I don’t need to read the papers
To know the heart of man
This world’s been shaved
By a drunken barber’s hand
— Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott, Drunken Barber’s Hand
Last weekend, Slaid Cleaves returned to Sisters to play The Belfry.
The Austin, Texas based singer-songwriter works in a tradition of folk songwriting and storytelling that celebrates the courage and resilience of ordinary folk buffeted by the storms of life — some of their own making, some conjured by an indifferent or sometimes malevolent cosmos. Though there’s a lot of darkness in their world, his characters still find some reason to believe, and to keep on keeping on. There’s more defiance than despair in the singer who bids the universe to “Bring It On.”
The song Drunken Barber’s Hand rings mighty true at the moment, and it clearly resonated with the audience.
The world’s certainly in a mess, roiled by plague, war, rising energy prices, and the prospect of food shortages. The world is even hearing once again the ticking of the nuclear Doomsday Clock, a sound that has been muffled for decades now. We’re pretty well insulated in Sisters Country, but even here we can hear the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen abroad in the world.
It helps, in troubled times, to bear in mind that the world often looks like it was shaved by a drunken barber’s hand. We who have lived our lives in the post-World War II order tend to take a lot for granted, from relative peace and security to the reliability of global supply chains. Sure, we’ve seen conflict and economic downturns, crime waves and epidemics, but the past 70 years or so have been the most peaceful, prosperous and healthy decades in human history, especially for Americans who have dominated the world order with military and economic power orders of magnitude greater than anything the world has ever seen. The principle at stake in Ukraine — that people should be free to choose their own political course and that borders should not be changed by force — would have been seemed perplexing and naïve to our forebears, as recently as 80 years ago. In Europe, especially Eastern Europe, borders have been changed by force almost constantly for a thousand years.
The events of recent years — the atavistic pull of fundamentalism and political tribalism, pandemic, now a large-scale war in Europe — may be disconcerting to those who expected something different or better out of the human condition. But, as writer and “social entrepreneur” Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project, notes:
“It’s not the apocalypse, of course, it’s just history, but if you thought the shape of history was meant to be an upward curve of progress, then this feels like the apocalypse.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have longed to return to “normal.” That “normal” is gone. The order that it was built upon was contingent and in many ways artificial. We are probably going to have to get used to a more disordered world than the one we grew accustomed to. COVID will not go away, but we are learning to live with it. The belief that we can seamlessly shift away from fossil fuels to a “green” energy future has foundered upon realities of global dependence on oil, gas and, even still, coal. Factors that have driven most of human history are reasserting themselves: pressures of demographics, resources and the lack thereof, things as fundamental as the capacity to produce food and access water. We’re seeing this even in the comfortable “First World,” where most people have grown accustomed to thinking that water comes from the tap, lights come on whenever we flip a switch, and the store shelves are always full. The epoch we’re entering is going to come as a shock to some folks — but we’ll adapt.
And it helps to recognize that it’s just history, and that you don’t need to read the tea leaves to understand that this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand.