The Perfect Song

Is there such a thing as the perfect song? For each of us, the answer is a resounding "Yes". Is that song, or are those songs, the same amongst us? The answer is a resounding "Probably not." Feel free to substitue darn-near-anything for "song" and the same holds true—painting, pizza, spouse, DAC, etc.—non-ubiquity. How do we survive?

Favorites really are very personal things, necessarily so, because they fit into our lives at specific times and in specific places, colored by our particular perspective. But they are nonetheless deeply meaningful.

One of the things we do with favorites is share them. As you can imagine, this sharing is a potentially prickly affair seeing as we have invested so much in them (and they in us).

You may be wondering—why another non-gear piece on AudioStream? The answer = happenstance (and music is hi-fi's special purpose). I watched two videos this morning and together they reminded me of some of the things we've been talking about of late.

Here they are:

The first greeted me on my Facebook feed and I searched for the second after hearing "Henry Lee" on the radio yesterday.

"Henry Lee", which appeared on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Murder Ballads, is one of my perfect songs. "Henry Lee", the song, dates from the 18th Century—yea, people have been brutal and singing about it forever—and Nick Cave and PJ Harvey turned it into a duet. Nick Cave and PJ Harvey each hold very special places inside me so this single was a dream come true when it came out in the '90s.

"Henry Lee" is the first track on Harry Smith's historic Anthology of American Folk Music, first released in 1952. Smith was a more-than-avid record collector (78s), "visual artist, experimental filmmaker, bohemian, mystic, and largely self-taught student of anthropology". He was asked by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, to collect up some of his favorite 78s, 84 songs in total, and release them in an anthology. So he did.


One could argue that Harry Smith's passion for collecting and favorites helped shape the world of music because he revived what otherwise could very well have been lost to the ages. Some credit the Anthology with no less a feat than the folk music revival...

My reason for sharing this version of "Henry Lee" by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey is simple; I enjoy it and I hope you do too. I also thought a little background into its history may help place it in a more meaningful context which is one way of paving the way toward appreciation.


Fetuso's picture

Wonderful performance by Cave and Harvey. I first became aware of Cave in 1998 when Metallica covered the song Loverman and I've since become a fan. My favorite song on Murder Ballads is Where The Wild Roses Grow, the duet with Kylie Minogue.

midfiguy's picture

"Buckets of Rain" by Bob Dylan. It's so economical, a quiet but forceful example of his craft.

Paul Candy's picture

Curse of Millhaven is the best, "So it's Rorschach and Prozac, and everything is groovy". I giggle like a five yr old every time I hear it.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Hey Paul - hope all is swell!

I love that one, too.

billstry's picture

Henry Lee is an incredible song but Cave's interpretation of Stagger Lee on Murder Ballads, get deeper into my head every time I hear it. A staple in his live act which I witnessed twice on his east coast swing, gives this another dimension in my memory. Finally, the line which his character "crawls" presents a level of violence and social depravity that I still can wrap my head around. Great post and thanks for sharing.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I agree. These classic folk songs left room for interpretation and Cave's take is more than squirm worthy. ,p> Thanks for sharing.
deckeda's picture

Cave's Murder Ballads is one of those albums I've been hearing about for years but never got around to picking up. I've now heard two songs from it; the rest I'll wait on until I get a proper copy "soon."

Speaking of which, I prefer his studio recording/video both because Cave can have intonation problems performing live (and for me, that detracts from the message of the vocal) and also because the chemistry in the original video with Harvey is positively electric! I read that it was done in one take and that it was the start of their brief romance. Doesn't get any more real than that.

I also looked for, and heard, the version Smith supplied to Folkways (Dick Justice's recording). Cave's omission of the tell-tale bird allows him to portray it as a concise torch song (which is what makes his version amazing, IMO).

udis's picture

A must listen for PJ Harvey fans....