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“East of Eden” by Leif Vollebekk… A truly beautiful song of peaceful longing.

August 23, 2020

This song caught my attention immediately the first time I heard it. Before I even heard the vocals. A song with an evocative guitar line of only a few notes, sparse instrumentation, and lyrics and vocals that all go together to make something bleak and yet warm, in a loving, longing way.

First a little about the singer, then a bit about the possible significance of the title.

After that, I present the lyrics, and try to interpret them as best I can. Then the recording. And lastly, I write a bit about the song’s origin.

The singer..

From Wikipedia:

Leif Vollebekk is a Canadian indie folk singer-songwriter, of mixed Norwegian Canadian and French Canadian descent[4] and originally from OttawaOntario,[5] he learned to play violin, guitar and piano in childhood.[4] While studying philosophy at the University of Ottawa he spent some time in Iceland on an educational exchange,[4] before moving to Montreal after graduation to pursue his musical career.[5]”

“East of Eden” is from Vollebekk’s third album, “Twin Solitude,” which was released in 2017.

The title..

Genesis:

The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible. The Bible is better thought of as a collection or library of books, written over the course of more than a thousand years, than thought of as one book, like a novel.

Those of you familiar with the Bible know that Adam and Eve, the first man and first woman created by God, according to the story, were banished from the Garden of Eden, and were sent east. They were banished because they had disobeyed God and had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We know they were sent east of Eden because of Genesis 3:24 (The parenthetical explanations are mine, not found in the text): “So He (God) drove out the man (and his wife, of course) , and placed cherubim (an angel) at the east of the Garden of Eden, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to guard the tree of life.”

Eve did not bear her first child until after she and Adam were banished. Their first child was a son, who they named Cain. Cain was not only the first human born of woman, but the first murderer.

The second son was named Abel. Abel brought to God an offering that pleased God. Abel was a shepherd and brought God the best of his lambs, slaughtered. Cain was a farmer, and brought God the best of his crops. God did not like this offering. no mention why, in the Bible, except that God said Cain had done wrong.

Cain was very angry that God did not like his offering, so he killed Abel in a field. After he killed his brother, Cain was banished.

“Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the Land of Nod on the east of Eden.” Genesis 4:16. 

Land of Nod?

From Wikipedia: “Nod” (נוד‎) is the Hebrew root of the verb “to wander” (לנדוד‎). Therefore, to dwell in the land of Nod can mean to live a wandering life.”

.Like his parents, Cain was banished. East of Eden represents a place that is away from paradise. Cain was not born in Eden, and he never was allowed to go there. He became a wanderer.

John Steinbeck.

The title of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, “East of Eden,” was taken from this Bible verse. I wish I could tell you that I’ve read the book, but I have not, though I have read several others by Steinbeck. Going by the title, and by some of Steinbeck’s other works, I’m guessing the novel is a tragedy.

The story was turned into a film many years ago, one of only three movies starring James Dean.

No, I haven’t seen the film either.

But what does the song have to do with the Bible story or Steinbeck’s novel?

Seems like the song is about a wonderful relationship that ended. Paradise was lost, and we don’t know why.

The woman went wandering.

The singer, the narrator, is looking back on the relationship, savoring the memories, and wondering where his lost love has gone.

When I write about a song that is not well-known, I like to post the lyrics first, and the song later.

Here are the lyrics, and you will notice the Eden reference:

Tell me where are you going
You got the jack of diamonds
I got the knight of hearts
When the cards get stuck together
So hard to pull them apart
I think your face is showing
Ain’t the first time that it’s snowing
The first time in years
That it has stayed on the ground
And when it hits the streets
Oh, it don’t make a sound
But there’s just no way of knowing
Tell me is she east of Eden
She’s just like a book
And I don’t want it to end
Take it with me where I go
Turn the pages slow
She’s just like a book
I don’t want it to end
Love, how we talk at night
Love, how we talk at night
In the blue electric lights
Love, how we talk at night
Well, love, how we talk at night
In the blue electric light
No, I’m not the only one
No, I’m not the only one
At least I’m not the lonely one
No, I’m not the only one
No, I’m not the only one
At least I’m not the lonely one
Do what you are doing
Just do what you are doing
Do what you are doing
Just do what you are doing

 

I already wrote about what I think of the Eden reference, and what the song is about, so I’ll just start at the beginning and try to puzzle out the rest of the lyrics.

I know playings cards have meanings, so I decided to look up the two cards mentioned in the beginning of the song.

Presumably, it is the woman Vollebekk is speaking directly to, at first, and then later, but in the middle of the song, seems to be talking with someone else.

In the beginning of the song, it is the woman who has the Jack of Diamonds.

Here are some meanings for this card:

“Isolated, the Jack of Diamonds represents the postman or, better said, the messenger. It also symbolizes a young soldier or an unfaithful servant (assistant, employee); sometimes a young blond man, traitor and of bad morals. If the consultant is a young man, it is the announcement of new lovers.” – from cardarium.com.

How can the significance of this card be applied here? I can’t think of anything that really fits. The woman is not a messenger. Unfaithful? Doubtful. It is possible the narrator would still wish for the woman to be with him again, and be in a sadly romantic, reminiscing mood even if she cheated on him, but probably not.

Nope, I can’t make anything out of the Jack of Diamonds, and why it is associated with the woman.

