This is an installment in a series called “One Song,” in which I talk to a songwriter about just one song. I talked to Joseph Terrell and Wood Robinson of Mipso before a house concert on July 12th. Mipso is a bluegrass-influenced acoustic band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, made of Joseph, who plays guitar, Wood on bass and Jacob Sharp, who plays mandolin. Libby Rodenbough contributes on fiddle.
We talked about “When I’m Gone,” a song that Joseph wrote. It will appear on Mipso’s upcoming album, which will be released in October. The song puts Mipso’s clear, tight harmonies center stage, supported by subdued instrumentation, as it voices the perspective of an old man reflecting on approaching the end of his life.
Although Joseph wrote the song, Jacob sings it.
Joseph says, “I ended up thinking that this song would be really pretty with Jacob’s voice. I love Jacob’s voice. It’s really…”
Just then we hear Jacob’s voice waft into the room as he practices a brand new song, a song they’ll perform publicly for the first time tonight.
“Just like that?” I ask.
“Just like that. How do you describe it? It’s like a thick…”
“Thick but still delicate,” Wood says.
“Very distinctive voice. Beautiful timbre to it. And so I thought this song would sound really great with Jacob’s voice. I asked if he would sing it and he said he would.”
It just takes three notes—three syllables in perfect harmony: “When I’m gone”—to suggest to the listener that this will be a spiritual song. Joseph discusses how his early experiences in church in High Point, North Carolina, served as an inspiration for this song.
“I learned guitar from my grandma when I was 9 or 10. And obviously, starting out I played really simple songs because I only knew a few chords, but over the years every once in a while we’d play in church together, and she played in church almost every weekend in a little group called the Springfield Strummers. She’s in her 80s now and she still has the same guitar that she played for all these decades and still plays every week. They sing different hymns. That’s just one example of the way that I grew up with music. I realized recently that I just know the melodies of all these songs without meaning to because it was kind of in the air throughout my childhood.”
It was only when he was far from North Carolina that he thought of mining those early musical memories and using them as fodder for his own songwriting.
“I wrote this song last summer. I took the summer to study bluegrass guitar in, of all places, Brooklyn, New York. Actually this really great bluegrass guitarist named Michael Daves leads the bluegrass scene in New York, and he’s an amazing guitarist. I was taking lessons from him. And when I was writing this song I was living in this cramped basement apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was reflecting on my musical past, I guess, a little bit, and playing guitar tons of hours a day. And I got to playing with this chorus that had some kind of religious imagery. I thought it would be really cool, for the rest of the inspiration of the song, to specifically look back at hymns that I remember growing up with.
“So I looked up my favorite hymns, like ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ and ‘Be Still My Soul,’ which I think is one of the most beautiful songs there is. I looked up these hymns, read through the lyrics, wrote down different phrases I liked, played with them some, put them against some words of my own, just to see what I came out with.”
“And this one song took me a long time. For a number of weeks I would scribble different words and try different verses. I’m looking at the page of the notebook I wrote it in and there’s actually four other verses that ended up not being in the song just because it was a long process of trying to figure out what felt comfortable in the song and what lines I wanted to use,” Joseph says.
When I’m gone don’t you think of me.
Don’t you place a rose upon my stone.
Promise me you’ll never weep.
Tell the children I’m asleep
And sing “holy, holy, holy” as I make my journey home.
I am a man half a century from home
These calloused hands have served their master well.
Dear, nothing is the matter
We plow our fields and scatter
In the wind just to end our days alone.
I remember crawling into Grandma’s open arms
And hiding in the blanket by her feet
She said, “We’re all each other’s neighbors
All searching for a savior
To lead us home on the day we leave.”
Oh, won’t you bury me in this Carolina clay?
It’s seeped into my fingers anyway.
This ground is something hallowed
So bury me shallow
Let me hear the tapping of the rain.
We’ll never know the place we’re going to go from here
Be still my soul and bring the hour near
We see the world in flashes
Ashes all to ashes
Dust to dust. We come to disappear.
Although the seeds of the song were from Joseph’s early church experience he was going for something different.
“A lot of these hymns have a certain way of saying things. They use a certain type of language and they use certain types of images. And I love those images and I love that language. If you do something once a week for most of your life it ends up sinking in somehow. And some of it just ends up being a familiar type of song to you. But I like the idea of trying to use that kind of language and those kind of images to have a different take on it, a different story. It’s the opposite of what you might think a hymn’s message might be. Don’t place a rose up on my stone. Don’t weep for me. Don’t remember me. And just don’t worry about it, tell the kids I’m asleep. I think I was interested in kind of toying with the meaning a little bit.”
I ask him, “Looking at hymns, the people get comfort at the end of their life from what’s going to come next. But what I see in your lyrics is that he seems to get comfort from just the experience he had on earth. He talks about the earth and what he did.”
