Friday, July 31, 2009


There are ghosts out in the rain tonight
High up in those ancient trees
Lord, I've given up without a fight
Another blind fool on his knees…
And all the Gods that I've abandoned
Begin to speak in simple tongue….

The shrine sits on the outskirts of Mexico City, beneath a low mountain where two older versions of the church are settling into the Mexican earth. Sinking into the primeval Aztecan mud. This is the spot where the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to a poor Nahuatl Indian named Juan Diego. On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking near the Hill of Tepeyac and encountered a vision of a young girl. The girl was surrounded in light and spoke to Juan in his native language, asking that a church be built in her honor on this site. He recognized the vision as the Virgin Mary and went to tell the Bishop, Juan de Zumaraga. The Bishop asked Juan to return and seek a miraculous sign of proof. Back on the hill, the Virgin told Juan Diego to pick a bouquet of flowers and these turned out to be Castilian Roses which only grew near Bishop's home territory in Spain - they didn’t grow in Mexico. The Juan Diego opened his cape and the apparition of Guadalupe appeared there like an ancient votive painting…the same image which now hangs in the church. Let me tell you a little story….
I had flown to Mexico City six years ago during Christmas season. I was in between relationships; aching to escape self pity and the pressures of the holiday season. Craving escape in a city I now consider the Rome of Western Civilization. I hooked up with Taxi driving guide named Caesar who was a bit of a self-made historian. We drove to the pyramids, Frida Kahlo's house, the wondrous Dolores Olmedo Museum, all the great eateries near the square; we wandered the maze in the flea market of antiquities and I spent Sunday in the largest bull ring in the world.
Christmas eve I attended Midnight mass in the great central cathedral where Indian women carried their baby Jesus statues to the archbishop to be blessed with holy water. My heart pounded along with the 200 year old pump organ; sadness, doubt, self -pity and fear drained from my body with every hair raising crescendo of the ancient Latin hymns. I was not rediscovering religion so much as digging deeper into an understanding of the raw face of passionate belief - even if it wasn't my own personal belief. It was their belief and their story. Passion is passion. It counteracts the poison.
There are times when zealous rituals of other cultures open portals in your soul. A glimpse. Inward comes a light. This feeling does not lead to acceptance of church dogma or re-conversion or an overwhelming acceptance of Jesus, Mohammed, Jehovah or Buddha. Not every time. But I heard whispers and I was lead to the hill of Tepeyac. The shrine of Guadalupe. And I sat there for hours on a winter afternoon with thousands of Mexicans and Indians, and an odd assortment of German tourists who kept leafing through guide books. And that image was up on the altar in a golden frame, and the poor and spiritually crippled and dumbstruck and all of us… were staring at her. Guadalupe.
We're talking of an image that is tattooed on the backs of Mexican men on death row. An image from a million roadside shrines. The Mother of the Americas. The talisman carried in the pocket of the poor and the Indian and the lawyer the thief and the bullfighter and the used car salesman. The belief in Guadalupe transcends normal Catholicism. It is a story, much like an old folk song or a votive painting, which has endured. As Carlos Fuentes wrote: "One may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in Guadalupe. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz stated: "The Mexican people, after nearly two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery."
And I sat there that long winter afternoon and it didn’t lead to my talking in tongues or getting baptized again or riding through Mexico City on a horse behind Zaptata or sub-commandante Marcos. And they both rode under her banner. It lead to a lingering chill and a knowledge that I was not alone in my yearning. There was a new light in my eyes, reflected from a thousand candle flames. And it finally lead to a song.

Who am I to doubt these mysteries?
Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke
I am the least of all your pilgrims here
But I am most in need of hope.

(Guadalupe is song # 10 in a series of song sketches off the coming album: "Blood and Candle Smoke." It has also been recorded by Gretchen Peters on "One to the Heart, One to the Head"; available from


editor said...

The song itself has the power to heal. I heard it first in Elko two winters ago, in the midst of a personal crisis.

It brought relief, healing, hope.

Thank you.

