I’ve been reading Rick Rubin’s book The Creative Act: A Way of Being lately – not all at once, mind you, but sipping it slowly, like a rare old whiskey – and it’s put me in mind of this song by Bob Dylan, from 1971.
This composition has been performed and recorded by Dylan himself on multiple occasions, but the first released recording was by The Band, and their original studio recording is still the version I’m partial to.
Let’s just review the lyrics, shall we? Ideally, of course, along with the music.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble.
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
Southerner Thomas Wolfe, in his book You Can’t Go Home Again, had his main character speak these words:
You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
John Hiatt seemed to have had much the same sentiments in mind when he penned his song “Train to Birmingham.”
Several others have recorded this composition, but Hiatt’s own version seems to me to be the definitive rendition.
As the eighth track from the album Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns starts up, note how the rhythm of the drums gives you a seat on the train before Hiatt even opens his mouth.
It is – be advised – a difficult song, in that the narrator talks about shooting and killing people, and tries to justify his actions.
So before I start sharing my thoughts, perhaps it is best to issue a clarification that no one here is advocating for any kind of gun violence. Heck, I don’t even own a gun.
But it is a great song.
I consider both Joe Ely’s version and the later recording by the songwriter himself to be excellent renditions, so feel free to listen to either, or both.
And now, let’s dive into the words.
I crossed the desert in a dining car,
In the spring of ninety-one.
I met some people drinking at the bar,
They were laughing, having fun.
I told 'em that I hadn’t heard the joke
That was so hilarious.
This is a traditional Appalachian folk song believed to have originated in eastern Kentucky around the beginning of the 20th century.
The melody seems to have come from the ballad “Matty Groves,” and probably started out in England or Scotland.
If you’re a child of the sixties like me, then your introduction to the song may have come though the electrified adaptation by Quicksilver Messenger Service, but it is more typically performed in acoustic folk, country or bluegrass styles.
One of the features that draws me to this song is its elusive, shape-shifting nature. As in a dream, very specific, concrete images appear and then are replaced with others, leaving the singer/listener/dreamer free to choose the meanings they associate with these word pictures.
This elusive quality begins with the title itself, which sounds like the name or description of a place, and yet is often used in the song as if it were the name of a woman.
I’ve spent some time lately working my way through The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by Davids Graeber and Wengrow. It’s a fascinating book, and a really rewarding read, but it’s also a serious tome, clocking in at over 500 pages of text dense with facts and ideas, so it’s not something I’ve been attempting all at one go.
Anyway, as I was reading the latest chapter last night I came across this surprising observation:
There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else. Many seem to find the prospect of living their entire lives surrounded by close relatives so unpleasant that they will travel very long distances just to get away from them.
This song has been on my mind a lot lately, so I decided to research and write about it.
It’s certainly an outlier in the Neil Young songbook. It closed out Young’s first, self-titled, solo album, with a running time of close to ten minutes. This was an album my friends and I pretty much wore out in our dorm rooms, listening to it when it first came out, so I’ve been familiar with it for a long time.
A live recording of the song was released in 2008 as part of the Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 album, and I actually prefer this version. For one, it includes a couple of lines that add to the song, that were missing from the earlier studio recording; for another, Young’s vocals seem purer and less strained in the intimate coffee house setting.
This song was written by Tom Waits, and his performance of the song on his 1999 album Mule Variations is certainly worth hearing. His delivery sounds like that of a down-at-the-heels preacher delivering the holy message at a revival meeting, or perhaps on a street corner, with a Salvation Army style brass band playing in the background. He delivers his sermon with an unarguable power and authority.
My introduction to the song, however, came during the encore performance by Sarah Jarosz at the Tractor Tavern a couple of years ago. I can still remember the looks on the faces of Sarah and her band as they delivered the song to the standing, swaying crowd, seemingly amazed at the depth of feeling and the bond between performer and audience being wrought within the house that night, as all present returned again and again to the chorus with increasing emotional commitment.
This song was released on John Prine’s first, self-titled, album, when the singer-songwriter was just twenty-five years of age. Prine grew up near Chicago, and studied at that city’s Old Town School of Folk Music (a fine establishment I’ve visited several times, and one that is still delivering concerts and classes today).
Prine was working as a mailman before turning to music as a full-time career. He remembers delivering newspapers to a Baptist old peoples home where he had to go room-to-room, and there developed something of an affinity for our aging population.
These memories and observations led him to write a song called “Hello In There” for that first album. A friend liked that song so much that he suggested Prine write “another song about old people.” And that suggestion led Prine to pen “Angel from Montgomery,” pulling the song’s words and images from some deeper reservoir.
My earliest memory of this song is hearing it on the first album by The Band, Music from Big Pink, back in 1968. I understood then that this was the one song on the album that was written neither by members of The Band nor by Bob Dylan, but didn’t know much else about it at the time.
Then, a few years later, I discovered that it was one of the few songs that my father and I both knew, and could play together on our guitars. Turned out he had probably heard it as recorded by The Country Gentlemen on their 1960 album, Country Songs Old & New, or had simply heard this same group perform the song at one of their many shows at the Crossroads, outside of DC, a venue my dad was known to have frequented.
And then, I found the song included on the Rosanne Cash album The List, the title referring to a list of essential American songs as identified by her father, Johnny Cash.
But then, later, it just started to turn up everywhere.
A couple of things that happened recently got me cogitating on the idea of language as playground.
First, I had a chance to hear Anne Curzan speak. Curzan is the talented and engaging dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan (my alma mater), and is also a linguist who studies the history of the English language. Her bio states that she “aims to promote a culture based in purpose and contributing to the common good, the power of learning, the value of play [emphasis mine], and the importance of well-being.”
Well, I’m here to tell you: any time you stir together the value of play and the study of the English language in the same pitcher, you’re mixing up a cocktail that I will happily imbibe.
For a complete list of all songs discussed on the site, see the Songs Table.↑ Back to top