A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

Writing “So Far Away”

When Ta-Nehisi Coates took the stage in 2015 to discuss his breakout memoir, Between the World and Me, as part of SAL’s Literary Arts Series, local folk musician and Bushwick Book Club artist Reggie Garrett was inspired to write a song based on the book, which has been called “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today” (the New York Times).

In anticipation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sold-out return to SAL on November 5 to discuss his latest, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, we’re sharing a performance of Reggie’s song, “So Far Away,” which can be found here. Read on for a reflection on Reggie’s creative process and the meaning behind his lyrics. . .

By Reggie Garrett

Writing “So Far Away” was an interesting experience.  From time to time, there are those songs that seem to just write themselves.  It’s almost as if you didn’t write it, but something out there used you to put it into the world.  “So Far Away” was something like that, once I got the idea.

I had already written several songs for Bushwick Book Club performances when I was offered the opportunity to put something together for a joint SAL & Bushwick presentation.  I was a bit nervous – it felt like stepping up into the big leagues.  I’d already read a few pieces by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I do like the Atlantic), so I was drawn to choose him from the list of potential authors.

When I got around to reading Between the World and Me, I was blown away.  It was the first thing I’d ever read that truly felt like my own experience of being Black in America.  I’m not sure if it was his language (the particular choice of words), the tone, the specific situations he described – but something about that book nailed me.  Of course, I recommended the book to everyone I knew.

As far as the song was concerned, I considered all the violence perpetrated against Black Americans over the years.  Thinking about more recent events, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard or come across very much about this issue in music or the arts.  Granted, I don’t listen to a lot of rap or hip-hop, so I can’t say that it hadn’t been addressed – I just wasn’t aware.  I decided I should say something.

I’ve loved Latin music most of my life – the idea of a slowed down Cha Cha was the first thing that came to me (that’s what almost always comes to me first). Riffing a few chords over that rhythm was what created the mood for me.  As I played the first line of the refrain revealed itself:

“I can’t believe that you shot him down – so easily!”

I built the rest of the song around that idea.  Now, that format works well for my band, but I also wanted something I could do solo.  I’ve been wandering more into the Blues realm over the last few years.  When I sat down to do this thing a particular form of Country Blues finger-picking just fell right in place.  It also didn’t hurt that my wife said she preferred that more traditional version of the song . . .

The point of the song is that it’s relatively easy to sit back and watch a news-report on TV or read about it in the paper.  We can feel righteously indignant and still maintain a safe distance from the reality – it’s not me or someone I know.  I know that my audiences don’t really know me, but there is a connection that’s established during a performance.  As I reveal more and more of what’s inside me through my songs, the audience does come to know me, in a certain sense.  Consequently, when we reach the last verse of the song things hit a little closer to home.  It’s not some “thuggish” looking young Black man on the news; it’s not some “gang-banger” who might have deserved what he got – it’s me.  Suddenly, everyone listening to the song knows someone.  So, what would I have to have done to deserve being shot to death?

When the show is over, and we’ve all had a good time and hugged and said our goodbyes, I have to walk out that door into the real world.  That officer in the patrol car doesn’t know I’m Reggie.

It could be me next . . . so easily . . .

So Far Away

In his hand he flashed a gun
Or could it be you only thought you saw one
I can’t believe that you shot him down
So easily
Just trying to make his way back home
So far away, so far away . . .

And so now you see a threat
In her dark-skinned, teenage silhouette
Oh, I can’t believe that you slammed her down
So easily
Just trying to make her way back home
So far away, so far away . . .

     Well, nobody told me
     That my life would be this way
     I step through that door
     And I’ve got Hell and the Devil – to pay

And you don’t know just who I am
And you never really gave a damn
Still, I can’t believe that you shot me dead
So easily
So now, my song fades
So far away, so far away . . .
Just trying to make our way back home
So far away, so far away . . .

(© 2015, R.K. Garrett)

Thank you, Reggie! To learn more about Reggie’s music and find out when you can see him perform live, check out his website here.

Posted in 2017/18 SeasonCreativitySAL Presents