The songs of Marie Bellet: Parables for the 21st century

Marie sings her parable-songs, and through them we learn of her husband, her family, her friends, her Christian faith…and herself.

Marie Bellet tells stories. Many of her stories are parables, tales that draw the listener into the magical world of “Once upon a time.” Marie’s “time” is her life. She is a wife and mother of nine (eight boys, one girl). She writes about her experiences in the world of friends and family. And always her experiences of that outer world draw her into an inner world of her own thoughts and feelings. This shift of worlds is the hallmark of every parable, and it is the key to our listening to the songs of Marie Bellet.

Verbal devices such as rhyme, meter, and parallelism are typically used to structure and express the sense of a poem. In early 19th-century Germany, a new technique developed in the works of the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856): “Stimmungsbrechung.” This term may be translated as “the break of the mood.” With this technique, the poet establishes a certain emotional mood, and then proceeds to puncture it. The mood always breaks from the positive to the negative. And it stuns the reader.

It would seem peculiar to encounter this 19th-century German technique in the work of a 21st-century singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. The crucial difference is that the unexpected twist in Bellet’s poems, the pivot, always moves from the negative to the positive (or, more fittingly, from the mundane to the transcendent). The pivot word or phrase is presented in its everyday meaning and then returns with a new meaning, one that fundamentally changes the story. The listener is surprised: he has been lulled into a comfortable one-dimensional atmosphere, only to find that the story reveals a more important truth at a deeper level.

Marie’s genius in presenting the pivot phrase in its common meaning, and then recognizing its new meaning in the inner spiritual world, can be shown in her song “Carry On” (2011). In preparing to board a red-eye Christmas Eve flight, the passengers are given the standard direction, “Leave no baggage unattended, pick it up and carry on.” The line of “wrinkled travelers” reads like a Fellini casting call: returning prodigals, rock musicians, a businessman, a priest, an unwed mother. As they board the flight, “They don’t look down, they don’t look back. They just carry on.” The pivot begins as Marie starts to see these travelers for who, not just what, they are. Each has their own story of danger or loneliness or a broken heart. Each “stumbles along…glorious and scarred.” Gradually the poet sees the sacred beauty of their mundane lives, and the verbal shift is completed: “They come to make the best of it, and it makes them who they are…they just carry on.”

In “You Don’t Know the Half of It” (1997), the listener experiences a more aggressive, almost biting, verbal pivot. A fashionable friend is bothered that Marie’s husband doesn’t fully appreciate the demands he places on Marie’s life as a wife and mother: “And you still in that dress and with that hair… Ain’t that just like a man.” Marie responds, “Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it!” The colloquial meaning is clear: “I have to put up with even more than you know.” Her friend continues with advice on how to deal with the insensitive husband, even suggesting separation. Marie again responds, “Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it!” By now the listener is convinced that the two women are in agreement. But after Marie explains to her friend the cherished relationship she has with her husband,

For every time he’s let me down there’s ten times he’s come through.

And for all my inconveniences I know his love is true…

You don’t know the half that makes me whole…

we are surprised to hear that the pivot phrase has returned as a gentle rebuke, “No, honey, you don’t know the half of it!”

Sometimes the verbal pivot is placed at the very end of the song, as in “It’s the Little Things” (2006). The effect of delaying the pivot until the last possible moment can be stunning.

Hence:

It’s the little things that get you

A little at a time;

It’s the Monday morning mirror

It’s the keys that you can’t find

It’s the daily dissing

It’s the daily grind.

It’s the little things that get you

A little at a time.

But then:

It’s the little things that get me through,

A little at a time;

It’s the magic in the moment

When you laugh instead of cry.

It’s the bright red of a cardinal,

It’s the twinkle in the eye;

It’s the little things that get you,

A little at a time.

Sometimes the pivot is gradual, as in “Don’t You Think I Count” (1997). In this song the disappointed wife asks this question of her husband who has come home late for dinner again. Translation: “Don’t you think I matter? My schedule? My plans?” Almost immediately, however, the wife repeats her original question in its literal meaning: “Don’t you realize I count up, I tally, all the late-for-dinner nights…the weeks since you have looked into my eyes…the hours before you walk into my room?” And as the song progresses, the colloquial and literal meanings toggle back and forth, with an added third meaning: “Don’t you think I count on you for everything?” And so we perceive three meanings to “count”: the colloquial (“matter”), the literal (“tally”), and the poetic (“depend on”). We are surprised but not startled; we simply smile at these early tricks of phrase, and the clever perception of the poet, unfolding them in the heart of the story.

At the end of the poem the true break of mood occurs, and the literal and poetic meanings win the day. At this moment we are startled, but in a brand new way. For not only do we hear the word “count” in its literal and poetic meanings, but we hear it from the mouth of the husband. In other words, we are surprised not because in the end the word has changed meaning, but because in the end the speaker has changed. The husband’s voice does not just surprise the listener by speaking old words with a new meaning (the verbal pivot). He simply repeats the entire chorus word for word, thus creating a structural pivot.

Don’t you think I count all the nights that I miss dinner . .

Don’t you think I count the hours till I walk into your room?

Don’t you think I count on you for everything?

This use of the chorus to mark the pivot point and convey the break of mood is most effectively employed in “What I Wouldn’t Give” (2000). The poet recalls the early days of love and marriage. Her reverie gives way to longing, and it is here, in the chorus, that the verbal pivot occurs. The colloquial meaning of “What I wouldn’t give . .” is “I would give up everything to . . .” or “I long for . .” The list of longings is short—the loving eyes and laughter of the beloved. At the end of the chorus, the pivot phrase returns with its new meaning: “What I wouldn’t give—that is to say, ‘what I failed to do, what I would not do’—is what hurts me most of all.”

