Lucinda Williams says that during a recent visit her father, acclaimed poet Miller Williams, calmly told her that Alzheimer’s disease had robbed him of his ability to write poetry.
Her 84-year-old father’s increased frailty lent new urgency to Williams’ effort to pay tribute to him. For the first time, she has put one of his poems to music, singing “Compassion” as the lead cut on her new album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. The album title is a phrase from the poem.
She was stunned when her father said that the part of his brain that enabled him to write poetry was no longer working properly.
“I started crying when he told me that,” she said. “I just bawled like a baby. I couldn’t believe it. This was my dad, the poet. It was like someone saying that he couldn’t see anymore. It was part of him that was just gone. It’s like a part of him died. That’s why this is so important to me.”
The poem she chose to set to music is from Miller Williams’ 1999 book, Some Jazz a While — Collected Poems. Miller Williams, who worked most of his career in Arkansas and Louisiana, has been described as “the Hank Williams of American Poetry.”
One of the reasons she hadn’t recorded one of her father’s poems before was because of the difficulty — the structure of his poetry doesn’t fit naturally to music and she had to do some rewriting to make it work.
Williams recorded a version of “Compassion” with acoustic guitar but is thinking of taking another stab at it with more instrumentation. At a festival in Arkansas, her dad read the poem, then she performed the song as her husband caught it all on film.