Son of the Sea

After 2013’s Dream River, Bill Callahan did not release an album of new original compositions for six years until Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest came out in 2019. During that time, Callahan and his wife had their first child, and it impacted Callahan’s mindset in many ways as he told The Creative Independent in 2019:

“[Being a father and husband] was the hugest feeling of change I’ve ever experienced. I can only compare it to my youth before I started making music. I was a huge music fan and I was trying to go to college like I was supposed to at 19 years old. I had to do lots of shitty jobs, and classes weren’t doing anything for me. That’s when I made the decision to just make music. That’s what this felt like—like I was deciding to make music again. It was that big of a milestone for me. Nothing was in my way once I got going, at age 22 or whatever I was, and started writing songs. Music was number one. I had no other real responsibilities or nothing taking up my time, so I got very used to that lifestyle of everything being about me and my music.”

After first became a father, Callahan struggled with finding time to devote to music as he recalled of this period in a 2022 interview with Uproxx:

“I couldn’t find a kind of reconciliation point of going down the path of being a father. There didn’t seem to be any stops along the way that involved making music. It felt like a very full path already. Also, I was learning something brand new, which used up all my brain power and my body power. I was not getting enough sleep for a few years and not having time to myself. I started seeing a therapist to try to help me have a life where both things are possible. It was strange, because we lived in Santa Barbara for about 10 months, so my wife would go to grad school. I thought I’d always wanted to live on the ocean or very close to the ocean. I finally got that chance and I found it actually more of a distraction because whenever I was in my house I was like, ‘I should be at the ocean now.’ It was so close. So that was a lot of energy, as time was absorbed. I got out just in time.”

As Callahan began writing again, things came slowly:

“I still worked pretty much six days a week—or seven when I could—and I got a few little scraps of lines and things that I ended up using, but you don’t have a song until you have a song that you can put down and play for yourself or somebody else. Until you can do that, it’s not really a song.”

Callahan told Aquarium Drunkard in 2019 how shifting focus in his process allowed him to move forward:

“At first [the songs I was writing] were impersonal because that is the way I like to write: to remove myself, not to be too self-referential or autobiographical….By making it all fantasy. Projection fantasy. I may be in the place, but I’m projecting the fantasy and you can see me if you deep project and go to the projector, you can see what’s back there. When I wrote my new record, I had so many new things in my life, I knew I couldn’t project a fantasy world anymore because of my wife and my son. Since I was no longer alone, there was someone to call me out….I wanted to make something that was more adult, to be more a part of the world in a physical sense, so the fantasy part has to dissipate.”

Many of the changes in Callahan’s life and artistic process are on display in the song “Son of the Sea” from Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest:

After a false start from the drummer and a bit of studio chatter, Callahan’s acoustic guitar properly begins the song. He is soon joined by an occasional harmonica and a steel guitar chiming out mournful, Ben Keith-type cries. From the opening lines, Callahan addresses his new status:

The house is full of life
Life is change
Even death is not stable.

He recognizes that his house is no longer what it once was and that the change is for the better. He notes that his acceptance of transformation takes in both life and death. Callahan continues by singing, 

The house is full of whatever I bring to the table
If there is no supper, the children look to me
Then to the table and then to the sea.

In these first few lines, Callahan has thrust us into the world of deductive logic by providing the factors for a conditional argument. If “The house is full of whatever I bring to the table” and “The house is full of life” then the song’s narrator is the one bringing life into the house. Additionally, if “Life is change” then the song’s narrator is bringing change into the house. The lack of life and change as represented by “no supper” on the table, the family holds the song’s narrator and the sea responsible. Callahan continues:

A son of a fisherman, like I used to be
I spent many a day staring out at that sea.

The narrator states that he is no longer the “son of a fisherman,” implying that either his father has passed away or that the narrator has moved away from life on the sea or both. He has found new ways to provide for his family, no longer relying on old customs and welcoming change to his life. It’s here that the metaphorical nature of the song is beginning to slip away since Callahan indicated that in the Uproxx interview that he himself spent time staring at the sea to such an extent that he lost his ability to function and had to move away. What is it that was so captivating about this sea for Callahan? He seems to provide an answer in “Son of the Sea”: “Water apologizes for sorrow endlessly.” The sea is an ongoing source of forgiveness for life’s sorrow. One easily can get lost in a force that powerful, so much so that it pulls one away from basic responsibilities, such as life and providing love to one’s family. In the second verse, Callahan sings:

I got married to my wife, she’s lovely
And I had a son.

Callahan has dropped the facade of the song’s narrator being anyone other than himself. Pulling from the Aquarium Drunkard quote above, everything to this point in the song is Callahan working in his “projection fantasy” mode, but now he steps out from behind the curtain to reveal himself in song. This new section of “Son of the Sea” is “a part of the world in a physical sense.” Callahan has removed the separation between art and life. After this disclosure, Callahan sings:

Giving birth nearly killed me
Some say I died
And all that survived was my lullabies.

