room.
Second thing: he knows how to see the world for what it is and then translate it into song. He has written the two best war songs of our time. He captures the grief, hubris, spiritual anguish, confusion, complexity, and just plain sin of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Girl in the War is one of those songs. Check out this version here from a record store in Seattle:
The other is Thin Blue Flame which Josh sang without amplification at the edge of the stage. If you don’t know the lyrics you should read them. They remind me of the best of the Hebrew Psalms:
I once talked with Josh Ritter a couple of years back after a gig in Jacksonville, Oregon. We talked about Thomas Merton. Ritter had met with Joan Baez and she told him a story of sneaking on the property of the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, and finding Merton’s hermitage. She knocked at the door and Merton answered. She told him she wanted to talk about God. Merton’s response, “Before we talk, I need you to go back into town and get me a couple of cheeseburgers and a six pack of beer.” Baez, at the height of her fame as a folk singer and in the middle of a tour, drove back into Louisville. She bought the cheeseburgers and beer and returned to spend the evening talking with Merton about the mystery of God while he drank and ate cheeseburgers. I had read this story before but it was fun to listen to Josh tell it and then for both of us to smile at one another–at the humanity of Merton and the mixed human desire for God, beer, and hamburgers.
My third favorite moment of the concert, and a moment I hope my sons remember, is when Josh said, “You know, my basic mode is embarrass yourself. Then move on. Embarrass yourself then go on…rejoicing.”
The truth is that Ritter doesn’t have the most powerful voice. His range is limited and at times he does embarrass himself, but he’s got such heart and hope and a willingness to look at the truth of the human condition (the soul of the human being, the violence, the ignorance and beauty of the human being). Why not try and express something, make something, do something beautiful? Then well, if you fail or make a fool of yourself, why not stand back up, step forward, and go on…rejoicing?