In a 2019 interview, Bill Callahan was asked by The Creative Independent about the act of songwriting and if it had altered for Callahan since he first started:
“I think for me that’s something that has never changed. When I’m in the flow of writing, I feel like I’m working on my first record all over again. I remember how I felt, and it feels oddly, completely the same. It never changes for me, no matter what, although my life changes and my character and perspective changes, but the actual feeling and intuition I have when I’m writing… nothing about that has changed.”
Similarly, when Callahan was asked by Grantland during a 2013 interview if a current relationship had informed one of his songs, Callahan replied:
“I tend to think about things in sort of — I get interested in themes and focus on those. And they may be spurred on by real life, but also, there’s just a general interest in certain human conditions.”
If that response seems slightly truncated, Callahan also shared the following in a 2013 Pitchfork interview:
“Some people write a thank you note for a gift and it’s three pages long, and some people write a thank you note and it’s five sentences—that’s me….I like to pare away words because I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”
The 2013 interviews coincided with the release of Callahan’s album Dream River, and these quotations offer insight into Callahan’s approach for songwriting and recording, themes that are reflected in the song “Summer Painter”:
The song begins with a descending chord progression played on electric guitar by Callahan. It sounds awfully similar to Callahan’s guitar sound on “Spring,” another song from Dream River. When the band joins Callahan after the song’s introduction, there’s a woozy feeling to the musical accompaniment. Matt Kinsey’s electric guitar and the flute played by Beth Galiger begin to trade off parts, blending their sounds together so each becomes indistinguishable from the other. As the song advances, the music reflects Callahan’s lyrics. He sings, “When the hurricane hit / Some found it suspicious,” the tension builds as if a storm is gathering strength. The sound detonates, summoning the force of a hurricane hitting a community as Callahan sings, “The rain ripped the lips off the mouth of the bay.” He is barely heard over the tempest of sound. As the song’s narrative moves into the eye of the hurricane, the musicians create an edgy, creepy atmosphere. Then, moving back out of the eye, the storm in the song, both lyrically and musically, hits all over again. John Coltrane’s playing style was sometimes described as “sheets of sound.”. At the end of the “Summer Painter,” Kinsey’s electric guitar has a similar rippling, relentless effect which conjures the sound of sheets of rain in a storm steadily tearing away human structures before finally coming to a stop as the song ends. The musical construct of the song expertly reflects Callahan’s lyrical content.
As previously written about on Recliner Notes, Callahan sometimes presents a song in the form of a story over the course of the song rather than the conventional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. The narrative of “Summer Painter” tells of a man who takes on the job of painting names on boats. No location is given, but the implication is that of a busy, seaside port. The song’s narrator shares that he only works there for the summer. A hurricane hits the port, causing much destruction. Looking for someone to blame for this storm, the townspeople name the song’s narrator given his proximity to the water and his subsequent disappearance at the end of the season as if he were a robber casing out a house for a job.
The tone of Callahan’s vocal delivery provides the story song with the feeling of an allegory, lending itself to multiple interpretations. One reading is that Callahan is writing about freewill. Luck and superstition are invoked a number of times as the narrator tells us that when painting names on the boats, “you keep the same first letter” and warning with an air of someone who knows: “you don’t want bad luck at sea.” Callahan also sings the line, “Rich Man’s Folly and Poor Man’s Dream.” The inference is that this is one of the names bestowed on a boat and that the same boat holds different promises depending on who the owner is. The boat hasn’t changed as an object, but the context determines its fate. The subjective nature of the boat’s destiny extends to the painter himself as Callahan sings, “I never truly knew who I was working for anyway / The rich or the poor?” He doesn’t know who is in control, so he quits as an act of dissent. The job allows him to save some money “for a rainy day,” which is good planning, but also an adage that hints at knowledge of the future. Catastrophe is an inevitability for the rich and the poor.
The song’s narrator scoffs at the conjecture that he was the cause of the storm: “Like all that time spent down by the water / Had somehow given me control over the rain.” Yet the hurricane is just the sort of bad luck that was foretold earlier in the song. The townspeople put the blame on him because of timing, but it could be that he wasn’t reusing the same first letter on the boat’s names. The painter rejects that superstition as well since disasters are unavoidable. As he says, “Guess I got my rainy day.” The painter’s fatalistic nature wins out, demonstrating that continual wishing for good luck through rituals and superstitions won’t help escape calamity.
A different reading of the song is that it is about the nature of art itself. The song’s narrator is an artist. Arguments about the utility of art have raged on for centuries. Callahan hints at this debate when he sings, “I painted these while beavers built dams all around me,” implying that his efforts are superfluous while essential work continues. As stated above, the line “Rich Man’s Folly and Poor Man’s Dream” stands as a symbol for boat ownership. The same connotation could be said of art that a rich man has the time to devote to art, while a poor man can only dream of having that kind of leisure time. The line also implies that, ultimately, the pursuit of art is itself a folly. The painter asks himself who is he working for, “The rich or the poor?” This could be a reference to an artist having to accept commissions from the ultra-wealthy to ensure income. This question gets to the heart of an artist’s struggle about the function of their work: Can good come from the practice of making art? Out of that comes an even bigger question: Who is art really for, everyone or those who can afford it?
Back to the Callahan quotes included at the beginning of the article, Callahan lives for the practice of songwriting and and recording his songs, but “Summer Painter” may be his way of sharing the nagging questions that he asks of himself about his vocation. Callahan says that he “pares away words” in his writing not unlike the song’s narrator whose only job is to paint names on boats. It’s hard to find a more minimal act of writing than the summer painter, but Callahan demonstrates his own ability to have an impact with the simple line/boat name: “Rich Man’s Folly and Poor Man’s Dream.” Regardless of which interpretation one chooses for that line, the act of creating something new is a powerful end in and of itself for Callahan. Arguments and controversies about art, luck, traditions, rituals, and life will rage on as symbolized by the storm that damages the town, but the simple act of creation itself will also persist. As Callahan sings with the last line of the song, “I’m painting these while beavers build dams all around me.”
Image: Boat landing and shore, Boothbay Harbor, Maine, between circa 1930 and circa 1945, Tichnor Brothers, Publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.