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Annotated Songs: June Hymn
A summer song in October
And years from now when this old light
Isn't ambling anymore
Will I bring myself to write
"I give my best to Springville Hill."13
And summer comes to Springville Hill
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“June Hymn” was written in the spring of 2009. Carson and I had just moved, the summer before, to a house in far northwest Portland, just south of Linnton and above the St. John’s Bridge. It was a little house in a neighborhood tucked into Forest Park, and it had a standalone garage that we immediately converted into studios — the upstairs for Carson and the downstairs for me. Our son Hank was three at the time. We’d moved from inner SE Portland and were living outside of the city for the first time. We were surrounded by woods; we took walks in the woods every day — the street that ran past our house deadended at a neighborhood trail that led into Forest Park. I was still recovering from some massive rock tour burnout, though the tours for Hazards of Love, which were all happening around that time, were a kind of balm for my tour-weary soul. That was a good crew, the Hazards of Love team; the tours were successful. I remember coming off of them feeling renewed, but also excited to dig back into work, to writing. There was also a kind of defiance to the Hazards of Love tours — I was insistent that we play the record, start to finish, every night. Our own shows were an easy sell that way — we’d play the whole record, take a break, then come back out for a second set of material from out other records. Not so for the festivals we were playing at the time, where, to the chagrin of our agents and manager and promoters, we would just play The Hazards of Love, start to finish. I think we left a lot of people scratching their heads. In 2007-2008, I wanted to make difficult music. In 2009, I was ready to move away from that. There, up in Forest Park, amid the trees, away from town, feeling rejuvenated, I suddenly wanted to make songs that weren’t dark and violent (or at least not *too* dark and violent); I wanted to make songs that were catchy and people would want to sing or learn to play themselves. June Hymn was born out of that.
In my lyric book, I have the title as “Summer Comes to Springville Hill.” From the outset, the song was a kind of homage to The Waterboys’ great “Spring Comes to Spiddal,” but maybe I thought the title would be too on the nose. I’d also toyed, I remember, with calling it “Summer Hymn” and its sibling song, what would end up being called “January Hymn,” “Winter Hymn.” But Fleet Foxes’ lovely “White Winter Hymnal” was everywhere those days I didn’t want to cadge from that fantastic title. And so this song would need a different title. The odd thing is that it was not written in summer; it was written in late spring. Summer was coming — it hadn’t yet arrived. Oh well.
This is one of those songs where a whole universe, the universe of the song anyway, springs from the first line: “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day.” I think I had the chord progression first — or at least the first handful of bars of the chord progression — and the words just came out of that. In so many ways, I imagined it as a kind of call-back to the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ ode to Llareggub at the beginning of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood.”
Some poetic license is taken here. Bulbs, in Oregon, start popping up in February. By the time summer comes, all those bulbs have finished their comin’ in and most have died back. But it’s forgivable, I think. Being a transplant from Montana, my seasons tend to be all mixed up. I associate the explosion of bulbs and lilacs as summertime phenomena, not the late winter, early spring ones they are out here.
This line, too, tips my hand as a newcomer to the woodier areas of Portland. We were surrounded, in our new home, by birdsong. Thrushes and nuthatches and chickadees — all singing throughout the day.
We didn’t have a clothesline; this was an invented scenario. I think we had one of those fold-up wooden racks that we used to dry clothes in the house, but no clothesline. But it sang so well, this line, and it really fit the tenor of the song. So I kept it.
*This* is real, though. When we renovated the garage, we built a staircase that ran from the ground up to the second floor, up to Carson’s studio, and we planted jasmine plants at the base of the piers, carefully threading twine up the side of the posts so that the jasmine would, eventually, create an arbor. Thing is, the jasmine never really took. It didn’t train well. I think we ended up replacing the jasmine with some other evergreen vining plant.
This might all seem very myopic to the listener, but I picture this building every time I sing this song. The brown, cedar-sided garage, the staircase leading up to Carson’s door, the landing outside the door where she had a little wicker chair. She would sit there and have her coffee. It’s all there in my mind; I think I wanted this song to be as accurate a portrait of our lives at that time that I could manage — absent clothesline notwithstanding. And the war she shouldered all the night before? I’m sure it was some dark cloud that came over, as dark clouds do — even in times of remembered joy.
These yellow bonnets, I think, were the dandelions that would thrive in our backyard. My cousin, who was maybe five at the time, loved to sing this line as “yellow vomit.” He does still, to this day.
Springville Hill was my own invention, or at least I must’ve heard it casually spoken somewhere in that neighborhood. It’s not called that on a map or anything. It’s sweet that, as far as we know, it’s still called that by a few of its residents today.
It happens that I was working on the initial fragments of a draft that would end up being my first book, Wildwood, at this time. I think I was bouncing back and forth between writing the book and writing songs, and the wall that separated those two worlds occasionally became very gauze-like. This shows up elsewhere in the songs I was writing at the time — the body of a boy laid on a plinth of trillium and ivy in “Don’t Carry It All” comes to mind. I was ever-mindful of the waste that the ivy was laying on the woods around us. You could see the vines topping the very tips of the Doug Firs that surrounded our property. It was a scourge then; it still is to this day.
I see this lyric misheard and miswritten often. It might not make a ton of sense, but it does to me. The sun would set behind our house, behind the hill to the west, and the last rays of it, all pink and warm, would come in through our living room windows. It was such a sweet little house; I still miss it.
I’m fond of this bridge. I like the melody and the change and the simplicity of it. I like the idea of writing a kind of postcard or note, some day, giving my best to Springville Hill. “When this old light / Isn’t ambling anymore”: I think I’m imagining a time and a life where I’m not traveling, where I’m not touring. It’s a long ways away, I think.