“A stunningly beautiful autumn morning”
Bob Boilen’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series introduced me to the Drive-By Truckers song “Guns of Umpqua.” The song grabbed me right away with the warm bounce of the acoustic guitar before the “lights came up” on the band. Lead singer Patterson Hood begins painting the scene with his lyrics, capturing a beautiful fall day in Oregon.
The story soon takes a turn for the worse. Terror appears almost as casually as the bucolic and mundane personal observations that open the story. The song weaves back and forth between pleasant or commonplace images and terror, but never loses that warm, jaunty bounce.
“Guns of Umpqua” tells a story inspired by the October 1, 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Please keep in mind that Hood doesn’t attempt to tell the story. Although a newer song than our normal fare, it is a murder ballad worth exploring both on its own terms and in conversation with other songs we’ve explored. We’ve touched on songs involving similar events in posts on “I Don’t Like Mondays” and “Ohio,” for example.
Hood’s song presents a murder ballad from the perspective of a prospective victim. In this respect, it is just as much a disaster song. Unlike the songs discussed in the “I Don’t Like Mondays” post, it doesn’t connect us with the mind of the killer. Instead, we hear the jumble of thoughts of someone suddenly and unwillingly drawn into moments of terror. “Guns of Umpqua” stands out not only for its perspective, but also for the directions it doesn’t go. This restraint emerges most clearly in the context of the album on which it appears, as we will see.
Hood explains the origins of the song in the liner notes to American Band:
“On my family’s three-week cross-country drive to Portland, we spent the last evening of our journey in a sleepy college town called Roseburg, Oregon. A couple of months later, on a stunningly beautiful autumn morning, someone in that town opened fire on the campus of Umpqua Community College killing ten and injuring seven others. I was at home with my family when the news broke and I walked around all day in a daze of questioning and sadness. I wrote ‘Guns of Umpqua’ on a flight back to Atlanta a few days later. It’s fictionalization but there’s far too much truth within it.”
Although told from an insider’s perspective, the song stays with Hood’s “questioning and sadness.” Unlike so many other murder ballads, it doesn’t direct us to consider what led someone to kill. Violence lies on the other side of the door, portending a personal apocalypse. The song’s crucial thematic moment emerges from that focus. Violence erupts as a kind of obscenity or absurdity in that “stunningly beautiful autumn morning” and the narrator’s observations of “breakfasts and birthdays.” The tension between the beauty of the everyday world and the threat lying outside that classroom pervades the song. Hood implicitly invites you to consider how it’s different than the “mighty hawk swoop[ing] down upon a stream to devour its prey.” Nature and civilization have their own kinds of violence, at times seeming to erupt with equal unpredictability.
Heroes, ordinary and otherwise
The mentions of birthdays and the protagonist’s previous military service invoke the story of Chris Mintz. Mintz is a U.S. Army veteran, and was a student at Umpqua Community College on the day of the shootings. When Hood was writing the song, Mintz was still in the hospital recovering from multiple bullet wounds received when he confronted the shooter. When Hood wrote the song, some stories about Mintz described him as a combat veteran, which was not accurate. Mintz had trained extensively in a combat unit until an unfortunate sequence of medical and disciplinary issues sent him along another path. As this Stars & Stripes article explains, his training served him during the October 1 attack. His strength and fitness probably saved his life.
On October 1, Mintz responded to the sounds of shooting in an adjacent classroom first by helping his classmates escape. He then warned other students in the library to flee. Then he ran back toward the scene to assist others. He confronted the killer, and was shot three times before falling to the ground. He was shot two more times. As the shooter prepared another shot, Mintz told him that it was his son’s birthday. A bullet from a police officer, hitting the killer, was the next shot. Mintz survived.
