Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Americana: Gentle on My Mind

John Hartford was born in New York City. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise after watching that video. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, though, and says his musical tastes where formed by listening to Earl Scruggs.

Through a series of connections that I won't bother making that brings up the thorny issue of origins. There is a whole lot that might be said but I think the important thing is this: neither Earl Scruggs nor John Hartford were folk musicians although both are folky.

For the record, I think folk is all fakesong. There is no such thing. Fake or not, tough, there are people who think they are folk. Not Hartford; there is something, well, something what? It's not authenticity. Everything about that performance is scripted, including the folksiness. It starts with the dialogue, as if they hadn't decided what song to do next.

Hartford wrote "Gentle on my mind" after seeing Dr. Zhivago. He said it wasn't anything particular about the movie. It just gave him a feeling and he wrote the song. He was asked about the song over and over again for the rest of his life and, God bless him, was always gracious about answering questions he must have heard a hundred times before. In one of those turns he said the movie gave him a "lonesome, traveling feeling".

That was a rather convenient thing for a man about to write a bluegrass song to have for lonesome feelings is something bluegrass is rather good at.

But there is something new too. Something you can hear in these lines,
And it's knowing I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
Whoever she  was, she gave him sex without marriage. Not just once but lots of it. But he's long gone now. And no matter how bluegrass "Gentle on my mind" is, Bill Monroe wouldn't have sung that.

The important thing about the song is that it's not a song about the woman. It's a male fantasy. Not a sex fantasy, although there is sex in it. There are a lot of songs like that. The thing that tells you it's fantasy is the line about the sleeping bag stashed behind your couch. What, she doesn't have a bed?

Funny thing about it, and my last thought for today, is that the song works better when women sing it. There is an interesting challenge when a woman sings a song written for a man or vice versa. The challenge is how much do you reverse? Consider these four lines:
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman's cryin' to her mother
'Cause she turned and I was gone
The obvious thing to do is to change the last two lines to,
And some other man is cryin' to his mother
'Cause he turned and I was gone 
Krauss doesn't do that even though she fully assumes the narrator's role in the song. The temptation is to say it's morally more acceptable because it's no longer some guy bragging about all the women he's had along the road but I don't think that works. It's something else. The song is still a male fantasy that Krauss validates by assuring us she remembers us fondly even though ... . The important thing about the song is that it's about an experience, an American experience. And that is where Americana starts.

No comments:

Post a Comment