Damien of Molokai . . . With Music By Tom Russell

Tom Russell’s concept album The Rose of Roscrae tells the story of an young man who flees Ireland to become an outlaw on the American frontier.  During the outlaw’s travels, he hears about Father Damien, a priest in Hawaii who works with lepers.  And he dreams of joining him.

Father Damien was a real person who was born as Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840.  As portrayed in Russell’s story, Damien was a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium.  And he did leave his native Belgium to minister to people with leprosy in what then was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Russell’s songs about Damien led me to want to know more about him. Lately, I have been reading The Life and Letters of Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers.

Father Damien became known around the world for his work even while he was still alive.  With the fame also came some criticism, often highlighting the struggles between the natives of the islands and the influence of the Europeans and Americans.

Tom Russell’s Father Damien

In Tom Russell’s songs about Father Damien, he makes reference to the criticisms.  And he also mentions that poet Robert Louis Stevenson defended Damien.  It is true that Stevenson, who visited Hawaii after Damien’s death, became an admirer of Damien’s work and wrote about him.

In “The Hands of Damien,” Russell’s protagonist JohnnyBehind-the-Deuce reacts to hearing about the work of Father Damien. The discovery that someone like Damien exists helps Johnny begin to seek his own redemption.

In another song, Johnny hits a low point and imagines seeking guidance from Father Damien.  The song is “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water).”

Tom Russell wrote about “Damien” on his Facebook page:

“We read “Damien the Leper,” in high school. Written by Mia Farrow’s father, film director John Farrow. I always thought this guy took it to the Western limit…the edge…a leper colony on Molokai. He was from Belgium. Robert Lewis Stevenson defends him. Johnny Behind the Deuce is gonna join him but never makes it . . . he returns to Ireland.”

I was a little surprised to read Russell reveal Johnny never made it to meet Father Damien. As in all song cycles, the story is a little cryptic at times.  But I had imagined that Johnny actually had gone to meet Father Damien at some point in his life.

After working with people with leprosy for sixteen years, Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, dying of the disease on April 15, 1889.

Tom Russell is not the only fan of Father Damien. India’s Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this “martyr of charity.” April 15 is now a holiday known as Father Damien Day in Hawaii.   Father Damien was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.

For more on Father Damien, the following video summarizes his life story.

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    The Epic Beauty of Tom Russell’s “The Rose of Roscrae”

    I’m a sucker for a good concept album, with albums like Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger (1975) and Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999) ranking among my favorite albums of all time. Now, I can add to that list with one of the best albums of 2015, Tom Russell‘s The Rose of Roscrae: A Ballad of the West.

    My friend Sid introduced me to Tom Russell’s music many years ago, and while I have been a fan, his new album really blew me away. Spanning 2 CDs, the ambitious project tells the story of the character of Johnny Dutton, tracing his life from his teenage years in Ireland in the 1880s — when he is chased by the father of his love the Rose of Roscrae — through his travels through the American West, where he becomes an outlaw known as “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce,” and through other parts of the world.

    Like Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger and Stuart’s The Pilgrim, Russell’s Rose of Roscrae features a broken-hearted man through troubled times as he seeks redemption, but the album also gives us the point of view of the central woman too. The title song is a haunting ballad that appears in various forms through the saga.

    Russell weaves together an interesting story, including fictional and real-life characters. Although the main character appears to be fictional (even though there was a real-life Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce who inspired a character in a Kevin Costner movie), the story interweaves with real characters, as in the case of Johnny’s redemption through an encounter with Joseph Dutton leading him to a real American Saint, Father Damien.

    The story is told with original songs interwoven with other songs you will already know, including contributions from other artists as well as older recordings. Thus, the album features the voices of Joe Ely, Dave Olney, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Lead Belly, Johnny Cash, and even the actual voice of Walt Whitman. The second CD gives us more of Rose’s view of events through the beautiful voice of Maura O’Connell.

    Of course, despite the story and the guests, the album would not work if the music did not rise to the occasion, and it certainly does, covering a broad range of styles — including country, Irish, Mexican, and cowboy songs. As in the case of many other concept albums, certain musical themes are repeated throughout the set, so they need to be strong songs that bear repeated listening. Songs like “The Rose of Roscrae,” “She Talks to God,” and “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce” carry their weight and hold up well beside classic ballads like “Red River Valley.” Another one of my favorites is “Midnight Wine.”

    I first listened to the album on a long car drive, which may be the best way to take in the expanse of the story from beginning to end. I bought it through an Amazon download the day before the trip, but there is a booklet with more about the story that comes with the CD (and unfortunately, unlike other CD’s, there was no digital version of the booklet with the digital purchase).

    In a fair and just world, Tom Russell’s The Rose of Roscrae would be played on radio stations, have high sales, and win Grammy and other music awards. For now, those of us lucky enough to discover the album will just have to thank Russell, who, freed from the pop music culture, could aim for something higher. As AllMusic notes, “This is his masterpiece.” Below is a video where Russell discusses the creation of the concept and the making of The Rose of Roscrae.

    What do you think of “The Rose of Roscrae”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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