The Peripatetic Song: One Good Tune Leads to Another

As frequent visitors here know, music holds an important place in my creative life. I’m a listener. I don’t play, can’t carry a tune, but I’m fairly sure I loved songs long before I loved books, and the words of songs touched me in a such a way that I wanted to pick up a pen to face (and fill) a blank page of my own.

Today I’m inspired by the first song on the new Iron & Wine disk, Kiss Each Other Clean.

Sam Beam, AKA, Iron & Wine.

The song, “Walking Far from Home,” instantly reminded me of the imagery in the apocalyptic Dylan tune, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” I enjoy it when writers trod familiar ground, mine traditional forms, like tourists visiting the same old plots. The restrictions call on the artist to dig deeper for his reward.

Iin this case, both songwriters, Sam Beam and Bob Dylan, were working within what I’ll call the Peripatetic Structure. Or more colloquially, the Where You Been? Song. Simply: the narrator goes out walking and reports back on what he encounters. In Dylan’s case, a world that is broken, wounded, bleeding. The telling of the journey becomes more than a laundry list of observations. Because in the hands of a craftsman, the exterior reality functions as a reflection of an interior  state, and the objective and subjective meet in hallucinogenic clarity: nothing and everything are real.

Here’s Sam Beam:

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WALKING FAR FROM HOME

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small

I saw rain clouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
And I dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound

I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper “want me like time, want me like time”

I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry

I was walking far from home
And I found your face mingled in the crowd
Saw a boat full of believers
Sail off talking too loud, talking too loud

I saw sunlight on the water
Saw a bird fall like a hammer from the sky
An old woman on the speed train
She was closing her eyes, closing her eyes

I saw flowers on a hillside
And a millionaire pissing on the lawn
Saw a prisoner take a pistol
And say “join me in song, join me song”

Saw a car crash in the country
Where the prayers run like weeds along the road
I saw strangers stealing kisses
Leaving only their clothes, only their clothes

Saw a white dog chase its tail
And a pair of hearts carved into a stone
I saw kindness and an angel
Crying take me back home, take me back home

Saw a highway, saw an ocean
I saw widows in the temple to the Lord
Naked dancers in the city
How they spoke for us all, spoke for us all

I saw loaded linen tables
And a motherless colt then it was gone
I saw hungry brothers waiting
With the radio on, radio on

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord

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Written and recorded in 1962, Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” borrows it’s Q & A structure from the traditional English ballad, “Lord Randall.” The answer to the question — where have you been? — reveals that the son has been out walking, witness to a wasted, wounded world.

A HARD RAIN’S A-GONNA FALL

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son ?
And where have you been my darling young one ?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son ?
And what did you see, my darling young one ?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son ?
And what did you hear, my darling young one ?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Oh, who did you meet my blue-eyed son ?
Who did you meet, my darling young one ?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son ?
And what’ll you do now my darling young one ?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

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The structure of “Lord Randall” leads me to listen to another legendary Q & A song, one that begins with a similar, direct question: Where you been? This American folk song, titled here “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” is sometimes known as “In the Pines” or “Black Girl.” For many years, and certainly within the American folk tradition, the song was most powerfully associated with Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter).

In 1993 that changed for me, and for many others, when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana sung it on MTV Unplugged. On that day, with his thrilling, unforgettable performance of that song, Cobain absolutely owned it.

WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT?

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

My girl, my girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

Her husband was a hard working man
Just about a mile from here
His head was found in a driving wheel
But his body never was found

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

My girl, my girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

My girl, my girl, where will you go?
I’m going where the cold wind blows

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through

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Here’s Huddie, singing his version of “Black Girl.”

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