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Tremor City -- The Story


Tremor City is the oldest song in my entire collection, or at least the oldest one I still play. There were an awful lot of throwaways prior to writing this one, long ago discarded. The tune arrived out of the blue, fully formed, in a half hour stretch one evening in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1971.


Tremor City, unlike most of my songs, is a complete fiction. I wish I knew what inspired it…most likely, I’d seen a news item or show about one of those towns that is situated where disasters are recurrent. You know what I mean – on a volcanic island, or in “tornado alley,” or, for that matter, anywhere in Florida. But I asked myself the question, as many have: “Why, when you know it’s gonna happen, do you keep rebuilding in the same spot?”

The only answer, I guess, is that it’s home. Maybe it’s all you have. You tell yourself that once lightening has struck, it won’t again, at least not for a long time. You ignore the obvious: another hurricane will follow the same path; the river will flood again; that fault line remains. But you have nowhere else to go.

The characters are archetypical…Jess Reilly, a carpenter by trade, lost his son in a previous earthquake when a hand-hewn beam fell on him. Jack Sladdard, maybe a miner, somehow survived the “first one” but now, when it hits again, never finds his way back to his wife Polly and their kids. And Ginny Pritchard, the pride of the town, left for the city and a successful life only to have the sheer bad luck to be visiting home when the quake struck. The final verse reminds us how the song began – “The whole town is on the wing." The devastation is complete, and the few that are left have had enough. They now “wonder why we ever stayed so long.”


One of the very best recording sessions was the evening the “chorus” met to sing this piece. Kerrie McDonald and Matt Grandy carried the high parts, Margaret Foss added alto and Rick Sheehy filled the chord on the bottom. And later, in our final recording session, Rose Hansen Widmann added what to me sounded to me like “keening”—a wailing, morning cry for the dead. She told me she had it all worked out and ready, but I had never heard her part until that day.

One last note: when you listen to this song, pay attention to the beautiful bass line, courtesy of August Sheehy. Of his many high points on the CD, it’s my very favorite.

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