William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

Back in the early 1980s I read a fascinating book called Blue Highways by a writer named William Least Heat Moon. It seems this pretentiously named gent’s wife had dumped him, and he’d done the only thing a person can do under those most trying circumstances. He’d hit the road in a lovelorn state in a Ford cargo van with a name as ostentatious as his own — Ghost Dancing. Blue Highways was a lovely tribute to the small towns and byways of America, but it was also a powerful and moving study of the human spirit. And it validated with the written word what music had been telling me since I was old enough to listen.

There’s no real cure that I know of for an utterly devastated heart. It’s almost as crushing as the death of a loved one, and only time can really take the edge off its misery. But I can imagine no better treatment for the pain than an extended, unplanned and meandering road trip. And based on the music I listen to, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Over the past four or so decades there have been several tunes wrapped around this theme. I love Delaney Bramlett’s “Living On the Open Road,” … not just because Duane Allman does the guitar work on it. It’s an upbeat and compelling tribute to spiritual and physical freedom, and it retains a place of honor on my IPOD playlist. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” is a touching and poignant ballad, certainly one of the best of the genre. Janis Joplin set the bar … and she was fortunate indeed that the subject name in the song worked equally well for a male or female singer. But there are three road songs that move me more than all the others … and they will always and forever occupy a special corner of my heart.

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

There’s something about a lost love that seems to inspire beautiful music and haunting, heartfelt, and visually powerful lyrics. Such is the case with John Hartford’s gorgeous tune “Gentle On My Mind,” most popularly delivered by Glen Campbell in 1967. The lost soul speaks to the woman he loves almost apologetically, because he can’t seem to abandon his drifting existence long enough to commit …

“It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the backroads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind”

As with so many road songs, the visuals are overwhelming. The listener can almost feel the scorching sun and feel the blowing grass along the highway.

“Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman crying to her mother

‘Cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind”

And taking time the time in a trainyard (Chicago in my mind’s eye) to feel the wrenching consequences of choosing a life without strings:

“I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’

Cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile and

A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend I hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the backroads

By the rivers of my mem’ry

Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind”

Gentle On My Mind is an up tempo song, with a beat and chord progression that would logically form in the mind of a banjo player, which its creator, John Hartford, was and is. It is lovely, with the minor chords placed perfectly for full impact. It is a bittersweet tune, simultaneously a toe-tapper and tear jerker.

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

One of the Allman Brothers Band’s most popular tunes, Melissa, was written by Gregg Allman while he was still in his teens. The story in this song closely parallels the plot in Gentle On My Mind, with the wandering singer basking in the full glory of itinerant freedom.

“Freight trains … each car looks the same

And no one knows the gypsy’s name

No one hears his lonely sigh

There are no blankets where he lies”

But there is again a deep and pained regret, elegantly understated with a heartfelt wisdom and world-weary voice that one would not normally associate with a teen-aged songwriter:

“Crossroads … will you ever let him go?

Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?

Or will he lie beneath the clay?

And will his spirit float away?

But I know that he won’t stay …

Without Melissa”

Melissa is a classic tune that still rates frequent airtime on the oldies stations. This is entirely appropriate. Both music and message are timeless. My deep regret is that brother Duane didn’t live long enough to do the guitar work on the Eat a Peach album version. Melissa was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s musical creations, and I can’t help but think he would have delivered a typically beautiful and majestic backing lead on it.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years.  Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years. Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia has been sung by a number of artists, and I’ve never heard it done poorly. That’s because it’s a perfect blend of haunting melody and brooding lyrics. The standard, of course, is Brook Benton’s rendition from 1970. This ballad, which is delivered in a downpour from a rail car in an unnamed Georgia town (in my mind it’s Macon), fills the head of the listener with street scenes, raindrops and loneliness.

“Neon lights flashing

Taxi cabs and buses passing through the night

A distant moaning of a train

Seems to play a sad refrain

To the night”

In the closing verse, in lines similar to those in Gentle on My Mind, Benton’s voice breaks as he remembers his love …

“Late at night

When it’s hard to rest

I hold your picture to my chest

And I feel fine”

Of all the music discussed in this essay, this version of this song is my favorite. It is in every way impeccable. The musicianship is extraordinary, the unknown guitarist simulates the descending raindrops without interfering with the soul and emotion of this incomparable singer. And Tony Joe White has penned many extraordinary tunes, but this one must surely be his finest.

For me, these songs beautifully capture heartache, loss and the eternal conflict between love and freedom of the human spirit … and they deliver an unforgettable message from the depths of the tortured soul. And they gracefully illustrate the natural, painful and undeniable connection between the heart and the highway.

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