The promotional video for Pale White Dove, the newest album of Denton, TX singer-songwriter Doug Burr, begins with a shot of the singer’s bloodied knuckles stringing an old guitar, as his voice is heard saying:
There’s a violence that runs through the blues …. There’s a theory that violence is the secret soul of the sacred.
The secrets lying at the foundations have been a fascination for Burr throughout his career. His music traverses the foundation stones of American Roots music: Gospel, Blues, Folk, and Country weave together into an antique patchwork quilt, not unlike many other artists whose music falls under the catch-all category of modern Americana or Alt-Country.
Unlike the hazy nostalgia lying behind the music of so many of his contemporaries, in the 11 tracks that comprise Pale White Dove, Burr’s musical archaeology unearths the bodies buried beneath the floorboards of the American cultural edifice. As he laments in the track “I Love to Hate You”:
So I strolled down beneath the Beautiful Gate
There was a fountain – it was filled with snakes.
French social philosopher René Girard observes the phenomenon that a “founding murder” lies at the basis of many societies, such as the murder of Abel in Genesis and that of Remus at the founding of Rome. Girard’s theories of mimetic violence and scapegoating inform many of the tracks on Pale White Dove. Burr explores cycles of imitative rivalry, which, in Girardian thought, grow through a society in a covetous feedback loop until they reach a violent fever pitch that people must direct toward a scapegoat to relieve the mania and restore peace.
Musically, Burr’s band has expanded its sonic palette to match the manic, feverish subject matter. Former Covenant contributor Dave Sims contributes thunderous drums and blazingly overdriven guitar work, along with the bass and keyboards of Glen Farris Squibb putting meat between the ribs of this larger sound.
Following Girard’s 1999 work translated into English in 2001 as I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Burr’s track of the same name depicts mimetic rivalry with a manic urgency that evokes the “Power in the air” of this “Old Stone-Thrower, the new seed sower”:
Your Accuser was just here and on his tongue was your name ….
Tell us where’s your kid brother – gone missin’ in the City of Cain.
This “City of Cain” is no mythical burg on Pale White Dove. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, the Southern Gothic America of Burr’s musical world. The protagonist of “Revolution Son Blues,” a young man running away to join the war for American Independence, is characteristic of this image of America. Differing from the antiseptic revolutionary heroes of modern imagination, this soldier’s heritage seems more tainted by his blood-thirst than vindicated by his bravery:
I fell on my own bayonet
Call me the very first Son of Connecticut
I could-a left it to my brothers, but my brothers were dead
I could-a left it to the others, but them Tories went red
Were Burr the progenitor of a new micro-genre, it could be named Apocalyptic Folk. Burr is at his best lyrically on this album, Girardian theory providing a sturdy framework within which Burr can focus the themes present in his other albums: anxiety, dread, and the two-edged sword of apocalyptic fears and hopes. Burr is at his most hopeful on the tracks “From the City of the Bride” and “No Human Voice,” but this is no saccharine belief. “No Human Voice” retells the story of James Cameron, whose lynching was stopped by an anonymous voice declaring his innocence — the only documented case of a lynching stopped in progress:
My name is James Cameron, I fell up from the sea
I was tangled in the branches of the oldest tree
And the voice of my Lord callin’
Come down and sup with me
It was no human voice
Herein lies the beauty of Burr’s work, at once heartbreaking, hopeful, familiar, and unsettling. The hope he presents is a Christian hope, that is to say, an honest one, both true to the darkness of the world, and indicative of the sort of redemption secured through the violence of the cross, proclaimed from the depths of an empty tomb, waiting to be consummated in the marriage feast of the Lamb:
And when you wake from a thousand dreams through a thousand long nights
When the Blood-Letter bleeds and the last bullet flies
And the honeysuckle starts to bloom, all wrapped around the gates
The ones we flung out in the wind down by the lakes
There’s a whisper and a storm on the Atlantic tonight
I heard the wedding vows from the City of the Bride (“From the City of the Bride”)
Credits, copyright info, cover art, and lyrics available at dougburr.com.
The featured image was supplied by the artist.