Dance Me to the End of Love (Song Series #12)

Jen Hinst-White - "Dance Me to the End of Love"

me with viola; chalk drawing of olive branch + my toddler son’s feet; Rob with guitar

All in one week: The anniversary of Kristallnacht. A wave of hate crimes in the U.S., in the wake of a fraught election. And the death of Leonard Cohen, who wrote this song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

Dance Me to the End of Love

Guitar: Rob Hinst; vocals + viola: Jen Hinst-White; written by Leonard Cohen

When this one first seduced me, I thought it was just a sexy little song with gorgeous imagery. I didn’t know that Cohen wrote it in response to a particularly chilling detail of the Holocaust. He wrote:

“In the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”

It is a love song. It is an ache-and-longing song, it is an acute-beauty-and-suffering song, it is a being-human song. But it is also a fear song, a death song.

I’ve been thinking about how the persecution of the Jewish people didn’t begin with killing. It started with scapegoating and pushing people to the edges of society. Kristallnacht is infamous because it marked the start of widespread violence against Jews, and yet it was not explicitly ordered by the Nazi party. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced that

“the Führer has decided that … demonstrations [against Jewish people] should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”

Many—even the victims’ own neighbors, even “Christian” religious leaders—witnessed this escalation, from scapegoating to discrimination to isolation to violence, and did nothing.

And finally: It’s worth noting that Nazis not only sought to exterminate the Jewish people, which would have been horrific enough, but also dehumanized and slaughtered a host of other people: people with disabilities, LGBT people, authors and artists considered “subversive,” anyone perceived as a political opponent, trade union leaders, Catholic and Lutheran clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavs and Poles and Roma (Gypsies) and many more.

I love “Dance Me to the End of Love” for so many reasons. It is so specific, so human, and any good writer knows if you want to humanize your characters, if you want to avoid writing characters who are flat stereotypes, what you do is add specificity, add unique human details. Dance me to your beauty, like a burning violin. Dance me to the panic, till I’m gathered safely in. Lift me like an olive branch, be my homeward dove— 

This is a song of love and longing and cruelty and beauty, and depending on the moment I sing it, it can be more one thing than another; but lift me like an olive branch: this week I’m singing this song in prayer as much as passion.

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Let It Be (Song Series #11)

my son in our living room

my son in our living room, letting it be

So this was odd. My husband and I were idling in the pizzeria last Friday, waiting for our slices to come out of the oven, when the song changed on the radio.

And in my hour of darkness,
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

“I love this one,” I said to Rob. I hadn’t thought of it in the longest time. I added it to my mental list of songs I want to learn to play.

That was that—ate my lunch, went back to my desk. A few hours later, my phone dinged with a message from one of my best friends.

 Any chance you'd be available to sing 
"Let It Be" at a funeral on Sunday?
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La Vie en Rose (Song Series #10)

Fooling around with a song I’ve always loved. Breaking out the college French. Accompanied by cheeky guitarist Rob Hinst.



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Kansas City: Song Series #9

“How do you combine 26 different letters to change a person’s breathing?”
–Bret Anthony Johnston

This was my fave quote from the Luther College Writers Festival in Iowa last weekend, where I got to hear hearty & inspiring talks by the writer above, plus Erik Larson, Charles Baxter, and Jane Hamilton, and panels moderated by Keith Lesmeister (whose book is coming out this year! Look for it!).

The bonus to any writer’s conference is making some music with my soul-brother-the-poet Eli Burrell, who happened to be one of the presenters at Luther. We’re cooking up some new songs to play, but lately I like this one that we recorded at some AWP or another.

“Kansas City”

(vocals & guitar, Eli Burrell; vocals & viola, Jen Hinst-White; lyrics, Bob Dylan; music, Marcus Mumford)

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Song Series #8: Innisfree


A setting of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to the tune of the Irish song “Charming Lovely Ann” (from Dan Milner’s Irish Ballads and Songs of the Sea). Sung in my kitchen, where most of my singing happens.

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Song Series #7: Wild Horses

The nights are cricketful lately, savory fire in the good clean air. September, you just beg a backyard fire and making some music with my love.

I asked Rob for “Wild Horses” and he went and learned it that very day. The children slept upstairs and we sat out back and made this little recording.


By the way, here is the outtake, attempted BEFORE bedtime, which features a cameo commentary from our five-year-old.

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