When Pillow:American Made came across my desk, I wanted to collaborate with Mule Dixon directly, because this work has a mountain of research behind it, that deserves recognition.
From Mule Dixon's Biography:
"Mule Dixon is a songwriter and a scholar of American Song, receiving his Ph.D from the University in Texas with a concentration of the History and Practice of American Song in 2009. [Dixon] was born in Philadelphia, and received recognition for his community-outreach program designed to utilize the art of songwriting as a means for troubled youth to express themselves in a constructive way."
The Higher Ed Marketing Blog compared Dixon to William Blake. I agree, Dixon is a visionary, and he instills a lasting presence with the images he creates, both lyrically and musically. Although Dixon uses his lyrics to illuminate injustices, he does not pretend to have all of the answers to the world's problems. Dixon remains central to the human condition, leaving the power with the people.
Given Dixon's status as a well respected scholar, I knew enough to let him take the lead on introducing this record to our readers. Just the idea of questions opened up a very rich dialog. Read Mule Dixon's commentary on his fifth album, Pillow/American Made:
At the center of all my writing is the concept – The Will to Meaning. I was introduced to "writing as therapy" at the age of 17, as a creative outlet to express my emotions in a healthy way. A process called Logotherapy was applied to my lyric writing (I had yet to write both lyric and music). It is a therapeutic practice founded by Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Song allows one to face any situation and reflect through its construction. This practice of songwriting that deals with "identity construction," led to further studies on when and how song has been utilized as an agent of change.
My doctorate was centered on the US Protest song (which I accept as a therapeutic device used by classes of people to confront wrong doings and to seek justice). I collected and analyzed a selected body of works starting with Wobbly songwriter, Joe Hill, and went through the works of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. I have always appreciated songs that are sincere in their voices, songs that deal with the interaction of the individual in society and in nature. Whether I am writing from personal experience, interaction with community, interaction with the environment, or the bigger realm of politics, song still remains a powerful tool in the art of self-expression, and song sometimes does incite change in an individual and society.
The constant in Pillow: American Made, is the idea that when a person places his or her head on the pillow to sleep, it is often the thoughts that run through his or her mind that are the most pressing in his or her life. The theme that I attempted to play within each song is the one idea that continued to stay with me: birth/rebirth/cycles.
Since I am an US citizen, some of those thoughts include the "not often dealt with" subject matter of "government" and the seemingly recent changes in our country. But my studies in the tradition of these kinds of "protest" songs allows me the confidence to do so, as well as offer the understanding that I have the right to use any subject matter and sing out.
Pillow is at its core the narrative of one man dealing with thoughts that run through his mind when he lays his head to sleep.
(From personal correspondence with Mule Dixon, via Bluebirdreviews.com, September, 2013).
For technical references to share with our readers and musician/song writers, I asked Dixon the simple question of what would define the "American Protest Song." He told me this was not an answer that could be given in a few sentences. He gave me the privilege to read his dissertation on American Songwriting, and directed me to this excerpt:
~From ECHO OF MCCALLUM: THE U.S. PROTEST-NARRATIVE, LOGOTHERAPY, AND THE SONGWRITING PROCESS by Nicholas Ippolitti (Mule Dixon).
The Four Dimensions of the Protest-Narrative
I. Self as Character:
The protest songwriter represents Self in the lyric as the primary force in the song's narrative, above plot, intending character development to reveal content. The subject matter of Self is often layered in complex social, economic, political or individual choices. The hierarchy of lyric and the vocal-line above the accompanying music places Self in the forefront. The use of the ?workers‟ chorus,? or back-up vocals, supports the main voice, stressing the importance of (character over plot).
II. Activity of Self Within Environment:
The subject matter in each song presents Self and Other in relation to the past and present. The social and personal arena in which the Self as Character lives is reflected through the choice of the objects (what is being observed) and the subjects (the artist/observer) and is represented in the narrative of the lyrics. Images reveal living conditions. The protest songwriter uses the practicality of his or her language and musical knowledge to demonstrate direct experience. The language used in the protest-narrative and the choice of instrumentation suggest the (natural vernacular) or folk element, without an emphasis on the formal qualities in music and poetry.
The music utilizes the basic I-IV-V structure: tonic, sub-dominant and dominant structuring of harmony prevails. The song utilizes simple AB-AB-AB structure. The use of back-up vocals contrasting with the lead vocal line demonstrates the relations between individuals. There is little use of metaphor or symbolism. Simple figurative language, such as the simile, is utilized.
III. Activity of Self-Change in Environment:
The subject matter in each song presents Self and Other in relation to the past and present, but the Activity of Self-Change represents the promise of a future: new identities are examined. The protest song is not necessarily dedicated to musical entertainment. It is intended to incite change in Self or Other. In the protest song melodramatic, sentimental, and romantic elements in the lyrical development are suppressed (events avoid the sensational and dramatic elements). The song reveals plausible situations: unionization of like conditions that are known to the audience (relations between people and society are explored). The nature of performance of the artist's craft suggests the personality of an activist, and the intent to utilize song in such a way as to approach human equality suggests the motive to incite change. The protest songwriter often times presents character in a comical tone in order to utilize the paradox between his or her living conditions and the striving to change those conditions.
