Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Highwayman: With more songs like this, I might be a country fan

I was a highwayman

Along the coach roads I did ride

With sword and pistol by my side

Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade

Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade

The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five

But I am still alive.


As is well-known by anyone who reads this blog, I'm a heavy metal fan--and I always will be. But I do take forays into other genres of music from time to time. Country typically is not one of them.

I like country in principle, but very often not in execution. I enjoy its trappings: the old west, cowboys, guns, horses, are all cool. But I find the music a)Too similar sounding; and b) Too much concerned with the here and now of lost loves, lost jobs, lost youth, etc. There's too much pining and whining in its lyrics and not enough heroic adventure or imagination. I wish there was more Louis L'Amour and Unforgiven in country music and less Dixie Chicks and George Jones.

But I can't say enough good things about the song Highwayman by the supergroup of the same name (The Highwaymen, which consisted of legends Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash). If more country sounded like and had the lyrics of Highwayman I'd be a raging fan.

The bad-ass lyrics of Highwayman could have been stripped from the pages of a Jack London novel or Robert E. Howard story, or perhaps more accurately a few of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories. The song crosses time and history, telling the story of the soul of a wandering spirit who at various times in his life is a coach-robbing highwayman, a sailor on a schooner, a high-risk dam builder, and eventually a starship pilot. The spirit of the rugged individualist and salt of the earth laborer is in each man, reincarnated again and again through history when he dies. You can almost believe in an afterlife when you hear this song.

There's an excellent live version of Highwayman here on Youtube. Check it out and let me know what you think. As much as I like Cash, Jennings steals the performance with his one of a kind pipes.


noisms said...

The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote Galveston, Wichita Lineman, and many other classic country/pop songs.

His version of Highwayman, just him solo on piano, is definitive - you might be able to find it on youtube.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Noisms. I only recently discovered via Wikipedia what you've written here: That the song was Webb's, and covered by The Highwaymen. I'll take a look around youtube to see if I can find his version.

I didn't have you pegged as a country guy.

David J. West said...

Highwayman is my favorite counrty song as well.
I espacially like the line you quoted above
-Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade-

That and I just watched a special on PBS about Glen Canyon dam and how 17 men died in the construction, I forget how many died building Hoover. As I watched Waylon's part came to me, it is absolutely ingrained within me whenever I hear the words highwayman, yardarm, steel and water did collide, and starship.

Funny side note, despite how many men died building Hoover, falling into the concrete was not one of the options, it was only ever done at about the depth of one foot at a time. Still great imagery though.

noisms said...

I'm not a country fan by any means, but my Dad is. So I know a few bits and pieces. Jimmy Webb really stands out - although to be honest when he performs his songs they're a bit more jazzy than they are country.

I have an album of his where it's just him and his piano - I have a feeling it's called "Ten Easy Pieces" or something similar. It's well worth tracking down. If you like Highwayman you're also sure to like his version of Galveston.

"Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying, before I dry the tears she's crying." Great stuff.

Brian Murphy said...

David: Glad to hear that there are more fans of this song.

Is that really how dams are constructed? I thought I remembered hearing stories about unfortunate workers falling in to the wet concrete years ago and becoming a permanent part of these structures.

Noisms: I found and listened to the Webb clip on Youtube ... considerably different than the version by The Highwaymen. I prefer the latter, though that takes nothing away from Webb's songwriting ability.

David J. West said...

Its urban myth that anybody fell into deep concrete and died. When they pour the mud its onto wide rebar enforced sections and never very deep-you would have to struggle and lay down flat to be covered. I think most men that died actually fell from scaffolding and or had stuff from scaffolding fall on them.

I think the myth began at places like Hoover because the old hands would turn the rubber boots upside down in the fresh mud as the newbies were coming on for alternating shifts and tell them somebody fell in and was buried in the fast drying cement.

In the Utah, Arizona, Nevada dams it was so hot they had to mix the concrete with ice and not water.

Still I am not trying to detract for an awesome song that I have had similar REH rememberances when I hear it.

Mike in MN said...

Highwayman is a great tune. Although Metal will forever be the music most associated with fantasy (and rightly so), there is good reason to connect country music to it, as well. As with most genres of music, there's a lot of commercialism and "pop" material in country that has music's nutritional equivalent of sweet tarts, but there are some patron saints and living legends of country music (Jennings, Nelson, Cash and Kristofferson are but a few) whose catalogs contain dark fantasy (consider Cash's recording of "Ghost Riders in the Sky"). However, one of the elements of country that has really begun to stick out to me is what is discussed elsewhere as the Anglo-Saxon sense of loss. The Arthurian mythos and Tolkien's works come out of this tradition. Country music (when it hits the mark) deals with issues of good things lost that can never be replaced, and although I'm not saying Tolkien ever listened to Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," there are definite parallels. There is a tradition in country that mourns the loss of what once was, but never more will be.

E.G.Palmer said...

Johnny Cash did some awesome covers of popular rock before he died. Most of them sound far more genuine sung by him than they ever did when performed by the original artists. He covered rusty cage, personal Jesus, the mercy seat, and others. The albums were called American, and numbered.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Mike and E.G., thanks for weighing in.

Mike, I think you've got something there with your observation on "things lost" and its connection to country.

trollsmyth said...

You might also enjoy Willie's "Redheaded Stranger" (the song, can't speak for the whole album).

- The Other Brian Murphy

Barad the Gnome said...

Though not a country fan, a good story told in words and music still transcends the music genre. The highwaymen are fine examples of those able to be larger than the genre. Agreed this is a good tune, a fine one to be covered by our house band. Brian, what part are you taking? I'll do the bass or guitar. :)

Howie EP said...

Highwayman is easily the deepest song I have ever heard. You know all these writers like Goethe, Schiller,Shakespeare you name them. Everyone of them addressing the people with love issues, dramatic plots and stuff like that. Highwayman is way better poetry than all of them. It addresses everything. It describes the existence of everything like no one did before as far as I know. Part 1-3 are all about describing things on earth, different characters and people who in the end are all the same. Looking at it as a fatheful person, believer, thinking about a soul or even god, I would say it totally clear. God is one soul that is the soul of everyone at the same time. Looking at it from. a philosophical/scientific point of view I would be able to say, this song describes how the earth and everything we now is nothing in the universe,not even some dust.

The last part comes up with a contrast that is completely insane.
The Soul is a Starship pilot now (future aspect gives a never ending touch to it). But that is not the point. It crosses the universe.
"I fly a starship, across the universe divide. And when I reach the other side..."
It simply reaches the end of the universe, the universe is endless. The probably biggest question of humanity in one sentence like it was nothing. And not even that is the point of the sentence. The soul flies across the universe to chill out somewhere "I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can" It is amazing already because the Soul is just looking for place to relax, at the end of the universe, not possible for us stubborn and stupid humans to think about that correctly. The writer plays around with that question, without paying any attention to its complexity and that it isn't even solved yet. And than he comes up with perhaps I may become a highwayman again. Or a single drop of rain. So he puts the universe and its irrelevance in contrast with one single drop of rain. Here you go, people like to compare the earth with a mote in contrast to the universe and he puts the universe as a drop of rain in contrast to the existence of everything itself.

When astronauts talk about what they think about earth, looking at it from the iss or stg, they say, humans and there problems are completely not significant. This song addresses this on another level. The best poem /song ever made.