“It’s a feeling of contentment, I think,” Joseph says. “And contentment not because of what’s promised, but because of a life well lived. I think the first verse is my favorite and that’s what came to me first and got me excited about writing the rest of it. I like the phrase ‘I’m half a century from home.’ It’s a way of saying ‘it’s not my time to be here anymore.’ But he’s saying ‘These calloused hands have served their master well.’ So he’s lived life well. But it is funny that there are references to God and there are references to religion but in the chorus it does seem like he’s not content because he’s going to meet God or going to heaven, like you would think in the hymns.”
Joseph describes “When I’m Gone” as a secular song, and yet the last line of the chorus is
“Sing holy, holy, holy as I make my journey home.” I ask him about the use of the word “holy.” Is there more than one way to look at the word “holy?”
“Sure. that part, that level of interpretation will come in with each listener, I think. Some people interpret this as a religious song, and some people interpret this as a commentary on religion. And a lot of people have asked me, ‘Who sang that song originally? How old is that song?’ which is a pretty cool accidental compliment.”
Wood says, “I always thought that line was interesting because while it’s saying ‘don’t think of me,’ asking the listener to sing ‘holy, holy, holy as I make my journey home’ is asking for them to find solace in the narrator’s death in whatever way they find useful but not dwelling on his passing.”
“Yeah, see, that’s perfectly valid,” Joseph says. “I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s probably not the exact way I would have said it, but it makes sense.”
I ask Joseph about another line. “This line here where it says ‘We’ll never know the place we go from here.’ That’s a line I doubt you would find in a hymn because they seem very sure where they’ll go from there. And yet the narrator doesn’t and he’s fine with that. So it’s kind of a different perspective.”
“Yeah, that’s almost the opposite of the perspective of hymns,” Joseph says.
It’s more than the language and imagery of the song that gives it a hymn-like feeling. It’s the music as well. I ask Joseph if that was intentional.
“I’m sure it’s influenced by the hymns in a way that I can’t put my finger on. It’s one of those influences that I think is just in the back of my brain and when I was reading these words and looking back through those I’m sure I put myself in the mind and was on some level imitating or drawing from the influence I gathered over the years. But I can’t tell any specific melody lines that come from hymns. But it does kind of have that feel in my own mind.”
The interesting thing to me about the song is how it straddles the line between religious and secular. But I admit to Joseph that the first time I heard it, the sound of the song and the Christian images and language led me to assume that it was a Christian song.
“Well, I hope that people who aren’t religious don’t dismiss it because they assume it’s religious because I definitely didn’t set out to write a Christian song. But I do think it’s awesome if someone who’s Christian finds some sort of Christian beauty in it. I think that’s great. I think that’s a cool thing for any listener to be able to do. But on the other hand there’s definitely one way to look at it and that it’s sort of a subversive song and it’s kind of anti-Christian and that it’s appropriating the images and language and melodies of the standard kind of hymns but to say a very different message, if you choose to interpret it that way.”
Hymns weren’t Joseph’s only influence when he wrote this song. He also drew upon North Carolina’s folk tradition.
Joseph says, “The lyrics ‘Tell the children I’m asleep’ are pretty much lifted straight from the very famous Libba Cotten song, ‘Freight Train.’ ‘When I die, lord, bury me deep. Underneath Old Chestnut Street. Lay the stones at my head and feet. Tell them all I’ve gone to sleep.’ Those are the words as I remember them. And she wrote that song about a train that runs about a block from our house in Carrboro. It’s a famous folk song that many people have played. So this was drawn from the religious hymn tradition and also from the folk tradition. I was kind of going for that sound. And on the recording in the studio we have a very cool local musician playing the clawhammer banjo on the track. So it’s kind of got an old-timey feel.”
As a sidenote, “Freight Train” also sometimes makes a cameo when Mipso performs the song “Angelina Jane.”
Reflecting more on the lyrics, Joseph says, “I think I meant for some of these to be more ambiguous, to leave people thinking about what it might mean. And I think it’s cool how each of the verses fit with the chorus a little bit differently and bring to mind different meanings. And it never does explicitly say ‘this person is your savior’ or ‘this is what you should do’ or ‘this is what you should expect.’ But it does have a figure, a grandma, saying ‘we are all each other’s neighbor, just searching for a savior’ which is not really religious at all. I like that line because it says, to think of that on kind of a bigger level, it’s saying we’re all each other’s neighbors, even people outside of this tradition, and all of us are looking for the same thing on some level.”
Even though the song isn’t autobiographical, it seems fitting that the character in the song who offers wisdom and comfort is a grandma.
Joseph says, “The lessons and the music my grandma passed down literally from her hands to mine are a really important part of who I am.”