Saturday, November 28, 2009

On The Road Again part one: Furry & Casey

My good friend, the webby-winning Melanie MacFarlane, told me when I first started blogging to avoid entries longer than about 500 words. This has always struck me as good advice. So I will be breaking up my magnum opus on Furry Lewis's "On the Road Again" (which is currently about 1500 words) into at least three parts. Here is the first.

Like a lot of kids, I went through a big song lyric phase in my late childhood and early teens. I remember slowly, agonizingly, trying to piece together the lyrics to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and treasuring albums that came with lyric sheets. Then, pretty suddenly in my mid-teens, I got to be a big classical music fan. When I got back into more popular forms of music, it was by way of the blues. Obsessing over blues lyrics seemed like a real waste of time—when it wasn’t downright uncomfortable. What was Sonny Boy going to do with his “shooting iron”? It didn’t sound like the sort of thing an enlightened guy with a lot of female friends should be endorsing.

Fast forward twenty years and more, and lyrics are interesting to me again, and the more primitive they are, the better I like them. A case in point is Furry Lewis’s “On the Road Again.” This particular song is mostly a rewrite of Lewis’s own longer song “Kassie Jones pts 1&2” in which “Kassie” is really “Casey” (the spelling is thought to have been changed by the record company for copyright reasons). Anyway, for “On the Road Again” swapped out a few number of “Kassie”’s more narrative verses, and replaced them with a curious series of lyric observations. The result is a lyrical oddity, like Bob Dylan’s masterful “Tangled Up in Blue,” where third person narration alternates with first. Who is the song then about? Casey and his fatal accident? Or the narrator and his own life and loves? What is the relationship between these two threads, between the “he” and the “I”?

The song opens with a throbbing guitar chord that doesn’t really move, almost like a kind of blues raga, or delta version of minimalist music.

I woke up this morning was a shower and rain

Around the curve was a passenger train

Under the bottom was a hobo John

He was a good ol’ hobo but he’s dead and gone

At the end of the fourth line, the chord shifts dramatically into a high and eerie territory, and Lewis repeats the end of the fourth lyric line.

He’s dead and gone

Then the chord shifts back to center and the fourth line is repeated, usually slightly altered.

He’s a good old hobo but he’s dead and gone.

What are we supposed to make of this verse? In most related versions of the Casey Jones story, the rainy morning, the passenger train are images associated with Jones and his crash. Instead the narrator tells us of a “good old hobo” who is dead. Whether he is a victim of Casey’s train accident or some other fate is never told.

In the next verse, we meet the infamous Alice Fry. Alice Fry was (in some versions) the Other Woman in the “Frankie and Johnnie” tale. Why is Alice here? Is she Casey’s mistress too? We don’t know. But she tells us something important about herself.

She said “I’m gonna ride with old Casey and die

I ain’t good looking, but I takes my time

I am a rambling woman; I got a rambling mind

I got a rambling mind.”

And is if to sum it up, the singer adds:

A rambling woman with a rambling mind.

[to be continued]

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