The man has the Knight of Hearts.. well guess what.. there is no “knight of hearts” in a standard playing card deck. No knights at all.

Closest I can get to this card is in a Tarot deck, the Knight of Cups.

“In the Knight of Cups, a knight rides on a white horse and holds out a golden cup as if he bears a message from the heart.”  – from biddytarot.com

Tarot cards have two meanings. One is positive, and one negative. From biddytarot.com,

UPRIGHT: Creativity, romance, charm, imagination, beauty.

REVERSED: Overactive imagination, unrealistic, jealous, moody.

The narrator of the song and the song itself is definitely romantic, creative. Perhaps he also has the negative traits of this card, and that is why the woman left.

“The cards get stuck together..”  I think this could be a reference to a couple going from two to become one. All mixed up in each other, so much so, that seeing the individual can be difficult.

But the next line says.. “I think your face is showing.”

It seems the woman has disentangled herself from her man. She can be seen as an individual.

The reference to the weather I think does not have much symbolic significance, except that it emphasizes the bleak and lonely and beautiful feel of the music and the mood.

I imagine the man is alone watching the snow fall, and thinking about the woman.

In the next part, he is talking to someone else, or thinking to himself.. “Tell me is she east of Eden?”

So, yes, the woman has gone somewhere else.. wandering.

“She’s just like a book and I don’t want it to end..”

I like this line.. You probably remember reading a book for the first time that eventually became one of your favorite novels. You felt the same way. You didn’t want the story to end.

I think what he is referring to is his memories. He can take his memories with him and think about her wherever he is.

Not only that, but also he’d like to have her with him. She is wonderful, and he didn’t want to be separated from her.

Next he is talking to the woman again.. “Love, how we talk at night in the blue electric light.”

I think of blue at night as a soothing color. Peaceful.

Back when I was living in the Central Valley of California, I would, at night, sometimes drive past a little place called The Blue Light Motel, on the outskirts of the small city of Ripon, on my way home.

I really liked that landmark. A very small hotel with one line of neon blue running horizontally just under the eaves.

I always felt peaceful when I slowly rode past.

When I heard the song, I imagined a couple standing late at night at the motel, underneath the blue light, quietly talking.

The following line..

“No, I’m not the only one?” What does he mean?

Not the only one who loves to talk at night.  He means his woman loved this too.

But I also think he is referring to couples in general enjoying talking at night.

“At least I’m not the lonely one.”

An ironic line. He is lonely. He’s looking back to the time when he wasn’t, but is feeling romantic and lonely now.

“Do what you are doing.”

I had to think about this one a little.  Just saying keep on with whatever you are doing and wherever you are, I’m not going to come find you.

I value these memories. I miss you, but I’m going to let you be.

That’s the feel of the song, I think.

Before I present the song, I want to write just a bit about the instrumentation. Although I am not a good guitar player, I am a pretty good listener.  The guitar tone is not quite like any I’ve ever heard, and neither is the guitar line.

I’m guessing the guitar is one equipped with single coil pickups – I won’t get in depth into guitar electronics now, but single coil pickups, like those commonly found on Fender electric guitars, have a slightly thinner sound than pickups called humbuckers, which are two single coils wired together  to get a fuller sound. A single coil-equipped guitar could be partially responsible for this particular tone.

I don’t know if my guess is correct. I don’t know what kind of guitar was used on the recording. But in a few live videos, Vollebekk is indeed playing a Fender equipped with single coil pickups.

What guitar effects is he using? I’m really not sure. The drums have a certain way about them too, especially when the cymbals are hit. The drums were skillfully mic’d to achieve this sound.

Lastly, I read in an article on the the website brightonsbest.com (https://brightonsfinest.com/music/album-reviews/leif-vollebekk-twin-solitude/2017/) that Vollebekk recorded this album the old-fashioned way – on analog tape. Also, he mostly played live in the studio, instead of doing a lot of overdubs and laying each track down individually.  The sound is raw and honestly and purposefully a bit imperfect this way. And that’s another reason why it sounds the way it does.

The music, lyrics, and Vollebekk’s voice go together beautifully.

Here is the song..

 

The song’s origin..

According to Jeff Hemmings, the writer of the article I mentioned, Vollebekk is, “very straight-forward about his source. In this case it’s Gillian Welch’s spiritualist-cultural epic ‘I Dream A Highway’. Vollebekk says he found himself singing new verses to the existing rhythm and melody of the song. But, in doing so, has created a new, albeit much shorter version.”

Gillian Welch is one of the greats of Americana music. “I Dream A Highway,” is over 14 minutes long. No wonder Vollebekk wanted to write a shorter song.

I’ve found conflicting information about who actually wrote “East of Eden.”. Mostly, this song is credited to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but elsewhere, Vollebekk is listed as one of the songwriters.

Regardless, it is lovely, and one of my favorite songs that I have discovered in the past year. I spend a LOT of time exploring music – sometimes using a streaming service – that’s how I found this song – and sometimes by buying a great many used CD’s from various decades –  most of them sampler albums – and harvesting the songs I like – adding them to my digital collection.

Yes, “East of Eden” is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.

Beautiful.

Thanks to Leif Vollebekk, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Jeff Hemmings, and the websites brightonsbest.com, cardarium.com, biddytarot.com, and of course thanks to the many writers of the articles on Wikipedia.

 

 

 

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