Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Van Dyke Parks, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and Jayhawks songwriter Gary Louris along with another member of that band, Mark Olson, who Williams would later marry. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it.
Williams puts the metaphor of the century plant right up front in this song, the Agave Americana to be precise. Indeed, this plant has a reputation for flowering every century, making that event significant and of course very symbolic. Actually, no one knows when it will bloom (despite its nickname) from individual to individual, and those plants being very susceptible to climate at that. But it only happens once in its lifetime. There’s certainly some songwriting gold to mine there, then. This is especially when you apply it to people who could be described as late bloomers.
This song is a compact series of short stories about ordinary people who initiate changes in their lives during what many would consider to be their late middle-age to their sunset years. Clementine Taylor picks up painting at age fifty-four. Uncle Taylor, aged eighty-one, rides his bike across China. The tale ends with an unnamed hero, a widower who goes to back to school, joins the Peace Corps, and generally becomes in touch with his own humanity to a degree that wasn’t possible before his wife passed away. Like so many of the songs I love, there’s a whole little movie to be found here, full of characters that are hinted at and that a listener finds they really want to know more about.
With that aside, I think the appeal here is that sense of defiant optimism and hope to be found in Williams’ song. The sentiment here is against the tide of a culture that puts a sell-by date on the usefulness and purposefulness of a human life. This song says that the arbitrary life phases we’ve placed on our lives are, like so many things we come to believe as hard-coded truths, are really just constructions that we’ve all agreed are real and tangible. “Century Plant” is about shooting down that arrogance, that narrow-mindedness. It’s about revealing that our ideas about age and the passage of time where our own existence is concerned is feeble when compared to the potential of the human spirit. At the same time, it doesn’t minimize the presence and impact of hard times and pain in our lives. This is a brand of very powerful and informed positivity, not ever to be confused with any rose coloured glasses points of view that would minimize these things in order to prop itself up.
In the light of this, it’s of no wonder to me at all that Williams overcame her own hurdles, with the help of her many friends by the early-to-mid 1990s and continuing today with ongoing health challenges that still haven’t seemed to dampen her spirit or her drive to make music. She could be one of her own characters in this song, a woman who is faced with a life-changing set of circumstances that many would be consider to be an end. Rather, she made it into a beginning, with an illumined joyfulness that eclipsed any despair that so many feel in the face of life-changing illness.
Yet, ultimately, “Century Plant” is not primarily a reflection of its writer. It’s more of a spark to ignite our own thinking about how we in Western society often limit ourselves because of external forces instead of plumbing our own depths to find our strength. It’s a call to come out and play the game. It’s never too late.
Victoria Williams is an active musician and songwriter today. You can catch up to her and her more recent movements at victoriawilliams.net.