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The use of metaphor and imagery in modern folk song

by Sidney Beck


A discussion of the use   of  metaphor and imagery in modern folk song.   If  you want to hear the three songs ,  these sites are the best.   Without listening,   the  comments below will have less  meaning.


These three folk songs from the New World capture the atmosphere pervading younger minds  in the USA  in the last half dozen years of the late  1960s.  All were written or recorded around the late 1960s, a  time when society was dramatically changing  in the USA,  epitomised by the Woodstock festival  of music (August 1969), and the  anti Vietnam war moratorium  (November  1969), each attracting support of  a half million people. Maybe the overall feeling in the three songs  is one of America  being lost at that moment in history.

The oldest of these songs is a Canadian composition called  Early Morning Rain (EMR) published 1964/65 on an album called “Lightfoot”.   There, at an airport,  the singer is restless because he can’t jump a jet plane like freight train, and he is  ‘stuck here on the ground”.

The next oldest song is  called  Me and Bobby Magee (BMG)  which was first recorded on the  “Kris Kristofferson” album 1967.   The singer does not show restlessness,  but a deep nostalgia, and willingness to  ‘trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday’.

The  youngest of the group is called City of New Orleans (CON).  Steve Goodman  wrote  it  between 1969 and 1971 -  then in 1972  Arlo Guthrie recorded it on his “Hobo’s Lullaby”.  Rather than simple   nostalgia here,  there is feeling of being lost in a regrettably too-changed world.  The singer  is on an odyssey and is  “halfway home”.

Each  of the singers  has other  memorable songs  but such songs are not necessarily very revealing about his feelings.  Lightfoot had a major  chart success with Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald  and the song tells a true story, yet the singer has no part in the disaster and no feelings about it.   Kris  Kristofferson’s poetry in      Sunday Morning Comin Down   matches the  best of his prolific output, and the easy relaxed  tale-telling is wonderful,   but  doesn’t allow him to talk about a wider world than his one Sunday morning.  Guthrie’s   Alices Restaurant Massacree  is a legendary and very funny saga  which has become almost traditional at Thanksgiving but its raconteur style disguises Guthrie’s genuine feelings of  regret about the  passing and disappearance of  his  own culture, seen more clearly in his City  of New Orleans  (CON).  

Freedom   and  Movement are the focus of  all three songs. The different travel modes have their advantages   -  the plane is cheap and fast,   the  quaint old train is slow but filled with beauty,   the long slow car journey  is a hitch-hike,  essentially free.  There is a down side in each   trip.  Almost at the end   of the  trip of in  BMG, his  girl friend  slips away and is  “lost’ somewhere near Salinas.   In  CON  at the half-way point for “changing cars in Memphis”  there is the  Mississippi  darkness hinting that the railway is lost and going out of business.    In  EMR the plane takes off but he is stuck on the ground and  now  lost, a “long way from home” . There is no real freedom for these people.      In  BMG  there is never going to be  freedom  - stuck with a  lost love, in CON he is stuck to the  steel tracks,  and  in  EMR he bluntly confronts being  “stuck on the ground” at the airport.

Nostalgia  predominates in the story of BMG, where his old days of hitch-hiking are  gone.  We also feel nostalgia in the CON because the train seems to be  going out of business. At  the airport,  thinking of  loved ones who are long gone turns nostalgia to self-pity.    All three songs show a wish for the country’s past geography and its society of the past,  as evidenced  by the “coal mines of Kentucky”,  the “sons of Pullman porters”, and the wish to be “above the clouds” and out of the rain.  These clouds of course, symbolize sadness, as  also  do the  “Mississippi darkness”,  and the thumbing down of the diesel “just before it rained”.      

All three songs show the useless search for  the  ideal.  Achievement of the personal ideals of each song  is impossible because the  USA itself  is overall an ideal dream.   And it is a dream which is about to be shattered  at   the end of the 1960s   with two massive half-million strong demonstrations of  public unrest, namely  the Vietnam protest  (November 1969) , and the Woodstock festival  (August 1969). These demonstrations  will identify what is wrong with the ideal dream of their   homeland,  and  attempt  to recapture some of the historical thinking about the ideals  on which the USA was founded .

It is almost as if  people in the New World have lost touch with  their  true home.  It is no accident that Lightfoot in  EMR feels he is a “long way from home”.    No accident that Guthrie in  CON  is at one point only “half-way home”.  No accident in BMG that the  girl slipping away near Salinas  is “looking for the home  I hope she’ll find”.

These three songs deliver a  hard  message of complaint against the loss of ideals.  This hardness  helps explain why the lyrics contain only occasional poetic touches   like “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”,   “Goodnight America, I’m your native son”   “Where the  morning rain don’t fall and the sun always shines”.   Metaphors such as these are  not sufficient to correct the short comings of 1960s society in the New World.

The impact of the hard message was muted because each song became almost stillborn. The most widely  heard version of BMG was Joplin’s. It lacked the easy rhythm and relaxed quality  it was meant to have.   Guthrie’s clip-clop piano style of presentation  in CON distracted   the listener from the story’s pathos.  Lightfoot’s voice and Canadian accent rendered EMR difficult to follow,  and we had to wait for cover  versions in orthodox English of this  beautiful Lightfoot composition.

However, each of these songs still is  and has  always been  my favourite choice  in folk music listening.




Book: Reflection on the Important Things