Jan Kristoffer Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Kristoffer Dale said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful. I remember crying when I first heard this song. My family on my mothers side are deeply religious, but still I find their faith to be shallow. I've drifted away from god and religion becuase I never see anything devine or real in these fast food evangelists on TV and I never saw it up in the pulpit at my grandmother's church where I spendt so much time as a kid. I only heard prejudice, hate and fear disguised as love. I find healing power in many religious songs and texts. Flannery O'Connor, Rev. Gary Davis etc, etc. Pure faith is moving to me. I wish I had it. But I've still got a long way to go so I might find something to hold onto. Who knows.

Again, I can't wait to hear this album! Thank you for keeping your fans updated. Are you including these notes in the linernotes?

Tom Russell said...

only the lyrics and musicians will be in the liner this is a seperate endeavor...these 12

Saddle Tramp said...

Personal crisis . . . pure faith . . . skin deep religion. It is never an attractive mix in it's entirety. The totality of [T] ruth never realized. A song of this stature might be as close as we will get. On NPR's Talk of the Nation yesterday Mavis Staples was a guest ( along with Tom Paxton, Doc Watson, Rambling Jack Elliot & others ) on an hour long show dedicated to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival. Mavis & her Staple Singers only recorded one secular song in their history. All "message" songs she said. However, she said of being part of this other music " you hear the truth ". This is the pure
faith aforementioned. As one who has travelled from "A-Z"
that beiing atheism to Zionism, I have given it all a fair chance. Many left me empty and others left me confused. Music, literatue and poetry always gave me more. When it came within faith I responded likewise. We know the perverse when we see it. We know pure faith when we see
it. When you are drowning in tears it cannot
be denied. That purging of our soul.

Our Lady of Guadalupe :

Stopping at a Mexican mercado in Amarillo to buy votive candles to take to the little OLG Church during the week in the middle of the day. Arriving to find a small group of Mexican women reciting the Rosary in Spanish and crying
in between decades. Real tears. Real devotion. Real
prayers. I returned often.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas - Mitchell's Folly Art Gallery & Antiques. Mitchell is an eccenric's eccentric who was in
Eureka Springs when it all started as an artist's colony. I purchased a " Madre " that he had picked up some 30 years prior in his travels across Mexico. It had been been fabricated from tin, perhaps a beer can. It was somewhat damaged. I gave it to an artist friend who has been long suffering and to whom Frida Kahlo is a saint and has perhaps endured as much physical and spiritual pain. I
offered this folk art gift of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a prayer for my non-catholic friend to inspire her hands to return her to her painting and sculpture. I suggested that she could do some restorative repair to the damage ( just trying to get her out her darkness). Later she told me she
chose to leave her as she was. Wounded like her. Nell like Frida, now paints in her bed. Milagro de Madre. Eureka Springs is also home to the only church in the world that you must enter through a belfry . . .

TR . . . Gretchen lends so much emotional weight to this song it seems as if she was there with you. Also, maybe
Jack told you as he told Talk of the Nation his story about watching the tv monitor back stage at the 69' Newport Festival as Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder to step foot on the moon as Jack was being called on the stage
repeatedly. Jack paced his steps to the stage to that of Armstrong's descent down the ladder announcing to the crowd with his last step " Neil Armstrong has just stepped onto the moon". 1969, what a convergence of events and
yes, we are still trying to figure it all out . . .

saddle tramp

Via: Winslow, AZ on Our Mother Road where Gillian Welch's " Revalator " just came on . . .

Charlene said...

When I heard you sing this song in Las Cruces last year I felt like I was there, praying to the Virgin, although it has been at least twenty years since I was there.

We have the three churches on the Mission Trail here in El Paso. I've lived here almost thirty years and just visited them for the first time last year. It's hard for me to comprehend how Catholosism was brought to the Indians by the Spanish.

Your albums always have two or three songs that touch my soul more than the others. It seems as if this is going to be one of those songs.

Thank you again, Mr. Russell, for sharing your gift.


Hope to see you in Albuquerque Mr. Russell.

Saddle Tramp said...

