Knowledge of Beauty: Seán Power & Peter Broderick’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’

Walk into our kitchen any time in the last three weeks and you might have come across either of our two sons sitting at the table playing Lego and saying “Very, very, very beautiful” in what they imagine to be a Galway accent. They just intone it to themselves at random moments. Michael, who is seven, also likes saying “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS” and chuckling. They are quoting a song, one that has settled in to all our imaginations, ‘Ballad of the Lights’ by Peter Broderick and Seán Power.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is originally by Arthur Russell. Peter and Seán’s version is on a fascinating tribute album, Peter Broderick & Friends Play Arthur Russell. The wonderful singer-songwriter Brigid Mae Power is on the album too and she is Seán Power’s mother. She is also Peter Broderick’s wife and I think this means that Seán is Peter’s stepson. Seán is so good on this song – I guess he couldn’t miss it.

In our house we have long been positively disposed to Arthur Russell. My wife listened to his instrumental albums relentlessly when she was pregnant with our youngest, who is three. Evan was so nearly named Arthur, but we were also on a Lemonheads buzz that year. Still, we had never heard Russell’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’ until we heard Peter and Seán’s version when it came out on Christmas Day.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is really a poem and song narrated by a person looking out from New York to New Jersey (“Why I chose New Jersey to look at I don’t know“). Seán opens the song and he does the spoken word sections. Allen Ginsberg performed those parts on the 1977 recording. No pressure Seán! Peter sings the Arthur Russell parts. Seán begins:

A young man sits on the bridge after night fall
And looks across the Hudson river to New Jersey
He wonders about life

And he wonders if he'll ever get old
He sees the lights

And he wonders if they are talking to each other
And he wonders if they are talking to him
And he asks if they are 

I tweeted a few days ago that Allen Ginsberg is great and everything but he’s no Seán Power. And I do genuinely prefer his performance to Ginsberg’s. But Ginsberg is at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering Arthur Russell lyrics. This song is about finding magic and mystery in apparently humdrum experience. I was going to write “magic and mystery where there is none”, but that’s not it. If the narrator can find it, it’s there.

That the narrator here is voiced by a child is part of it because kids have amazing powers of finding mystery. Children are always asking if street lights are talking amongst themselves or if there are worms on the moon and so on. But it’s also that Seán has the recitation skills of a nascent poet. He makes these lines sound fresh, like he wrote them. When he lands on the final word in the line “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS“, I hear Paul Durcan in my head on ‘In The Days Before Rock’n’Roll’, as he escalates and exclaims: “Nor Fats, nor Elvis / Nor Sonny, nor Lightning / Nor Muddy, nor John Lee!”

Anyway. We play this song and album a lot and we have a busy kitchen and often you don’t be listening too carefully. But there’s a point in the song that always stills me. Mostly Peter and Seán swap verses but there is one point when Seán replies within a verse to a single line of Peter’s. It’s when Peter sings, of the New Jersey lights, “They are so beautiful”, and Seán replies “Very, very, very beautiful”. It’s such a warm and earnest moment and such a sweet father-son exchange. I love that he says “very” a full three times – like, he’s not kidding. I love when my kids listen and when they copy Seán and gently say “Very, very, very beautiful” when they are idling about. I’m glad they are connecting with this wonderful stuff. Knowledge of beauty is itself rare.

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