These are funny lines with Callan delivering his patented straight-faced humor, but they also reflect the struggles of being a parent combined with being a working musician and how the music part of his life almost disappeared, leaving behind only the songs from Callahan’s past. He also recognizes that his main function as a professional singer is only singing lullabies. He also sings, “The panic room is now a nursery.” It’s another hilarious line but also telling as a panic room is only used in case of emergency and the use of the word “panic” implies overwhelming fear. Not only has Callahan put aside his previous life preparing for the next emergency, but he has also been able to push aside a life of anxiety and instead embrace something new with his family.

In the same Uproxx interview as quoted above, Callahan shared why he decided to disclose himself in his songwriting:

“I’ve always understood privacy very well, but it’s like—what’s the point of taking your secrets to the grave, or even your banalities? We have this chance to let ourselves be known to other people, to fill out the web of humanity that we’ve been spreading for thousands of years, and I think every little bit that people share—maybe not Instagram photos of your lunch, but other more human things—it helps. It all adds up over thousands of years of time. Why not let other people know you a little bit?”

Callahan finishes the song with the following lines:

In the winter, the water is frank with me
Says “Son, there is still a fisherman out on that sea
And he’s looking for his family
He’s looking for his family
He’s looking for the son of the sea.”

Callahan is back in metaphor mode, and he seems to be describing his previous life without any other commitments. As he said in the above quote, it was a “lifestyle of everything being about me and my music.” Callahan is implying he still feels a pull to his earlier way of life when things were simpler, but at the same time, he recognizes that he will miss out on the love of his family. Not only does the sea represent the allure of the single-mindedness of his previous life, but, like a fisherman’s relationship to the sea, music is the source of his income as a professional singer, songwriter, and musician. Mirroring the quote above, he strives to find a new way to work in which he balances music with his responsibilities as a father, a husband while also serving as a breadwinner for his family. 

Callahan’s usage of the sea as the central metaphor of the song may be a direct reference to his 10-month stint living in Santa Barbara, but it also aligns well with the song “My Home Is the Sea” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney:

Released on the excellent 2005 album Superwolf, the lyrics are composed by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Callahan’s Drag City labelmate and, as previously explored on Recliner Notes, a musical and professional peer of Callahan’s. Centered on Sweeney’s lyrical guitar playing, the song’s narrator envisions a life on the sea as he is enraptured with his loved one. Through some sexual innuendos, the narrator notes that “Duty is delayed / Until next life.” He eventually concludes, “And the drowning this town / As a drowning I welcome.” Bonnie “Prince” Billy describes a life that is completely consumed by love and sex with no other responsibilities for the couple. It is a world of freedom, a utopian ideal, that it is attainable for all those who allow themselves. It’s almost as if Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney are sirens, calling out to sailors asking them to join in this enduring vision. 

The single-minded nature of “My Home Is the Sea” may be a reference point for Callahan in “Son of the Sea,” allowing him to utilize the sea as the same metaphorical symbol. Callahan knows the life that Billy is singing about, and it’s one that he knows is still there if he wants it, but he has decided to leave it behind. “Son of the Sea” is Callahan openly accepting his responsibility as a family man. By stepping forward in this song to talk openly about his own life, Callahan is also acknowledging an obligation of himself as an artist.  

When Bob Dylan released his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963 at the precocious age of 23, he provided the following statement as part of the album’s liner notes:

“I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people. I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens, unconsciously. You see, in time, with those old singers, music was a tool-a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better at certain points. As for me, I can make myself feel better some times, but at other times, it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.”

Dylan’s insight about older musicians who serve as his heroes and their ability to “carry themselves” in a certain way is perceptive at such a young age. But when does an artist truly arrive at that time that they are fully carrying themselves? Dylan defines it as a time when they are able to use music as a “tool…to live more.” To expand on Dylan’s original observation, the artist reaches this point when they are aligned in perspective in both their writing and performance, demonstrating a confidence and determination about their work and life. To take Dylan as an example, some might say that he finally “carried himself” like his musical heroes a few years after he made this statement with the mid-60s run of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Others may cite 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Whereas others could point to “Love & Theft” when he eschewed working with outside producers and each of his albums became “a Jack Frost production” as explored in this previous Recliner Notes post. In that moment, it was Dylan and Dylan alone who chose the musicians to play on his recordings, selected the songs to appear on his albums, and ensured that the music, lyrics, and public persona all adhered to his point of view.

Acknowledging that the determination of when an artist is fully carrying themselves is an unmeasurable, eye-of-the-beholder, subjective standard, it appears that Callahan has reached that place at the time of Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. There’s a clearer sense of artistic intent from Callahan that’s apparent from the quotes included at the beginning of this post as well as the ease with which he feels in speaking from his own experience. This is reflected in both the themes presented within “Son of the Sea” as well as his facility in shifting between modes such as autobiography, metaphor, and straight-forward laugh lines. Callahan is able to draw from his life in his work as he expresses hard-won truths gained by experience, mistakes, and joy.  

Image: Harbor scene, Boothbay Harbor, Maine, between circa 1930 and circa 1945, Tichnor Brothers, Publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Son of the Sea

    1. First of all, thank you for your kind words! Great to hear that my pieces resonate. Secondly, very insightful connection to “Bathysphere.” Again, it’s an older Callahan commenting on a song written by his younger self.


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