Let Me Go By Lightning
A letter for Pentecost
May 30th is my birthday and I’m celebrating by writing the detailed backstory of one of my favorite songs from one of my three lockdown albums, I Fell Into the Fire. The song is “Let Me Go By Lightning” and I wrote it for my Dad on the fifth anniversary of his death. I really miss my Dad on my birthday, so writing about this song helps bring him into the present.
Every Sunday, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a worship service and it’s one of my great pleasures every week to listen to the service and think about the message. Doing this reminds me of all of the family conversations we had in the car after going to the First Presbyterian Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, where Dad was the assistant minister. We’d stop in the Jewish neighborhood to get bagels on our way home and we’d all have a good talk about the hymns and prayers or what my sister and I learned in Sunday School.
Today, Sunday worship came from a farm in Wales run by the Methodist Church which helps children who struggle with their mental health. The service began with one of my Dad’s favorite tunes the Irish tune Slanewhich the choir sang to Jan Struther’s (Mrs. Miniver) lyrics for “Lord Of All Hopefulness.” Our whole family loves that tune and especially the “Be Thou My Vision” lyrics for it. Whenever I hear this tune, I feel like Dad is telling me to sit down and write something. So, I thought I would write about a song of mine which Dad inspired. You can hear it here.
The lyrics are:
Let Me Go By Lightning for Greg Hankins, 24 July 2021 When the lightning struck, Charlie slept inside you. The lightning rocked him, but he never woke up. The lightning jumped ‘cross the pan of potatoes. You held it in your lap and raised it with your son. And the lightning walked in the fields beside him. It hoed the corn. It drove the plow. The lightning talked with Charlie like a brother. When he died the lightning took him home. And I am thirsty for electro-static. I am dialing God’s telephone. When I fly on up to Heaven, let me go by lightning. Ride that lightning bolt. When the lightning struck, you were in mid-sentence in your Red Sox cap telling an old joke. When the lightning jumped into your spirit, it brought an urgent message. God was calling you home. When the lightning spoke, it was meant to be, child. It came for you and it came for me. Now that lightning bolt’s working in my soul; won’t let me go ’til it carries me home. Jeni Hankins – Vocals and Guitar Alfred John Hickling – Vocals and Mandolin
My song begins, “When the lightning struck/Charlie slept inside you.” Charlie was the son of my Aunt Erma and Uncle Frazier Smith. Frazier was the brother of my great-grandfather Avery Smith, and you can see Frazier, Erma, Charlie (on the far right) and his brothers Tince and Curtis in this photo from the newspaper which I included in the package for the Jeni & Billy record Heart of the Mountain.
When Aunt Erma was pregnant with Charlie, she was sitting by the stove at the kitchen window, peeling potatoes into a metal pan. A storm came, lightning passed through the window, touched the stove, and jumped into the pan of potatoes in her lap. Erma was severely burned and had to go to a hospital where m-a-g-g-o-t-ses (this is how my Aunt Edith said it, she spelled the word rather than saying it) ate away the burnt flesh from her body. All this time, Charlie slept inside her. When he was born, there were no signs that he’d been struck by lightning. But later in life, he was struck by lightning while plowing a field. I like to imagine that the lightning had been with him all along, so I wrote a poem about Charlie and lightning in that same newspaper.
The circumstances of Charlie’s life and his relationship to lightning gave me the idea of lightning being a companion, like the Holy Spirit, throughout Charlie’s life. When he died, I imagined that the lightning, his companion, took him to Heaven.
Now, for the chorus. “I am thirsty for electro-static” is another way of expressing the Pentecostal Holiness idea of being “ready to receive the spirit.” This is a state of being that people expressed in words or in movements in our wilderness church on Smith Ridge, The Friendly Chapel Church. This church is in Buchanan County (on the border with Tazewell County), Southwest Virginia. When I would spend the summers with my grandmother Mawmaw Shreve and my great-grandmother Mawmaw Smith, we would all go to church on Sundays. Sometimes, I found their way of worshipping with speaking in tongues and laying on of hands overwhelming, but in time and with the benefit of a college class on mysticism, I came to understand their manifestations of the spirit as something rare and elemental to their faith. So, I am honoring the Pentecostal Holiness form of worship in the first line of my chorus. (I should say here that The Friendly Chapel Church is an independent church and doesn’t necessarily belong to a particular denomination except loosely Baptist, but based on my studies, I feel many of the sermons and practices I have witnessed there over my lifetime resonate with the Holiness denomination.)
