A Personal History of Music, Day 7: “Willow” by Joan Armatrading
This is the oldest song in my Personal History of Music, dating from Armatrading’s 1977 album Show Some Emotion, but that’s not when I encountered it. I encountered it nearly 20 years later, when it popped up on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Boys on the Side, which starred Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker. The movie was perfectly fine (see this trailer, which features “Dreams” by The Cranberries, as every movie trailer in the mid-90s was by law required to), but the soundtrack was where the action was. It has some excellent cuts in it, mostly covers, like Bonnie Raitt’s “You Got It,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Ol’ 55,” and, a personal favorite, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders doing a take on “Every Day is Like Sunday.”
It was “Willow,” an Armatrading original, that stood out, however. I had been vaguely aware of the existence of Joan Armatrading for a number of years, mostly from seeing her talked about and appreciated in guitarist circles and in singer/songwriter circles (there was some overlap there) but actual music was never something I sought out for myself. It took this soundtrack compilation, and this particular song, to make me aware what I had been missing.
What was it about “Willow” that opened my eyes? Well, it’s just beautiful, as gorgeous and plaintive a song about being willing to share love with someone who may not have been aware of how much they mean to you as has been written. It’s open but not insistent, offering but tentative, ready to be that person to someone, but it has to be that someone’s choice. As a songwriter, Armatrading gets gets the offer right; as a musician, she strengthens the argument; as a singer, she brings it home. The song is gentle but strong, like the willow it uses as a metaphor. Rarely is the intent of a song and its execution so perfectly matched.
My discovery of “Willow,” and also of Armatrading, speaks to the value of intentional curation of music, a thing that, if not becoming lost outright, is at least minimized in the age of streaming algorithms. Streaming services can very accurately offer up music along the lines of the stuff you know you already like; they’re not so good at the things you don’t know that you could like, if only you heard them at all. In 1995, there wasn’t much in my personal history of music that suggested I would find “Willow” essential to my life; I stumbled on it because someone (possibly Mitchell Leib, the music supervisor for Boys on the Side) intentionally put it where I could find it.
I’m glad they did. It’s a reminder to me, especially now, to keep an ear open in places I might not think to. Who knows what music I’m missing today, that I will love for the rest of my life.