Singer/songwriter Jackson Browne celebrates his birthday today. Browne is a musician whose politics place him decidedly into the “shut up and sing” camp, but if you were listening to popular music in the 1970’s, you are familiar with his music in one way or another. Already writing songs as a teenager, he started out (briefly) with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in California in the mid-1960s. He headed out to make a name for himself in Greenwich Village, supporting Tim Buckley and teaming up with the mysterious Nico, who recorded three of his songs.
Tom Rush introduced Browne’s work to a wider audience with a stellar performance of Browne’s “Shadow Dream Song” on The Circle Game in 1968. It’s an intriguing song that I don’t think Browne has ever released in finished form. You can listen to a live 1971 recording of the song that must be close to the demo that caught Tom Rush’s attention here. Even as a young man Browne described it as “an old, old song” by the time he recorded his first album in 1972. Performing live in Japan, a knowledgeable fan elicited the only commercial recording of the song by Browne. “How ’bout ‘Dream Song’?” the fan yells out. Again Browne describes it as “a very old, old song” as he struggles to find a good key to play it in.
Browne’s first first five albums are full of well-written songs that have touched a lot of people, me included. One song that stays with me is “For a Dancer,” performed below with David Lindley. It’s a meditation on art and death triggered by the loss of an old friend: “I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round/Crying as they ease you down/’Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing…” The song seems to be a descendant of Yeats’s great poem “Among School Children.”