The second line of my chorus says, “I am dialing God’s telephone.” This is my first reference in the song to my Dad. Dad and I LOVED talking about and listening to the songs of the Carter Family. In fact, if I could go back in time, I would listen to a lot more music with my Dad instead of being so busy being on tour playing my own music (even though I know he was very proud of my touring). One of our very favorite Carter Family songs was called “No Telephone in Heaven.” A child goes to the general store to ask “the merchant” if he or she can use the telephone to call his mother who has died and gone and gone to Heaven. And when the merchant says that there’s no telephone in Heaven, the baby replies that she/he thought “God had everything in with him up in the sky.” I say he or she because there are a couple of recorded versions of this song and in the version sung by Sara and Maybelle the child is a girl. In the version sung by A.P. Carter, the child is a boy.
In my song, there is a telephone you can dial – God’s telephone – and by using it, you can talk with people in Heaven. One of the things I miss most about my Dad is being able to talk with him on the phone nearly every day. I sing about this in my song “Hey, Dad.” My telephone line also refers to another one of my songs, “Mawmaw Margie in Heaven” where I call her in Heaven using a banana phone and we talk about Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jim Reeves. Mawmaw Margie used to have a plastic bowl of fruit on her kitchen table or buffet and sometimes she’d pretend she was getting a call on it from Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. We’re kind of a wacky bunch.
I end the chorus with my own wish to go to Heaven by lighting bolt.
In the second verse, I speak about my Dad. Dad was sick for a very long time with bone marrow failure which presented as myelodysplastic syndrome which eventually became acute myeloid leukemia. Despite his many hospital stays and drug trials at the National Institutes of Health, Dad maintained as much of his humor and wit and passions as he could. He dealt with brain fog which was incredibly distressing to him and all of us because Dad was such a brain. And some days, he was just too tired to do anything but sleep. But at the sharp moment of his death which seemed very sudden (because he had been improving and was meant to have a bone marrow transplant), it was as though lightning struck. When the EMS came to get him to take him to the hospital because he became very sick so suddenly, he was still trying to cheer them up in his jovial and gregarious way. He had on his Red Sox cap because he never left the house without it. And then his body turned off the light. And we lost our dear Dad.
In my song, I say that the lightning brought him an urgent message that God was calling him home. I actually saw the words “urgent message” written on an envelope which the Englishman had given to me so that I could have the Charles Dickens stamp on it. I must have needed to see those words at the moment I was writing this song because they fit right into my verse. The actual handwriting made its way into the album artwork for my other lockdown album A Body is a Delicate House.
Being “called home” is a strong idea with my Southwest Virginia family. This is how we have always spoken about life after death and about Heaven. Alice Gerrard has a wonderful song about this. One of Dad’s favorite Carter Family songs was “Grave on a Green Hillside” where the graves serve a portals to another land where:
“These little graves are but wayside marks that point to a far off land.
and they speak to the soul of a better day of a day that’s near at hand.
Though we first must walk through the chartless fields, yet Christ will be our guide.
We will reach the shore of a far off land through a grave on a green hillside.”
This “distant land” is a home in Heaven. So, in my song the urgent message Dad receives is from that far off land – Home.
In the final verse, I foretell my own death by lightning. In this case, lightning is my guide to the afterlife, but it also “speaks” to me in life through my experiences in church, through reading my Bible, through my wonder in my experience of our Earth, through my love for other people, and in my songwriting – that’s the lightning “working in my soul.”
Lately, I’ve been reading about the mystic and painter Hilma af Klint and the ways that imagery she saw as a child in her church in Sweden emerged in her paintings as an adult. I got tingles when I read that because I understand how these things which are fairly subliminal or environmental from our childhoods can have an intense influence on how we see and interpret the world as adults. And these things can show up in our art.
I’m reminded of another lyric I wrote for “Picnic in the Sky:”
I pulled up the milkweed, hid ‘neath the willow tree from the church bells and the mystery ‘cause I did not understand Christ Jesus’ Victory and how he loved me – the tears and the tongues, the power in the blood.
Many years later, I now feel it was a privilege to go to the Friendly Chapel Church and witness their charismatic worship. Even though my childhood self found it to be very much a mystery. I also think how today is Pentecost and how the second chapter of Acts also reminds me of how I felt as a child sitting in church:
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
The “fire” in Acts becomes the lightning in my song.
It’s been great fun for me to write this letter and to share with you the myriad sources for “Let Me Go By Lightning.” When I write a song so many thoughts from the past and present, images, scraps of paper, and chance ideas come together into my short poem set to music. Thank you always for reading and making this journey with me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this!
Many smiles always from me!
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