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“Amberlit Morning” by Joan Shelley and Bill Callahan: The Fleeting Beauty of Childhood, and What Comes After

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In Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day,” humans have colonized the planet Venus, which (in the story, if not real life) is blanketed in constant rainstorms. The sun only comes out for one hour of one day, every seven years. A classroom full of Venusian schoolchildren eagerly anticipate this short summer, especially little Margot, a recent arrival from Earth who’s the only child that remembers sunshine. The other children, jealous and spiteful, push her into a closet before the arrival of summer distracts them. They play and laugh and explore outside, as kids in Ray Bradbury stories do, before a single raindrop signals the return of the storm. They run back inside as the sun disappears – and then they remember poor summer-loving Margot, still locked up in that closet.

It’s a heavy, heartbreaking ending, and in the wrong hands it might have felt emotionally manipulative. But Bradbury was too careful a writer for that, and “All Summer in a Day” is about more than just childish cruelty. The sun, you’ll note, comes out not every hundred years, not every thousand years, but every seven years – a long time to wait, but not that long. Unless something happens to Margot in the meantime, she will almost certainly be able to see the sun again. Maybe she’ll even move back to Earth when she’s old enough, where she can enjoy sunshine whenever she’d like. But she can never experience it again as a child: the sun won’t shine as bright, the grass won’t be as green, and the breeze won’t smell as sweet.

“Amberlit Morning,” Joan Shelley’s new collaboration with Bill Callahan, recognizes the beauty in how a child sees the world, and the tragedy in how hard it is to take that vision with us. A beautiful, delicate acoustic guitar melody gently pinwheels through the song, sounding like a lullaby bathed in moonlight. Shelley’s voice, warm and generous, sings a pastoral dream: “in the amberlit morning/the sweet smell of clover/coming into the window/as spring starts to show.” The rest of the lyrics contain similar storybook imagery: tracking footprints in the snow, dreaming of fruit, seeing a boy chopping wood across the brook. Shelley said that she intended to write a “mythical bedtime story,” and she clearly succeeded.

If it all sounds cloying, it isn’t; much like the best Ray Bradbury stories, “Amberlit Morning” captures the joy of childhood without being precious or condescending. There’s a bittersweet quality to this song, a sense that it’s being sung by someone who lived in the bucolic world it describes but can’t go back again. But it never feels mournful or self-pitying, either: wherever Shelley and Callahan are singing from, they’re at peace, and they want to bring you peace as well. In the song’s most beautiful moment, Shelley’s warm voice and Callahan’s oaken baritone harmonize as they sing three simple words: “don’t you cry.” They sound like the sun and the moon.

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