So Marie sings her parable-songs, and through them we learn of her husband, her family, her friends, her Christian faith…and herself. While many of her songs are not explicitly religious, as we have shown, her poetry is always incarnational; that is to say, she consistently sees Divine Presence within the human condition. But many songs do express her Christian faith directly.

In “It’s All You” Marie’s phone conversation with a dear friend doesn’t end nicely. After listening to her list of complaints, frustrations, and the lack of sympathy for all that she has been through, the friend responds that, frankly, over the years: “You haven’t changed a bit…Cause it’s all you.”

Those words strike deeply, and Marie asks herself, “How do you expect Love to break through when it’s all you?” The pivot comes when she finally sinks to her knees and confesses to her Lord, “It’s not this world that makes my dreams come true. No, it’s all You.”

In many of her songs, an initial encounter with the mundane moves her to see heavenly truth through a conversation with God, as in “What Difference Does It Make” (1997). This question is spoken by the harried, homebound wife/mother, wondering why she should even comb her hair today. The colloquial meaning of the question is, “Why bother? Who really cares?” Marie’s turn to prayer opens up Divine dialogue, and the shift of worlds results. God turns the mother’s question back on itself: “Can you hear me? Are you listening to My call? Does it [our relationship] make a difference?” (that is, “What difference does it make?”) The final resolution of the question comes, of course, in God’s counsel:

Have some patience…

Teach my children…

Mind the details…

Wrap it up and send it to Me,

And what a difference there will be!

A different kind of connection is made in “Invisible and Out of Time” (2011). In this poem there is no outer world. The song-parable takes place solely in Marie’s head. Right off the bat she launches into a disarmingly candid self-appraisal:

Lately I find I’m a bit past my prime

At least in the eyes of men

I didn’t know it would bother me so;

I knew it would happen but I didn’t know when.

And now I’m invisible…

Her ambitions, too, seem to have passed her by, and now she only hears:

A voice in my mind saying, ‘You’re out of time.’

And oh, it’s such a shame to be invisible and out time.

The poet speaks no prayer in this song. But she hears the Invisible One speaking to her, words of welcome and consolation. Marie finally sees the connection as she recalls the hidden divinity of Christ:

What does it mean to travel unseen, unnoticed, and unrecognized?

It opens the door to things hidden before, and I can’t believe my eyes!

There’s so much invisible . . .and out of time.

“Ordinary Time” (2000) is a distillation of Marie’s song-parables. It sets in stark contrast the homebound world of a mother and the cultural aspirations of an educated woman. The mother is dreaming of the day when the interruptions and fatigue of her ordinary days–wiping up spilled milk and tripping over her children’s backpacks–will be over and she will have time for “quiet mornings” and “lunches with the girls.” The pivot comes through her conversation with God, hearing His questions, “Who will feed my sheep? Who will hear their cry?” As a result, the mundaneness of ordinary life is transformed into a blessing, and the mother is herself transformed:

So may I never yearn for those cocktail conversations…

May I finally learn to be happy and have patience

With the constant changing rhythm of this Ordinary Time.

Although our focus thus far has been on the craft of Marie’s many lyrics, one final digression, into musical performance, may be allowed. In almost all of the parable-songs the transformation from mundane to spiritual—the pivot into “real” reality—is sung in understatement. There is never a raging cry of liberation, or indulgence in righteous indignation, or even exuberant praise. Whether the truth comes to her from a conversation with God, or simply in her transformed understanding of everyday living, Marie always sings simply and humbly. The one exception is “Ordinary Time.” Although the very last lines of the song are peaceful and grateful, there is a moment earlier in the song, when she prays: “You know everything, and You know that I’m / Just an ordinary woman in ordinary time.”

This is the only moment in all of her singing, by my reckoning, when Marie Bellet roars. It is not a scream or a cry of protest. It is a passionate awakening. And we cannot help but feel at that moment that perhaps—after all of her words and tunes, all of her struggles and contrition and thanksgiving, after all her moments of fragility and obedience in faith—perhaps Marie has been made worthy to echo St. Paul: “I…will boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

About David Cunningham Cassel 1 Article
David Cassel teaches at Vanderbilt University in the Music Education program. He has a degree in conducting from Indiana University. David and his wife, Suzanne, are converts to the Catholic Church. Their journey home began when after meeting Marie and Bill Bellet. Marie’s music spoke to their hearts and sparked a ten year journey to the church. They have two daughters, Kirsten and Erin, who teach cello and perform in ensembles, so music is the core of their family life.

7 Comments

    • You won’t be disappointed. Her music will inspire you to do better… to BE better… but it will also make you feel as though she is right there struggling with you.

  1. I thought “genius” was a bit much. And I’m no fan of art critics. But the examples provide easily support the claim. What a happy surprise.

  2. Marie is my favorite artist. She knows the struggles of “ordinary time” and sings what each of us (especially mothers) have felt at one time or another.

  3. It should be noted that her songs progress. Albums from the mid 90’s through about 2008 or so are more about raising a younger family… but her boys and the princess grew up – and so we get the awesome “Stony Lonesome” and “This House is the Place to be.” And after three decades of marriage we hear “He Loved me First…”
    All good, all a blessing.

  4. Dear ASDF: Although I appreciated all of the comments from those who (perhaps) learned about Marie’s artistry and craftsmanship from my article, I was most delighted by your comment. It may well be that my tag of “genius” may say more about my depth perception than Marie’s work (or not), but the elevation of this writer to the status of an “art critic” was particularly welcomed. Having been the subject of not a few negative critiques of my music performances, I just had to smile at your comment. Not sure whether to be insulted or complimented by such a “job description,” but I loved your comment either way! God bless you–and BUY MARIE’S TAPES!!!

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