From Tragedy, Art

I’m so glad I discovered Sam Baker.  I heard him interviewed on my favorite National Public Radio show, “Fresh Air,” by my favorite interviewer, Terry Gross.  Sam Baker ‘s life is an riveting story, the centerpiece of which is terrible tragedy that he has used to reshape his life and transform it into songs that touch deep places in our souls.

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Baker was a vigorous, athletic young man in 1986 – 32 years old, a former football player, a rock climber and whitewater river guide.  He was in Peru on a train bound for Machu Pichu, seated with a German family – husband, wife, 16-year-old son.  He was engrossed in conversation with the teenager when a bomb, planted by terrorists, went off in the luggage rack above them.  The German family were killed, and Baker was horribly injured: brain damage, mangled limbs, blown-in eardrums.  He calls his survival a miracle, and 17 reconstructive surgeries later, he is a singer-songwriter of uncommon grace and poetic beauty.  Many of his songs reflect on that horrific day on the train, but there is nothing in them of self-pity or unreconciled darkness.

Sam Baker has a new album, his fourth, Say Grace.  Rolling Stone magazine called it one of the top 10 country albums of 2013, but there is nothing of the rock-influenced pickup-truck, woman-done-me-wrong, hard-drinking stuff I think of these days as country.  Baker’s songs are things of gentle beauty, things of the soul of a man who has been to the brink, survived, and – instead of giving up – opens his heart for the rest of us.  iTunes says, “Baker informs his songs with a sense of life’s fragility, as well as gratitude for small everyday miracles.”  Baker himself is a pretty big miracle, but he takes joy and sustenance from the small ones he sees around him.  There is a sadness to some of them, but a reflective sadness that sees beyond itself.

My favorite song on the album is the last one, “Go In Peace.”  It is full of wonderment, hope, and benediction.  I hope Mr. Baker won’t mind me quoting from it:

Go in peace, go in kindness, go in love, go in faith.  Let us go into the darkness, not afraid, not alone.  Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

I take from that a sense that Sam Baker has gone in peace, arrived at home, and found that it is in his own heart.  He has made peace with life as he knows it, healed at the broken places, and is profoundly aware that it has given him a gift to share.

Sam Baker has turned tragedy into art, and I think a great deal of art is born of tragedy.  Artists of all stripes pour out their hearts -- in music, painting, sculpture, stories-- and find some measure of solace and strength in the doing,  a way of dealing with inner demons.  Winston Churchill painted, calling it a refuge from the severe bouts of depression, “the black dog,” that sometimes overwhelmed him.  Had he not painted, would he have been the monumental figure who led his nation through the dark agony of war?  Maybe not.

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Sometimes, even art can’t suffice.  Vincent Van Gogh, that giant of post-impressionism, died in1890, age 37, from what’s believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a lifetime of anxiety and mental illness.  Of his 2,100 works of art, some of the best came during the last two years of his life.  A struggle against madness by a genius who left behind incredible art, but failed to save himself.

Sam Baker lived through tragedy, came to terms with it through his art, and when he is finally done, will leave us with those things he celebrates in song – peace, kindness, love, faith.

When you get a chance, listen to some Sam Baker music.  And go in peace.