IV: Activity of Song as the Will to Meaning:
The performed song is the Will to Meaning. The Activity of Song is viewed as a primary force in one's life and not only simple reflections of the past. The role of songwriter as activist (the realization of democracy) is represented through the tension (action) between the object and subject in the narrative of the lyric. The protest song is intended to act on its environment, and to inform listeners of existing conditions, but it remains accessible to the listener as a simple musical/poetic form (the purpose of writing is to instruct and to entertain).
Track By Track Review of Pillow/American Made:
The vocals remind me of a rebel take on Joe Cocker, while the Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan references, can be heard too. Keep the Woodie Guthrie and Joe Hill works in mind, as Pillow:American Made, offers a lot to absorb, and should be taken in doses that the listener can appreciate. The arrangements are thick with multiple instruments, and natural transitions, so the lyrics can come to the forefront, but they never blur the contextual landscape. Dixon leaves room for the listener to be in the story too. The characters loom large, but do not marginalize the rest of the community. Everyone can add their perspective to these narratives.
"Homegrown - Organic - Americana" is the tag-line for Dixon's social media pages. It fits this record through and through.
1. American-Blowback Baby
Don't let the acoustics fool you. Mule Dixon is not out to create a relaxation tape anytime soon. This pillow is not for sleeping. The lyrics and phrasing of these tracks will wake you up and make you stand at attention. And then the question is - Who do you choose to salute?
You'll see the reflections of questions in your face as this album unfolds. With reference to 9/11 "when the towers fell," there is a story to be told from a young American who's grown up in this 'new age' of terrorism. "Keep one eye on your back, keep one eye on the trigger."
Running with this as a layperson, citizen listener, and not a scholar, what I hear is bold. The subject who's 'got a man to see,' makes you want to rip up that blank check. Mule Dixon evokes emotion in the listener. Political and religious connotations are inherent, Joe, John, Jonah - seeking explanations, redemption and protection, for and from, the beasts.
2. No Matter the Consequence
Things are not always what they seem. Rust will not be cloaked in gold, as Mule Dixon observes and speaks to the masses. Then, dual vocals celebrate diversity with love of the mind. It is the knife that cuts through the fogs of social illusions.
3. This Is What It Feels Like
A moment to moment account of a little girl who walks to school and it is suddenly under gunfire. Clips of doves, songs and pure innocence, fold into the view from little River, staring at her pencil under the desk - and the scene is chilling. Dixon is so descriptive, every word, every note, is on purpose - to add another dimension to the experience. Childhoods lost, every parent's nightmare, and then some people fall into hopelessness. Contemporary issues that shouldn't be contemporary anymore, are still on the table in the first person. The raw experiences of these lives are highlighted, giving us critical moments to walk in their shoes.
On the recorded track, a lighter banjo and bell tone, opens the story of Tonto and Jesus. But I caught a warmer, guitar acoustic version on Dixon's Youtube channel. Humanity is much broader than the constructs that any ancient historian can conjure up. Dixon uses direct language, repetition, and cultural influences, to make a song that rings throughout the ages. Love the percussion in this ballad.
Some statements of protest are through assertions of who people are, without apology.
6. Another Country Roadside
Dual vocal harmonies, lead by Kali Rea, roll out a beautiful ballad that is free and unabashedly romantic.
7. June Blossom Valley
Is that a fiddle I hear? The contrast of Dixon's voice and the hop along juke box back beat, is a brilliant contrast for the listener to grapple with. Topics of death and infidelity come through without a hitch. This had a Hank Williams feel to it, it's post punk country, with good timing and carefree reverence.
8. Bella Flynn & Flying Fish
"When Bella Flynn fell in love with Flying Fish
She traded up her axe for the land of bliss."
Primitive, abandon, love and risk. The duet returns with narratives, alliterations, and legendary stories to share. As the lyrics unfold, each stanza changes just a little with subtle references that change the pace and meaning of the tale.
9. Moon Scar Angel
A joyous fiddle and the dream of a boy resonates, then comes clashing with reality. There is no personal discovery without risk, physical, emotional, and artistic, "from the dirt rise up and grow." The hanging syllables, for some reason, are heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time. Hanging from that ledge, "All we need are wings and wood."
10. Evening Song
This had a Tom Waits "Grapefruit Moon" grit to it. Dixon's lyrics are more complex, layered and not only prolific, but comprehensive, yet expansive. Dixon digs deep into his soul box and comes up with raw emotion about the music itself. This is probably my favorite track of the album, although all of the songs here, have something unique to offer.
Mule Dixon Links:
CD Baby Store:
Album Credits/Information for Pillow/American Made:
Released on January 30, 2013, by Acoustic Music
Recorded and Produced by Glenn Sawyer and Rich Veltrop
Executive Producer: Dr. Nicholas P. Ippoliti (Mule Dixon)
The Spot Studios, Lakewood CO:
Kali Rea, vocals; Steve Carotenuto, bass; Glenn Sawyer, piano, organ, vocals, bass; Rich Veltrop, bass, electric guitar; Josh Lee, violin; Tyler Briskie, mandolin/banjo; Jim Ruberto, acoustic slide; Andrew Aranow, drums, Travis Hodge, percussion.
Dedicated to Brent Gildea.
Mule Dixon plays a 1966 Gibson Epiphone Texan.
Nicholas Ippolitti (Mule Dixon) currently teaches online English Composition, Rhetoric, and American Literature for Richland College located in Dallas, Texas and Corning Community College located in Corning, New York.