THREE FOLK SONGS TELLING SECRET TALES FROM THE SIXTIES
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.