Thursday, January 20, 2011
Road Songs...there but for the grace of God...
Silver Fox over at Looking for Detachment has occasionally posted some favorite road songs and something about the idea struck a chord with me (no extra charge for puns). So much of work in the field involves music, whether to keep one company on a long road, or to dispel the darkness beyond camp. It sometimes seems like a primeval urge to chase away the darkness with firelight and chanting (though, since I'm not likely to be eaten by a sabertooth, I embrace the darkness and the starry cosmos too).
I often carry a guitar in the field, and offer my students a sample of songs for the road. I have to admit, they are polite, but don't often know the songs I sing. From somewhere deep in the wells of my past, I've amassed a repertoire of folk songs that are invariably sad, songs about hitting bottom, songs of lost loves, songs of betrayal, and songs of missing home. Townes Van Zandt, for instance, or Gordon Lightfoot.
Even though I'm a long ways from the field, the beauty and healing power of music was driven home for me recently. Sometimes one can't sleep, fretting about one thing or another in a way that keeps one tossing and turning all night. In the light of day, I fired up the computer, and Peter, Paul and Mary popped up with my favorite Gordon Lightfoot song, Early Morning Rain:
In the early morning rain, with a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart and my pockets full of sand
I'm a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so
In the early morning rain with no place to go
Stupid irritating problems lose their significance when we hear the storyteller tell of hitting absolute bottom...
Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go
But I'm stuck here on the ground where the cold winds blow
Well the liquor tasted good and the women were all fast
There she goes my friend, she's rolling now at last
Here the mighty engines roar, see the silver bird on high
She's away and westward bound, high above the clouds she'll fly
Where the early rain don't fall and the sun always shines
She'll be flying o'er my home in about three hours time
Silver Fox says that airplane songs are not part of the road song genre, but this poor guy is not on the airplane...
This old airport's got me down, it's no earthly use to me
Cause I'm stuck here on the ground, cold and drunk as I might be
You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
So I'd best be on my way in the early morning rain
And no resolution, either. I have Gordon Lightfoot's version, and I love it, but the soaring harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary take the song to a whole different place. Old folk songs touch on deep emotions that we spend a lot of time and effort to avoid feeling.
My other favorite road song also breaks Silver Fox's rule. There is no road, and instead there is no connection at all, just a wide sea. The Water is Wide is hundreds of years old (the old title is Waly, Waly, gin Love be bonny), and many have sung the song, including James Taylor in one nice version. For beauty of voice, I don't think I've heard a nicer version than Niamh Parson's. I listen to it constantly (I wish the video was of her playing the song, though):
The water is wide, I can-not cross o'er.
And neither have I the wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my true love and I.
A ship there is and she sails the seas.
She's laden deep, as deep can be;
But not so deep as the love I'm in
And I know not if I sink or swim.
I leaned my back up against a young oak
Thinking he were a trusty tree
but first he bended and then he broke
Thus did my love prove false to me.
O love is handsome and love is kind
and loves a jewel while it is new
but when its old love it growth cold
And fades away like the morning dew.
I suppose it's not fair to leave the poor homesick students sobbing with misery, but it's also wonderful, in a way, to understand the pain of the singer, and realize that maybe things aren't really all that bad. And if things are that bad, it's good to have company...