Hood’s song stays away from that particular vivid moment, and is a fictionalization as he says. This story is not exactly Mintz’s story, but captures something about it. Our hero in the song is plainspoken: an everyman, although a veteran. Billy Joel once described Jimmy Webb’s song “Wichita Lineman” as “a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.” Hood captures that same dynamic of the ordinary and the extraordinary, within a much more dire context.
The crux of “The Guns of Umpqua” is that roar of violence outside that offers no option but to leave that everyday life, with its natural beauty and quiet, personal celebrations. The title of the song evokes the WWII movie, The Guns of Navarone, and a similar seemingly impossible confrontation with forces of death. Our hero faces a mission that doesn’t look winnable.
The killer in the episode inspiring the song “I Don’t Like Mondays” later thanked Bob Geldof for the fame the song gave her. Geldof was obviously discomfited by this. In “The Guns of Umpqua,” just as Roseburg’s sheriff refused to name the shooter, Hood also stays away from that man’s story. He doesn’t name him. The killer doesn’t even appear.
Our focus in the song stays on the potential victim, his crisis, and his imminent confrontation. Some other murder ballads we’ve heard, particularly with women protagonists, take a similar approach. With a few obvious differences, “Guns of Umpqua” reminds me of “Little Water Song” in this light. “Caleb Meyer” also adopts the potential victim’s perspective. Within the world of the song alone, without assuming it’s about Mintz, we don’t know who survives in “Guns of Umpqua.” As with “Caleb Meyer,” though, our hero must confront uninvited violence, and reckon with its eternal consequences.
My fellow blogger, Steve Jones, recently gave me a copy of American Band. Steve was about to see the Truckers play at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. Steve is our resident DBT expert. My deepest exposure to their work was through his extraordinary exploration of DBT’s heartbreaking “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” That song’s lyrics focus on the quiet, everyday beauty of family life as contrast to the horrific story they invoke. The approach in “Guns of Umpqua” bears a close resemblance.
The album afforded me the opportunity to hear “Guns of Umpqua” in a broader context. Several other songs on the album would be legitimate material for Murder Ballad Monday. “Guns of Umpqua’s” diverges, however, from the predominant musical and lyrical approach of the majority of the album. Beginning with the opening chords of “Ramon Casiano,” electric guitars bring a sonic edge and intensity. This continues through the first three numbers. “Guns of Umpqua’s” acoustic opening feels like an oasis. “Oh, here’s a lighter song.” Not so much. In a parallel to the story, events pull us away from the song we thought we were going to hear.
American Band is also very much a “message” album. Its songs are generally political in scope. Hood talks about this aspect of the album in the Tiny Desk Concert clip above. He contrasts American Band with their approach in previous work, where political undercurrents flowed beneath story songs that often involved other times and other places. Most songs on American Band have an overtly political bent. They target political controversies around tragedies, and not just the tragedies themselves. “Guns of Umpqua” presents a contrast. You may draw an inference about Hood and the DBT’s political message here. That inference might say just as much about your position as it does about theirs. The song stays out of the debates that followed the UCC shooting.
During the Tiny Desk Concert, Hood states a wish that the set’s second song, “What It Means” might become obsolete. To my mind “Guns of Umpqua” runs less risk of that happening, not because I’m unduly skeptical about politics, but because the core of the song to me involves confronting disaster. Misfortune and death invade lives in a variety of ways. The song may serve this or that listener as an illustration that serves this or that cause, but the key to the song is the wrenching disbelief that this awful thing is happening here and now, to me.
That part may be what makes the song a resource for something more than just sadness. Despite the personal sadness Hood mentions, he didn’t write an elegy for the shooting victims who died. Although he clearly mourned their losses, that’s not where his muse called from, artistically. He also didn’t invite us to empathize with that “agent of hell” on the other side of the classroom door. He offers instead that moment of confronting a personal apocalypse. “Guns of Umpqua” therefore offers a chance to consider our “noblest intentions of something more” before that moment might come for us. It also reminds us to treasure the quotidian beauty of our lives when we find it.