[ Camino del Madre Kismet ]

Stopped at Border's Books, etc. in Albuquerque and picked up Van Morrison's " Astral Weeks -Live at the Holywood Bowl " cd. Back on the road I crossed into Guadalupe County and on past Milagro, New Mexico as I was listening to " Astral Weeks / I believe I've Transcended :

.. This is a Train ... to be Born ... This is a Train ... This is a Train ... This is a Train ... This is a Train ... This is a Train of Thought ... Get on the Train ... Get on the Train...
to the Mystic Church ... to the Brotherhood of the Light ... to the Light in the Head ... Where we can be Free ... Get on the Train ... Get on the Train ... Get on the Train ... I do believe ... I've Transcended ... to be Born Again ... I Have Transcended ... I've Transcended ... I've Transcended
TIME ... - Van Morrison

Sure wish that I could get on Tom's Train in September ... Get on the Train . .

saddle tramp

Via: Oklahoma City where the original " End Of The Trail " sculpture now resides. I have also been to the end of the trail in Magdalena, New Mexico where a " New Ager " tried
to convince me that Magdalena was [The] center of the universe. I corrected her telling her that she was only half
right. I told her that since the universe is infinite that
wherever I stood was the center of the universe. Ends of trails and beginnings of trails . . . I drive on . . .

Anonymous said...

It truly is a great song. I mean, I have no use for religion - you can count me among the ragged disbelievers - but I sure can use some hope as I try to make sense of a 25 year friendship turned sour. There's a song in there somewhere, but I'm not one who can write it. Dogs and cats (mano a mano) and yeah, the mountains here really are shaped like a woman lying on a bed...

So put me on the next thing smokin' and play your guitar with a rusty old knife. And sign me the Madman Torn Asunder.

jeffreyjeff said...

I too am deeply touched by this song. Guadalupe stands with your best..Wing...Gallo.. Sky&Mud..etc.etc.

I'm gonna jump up on Dylans coffee table, elbow Steve Earle outta the way and testify....

editor said...


Good luck with that. Steve's pretty beefy these days :)

Saddle Tramp said...

Well at least Steve gave credit to Ian Tyson on his Satellite radio show this last weekend in his left-handed inimitable style. This show was on Canadian songwriters. Of course Gordon Lightfoot was in there along with Steve's story about (unbeknownst to him ) being dropped off at Gordon's Toronto Victorian home and being ( prearranged ) greeted by Gordon and spending 3 hours swapping songs. Gordon also went to watch Steve's show. Steve also mentioned seeing Ian on a regular basis but having to avoid "politics" and the wrangling that evidently ensues. Hard core troubadours. Where's the peace, love and understanding. Ah hell ... Let's have a no holds barred, fistfull of chords, knock down drag out battle of the bands ... I'm betting on the Irishman . . . Fists up ...

saddle tramp

Via: Stockton, CA on a westcoastturnaround ...

editor said...

Back in the mid-90s Steve Earle was occasionally doing Summer Wages in his shows.

Saddle Tramp said...

An echo from an old comment ... Yes Editor, I remember and of course, dead men cannot fight . . .
While small towns all across America languish in murky futures and city hall fights over street repairs and stray dogs the big fight rages on to a chorus of anxiety and petty rivalries ... While [G] od is laughing we swim through a valley of tears ... Melting wax or saline drenched , only the maker knows for sure ... More questions than answers. I wouldn't have it any other way ............

Badsign said...

Mr. Russell, I love the song, and I recommend you to visit the original Guadalupe, the place where the name comes from. It's a little village in the west of Spain, with a huge XIV century monastery, plenty of beauty and faith. Every september 8th thousand of pilgrims go to pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe.
My father's family has lived there since XVII century.
By the way, Guadalupe is an arabian name, that means "hidden river".

Jose Ramon (Madrid, Spain)

MHL said...

Wonderful. I saw a video on Youtube a while back of TR singing this and have been looking forward to reading a blog post on it. Thanks.

Dima said...

This song certainly touches way deeper than skindeep. It may well reach one's core or what we call the human soul as some mentioned here.


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