If you hear the phrase “a song about animals,” you probably think of Raffi. But I’d wager Raffi never wrote about an essay exploring how humankind’s transition from agricultural life to capitalism centuries affected our relationship to the animal kingdom (unless I am seriously misreading “Baby Beluga”).
On his new song “Something Free,” Vermont singer-songwriter Michael Roberts picks up Raffi’s slack. Roberts usually records great country-rock music under the band name Wooden Dinosaur (including one of my favorite albums and songs of 2016), but for this new single he took a $20 tape recorder and did it all himself. Which isn’t to say this is tossed off – not even close. Over what he ably terms a “laid-back lo-fi country choogler” of a tune, he sings dense lines like “I want something free I can call my own / Domesticated animals brought to my home” and “The smell of the hunt, the patience, the scenery / A blood Jackson Pollock sprayed on the leaves.” Intriguing to say the last, and I wanted more information.
Roberts explains that the song was inspired by John Berger’s 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?” The essay argues we have lost our natural relationship with animals as we have evolved away from a rural lifestyle. Berger advocates encountering animals on their terms rather than ours, looking down particularly on pet ownership.
All of which is interesting conceptually, but doesn’t sound like natural song fodder. What makes “Something Free” work so well is that Roberts is not expounding upon these abstract ideas, but rather exploring a personal connection he feels to the essay.
“At our homestead we raise meat chickens, laying chickens, keep guinea fowl, and raise a few feeder pigs every year for meat,” Roberts says. “We’re fortunate to live next to a fairly large forest that is home to deer, bears, foxes, coyotes, skunks, hawks, woodpeckers, hermit thrushes, and all sorts of smaller creatures as well. The Berger essay was inspiring for me because it described so accurately the reason that I like to raise domesticated animals, which is that being around them and creating a semi-natural space for them to live gives me a deeper connection to the piece of land I live on.”
Listen to Michael Roberts’ “Something Free” below, and read along with the lyrics.
I wanna sing like a bird in the day’s fading light
Just a call and response to the wild outside
Is it my imagination in the trees above?
Something up there is listening, we’re falling in love
I want something free I can call my own
Domesticated animals brought to my home
I intend to fill my fickle bones
With something free inside my soul
The smell of the hunt, the patience, the scenery
A blood Jackson Pollock sprayed on the leaves
Today I’m a man, tomorrow I’m a coward
My clean white shirt like a house-plant flower
If there’s something free I can call my own
Dead animals inside my home
Every night I fill my gaping hole
I stuff something free inside my soul
I take a dip in the river, bare my hide
Naked as a baby by the water side
I’m just a child, it’s all I wanted to be
Let all my failures float away from me
There’s still something free to take for my own
Take some animals back to my home
Just lock ’em up and watch ’em go
My something free inside my soul