Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams : Drifting Too Far From The Shore

Out on the perilous deep
Where dangers silently creep

I’m gonna die today.

29 last month.

And, I’m gonna die today.

Consider this my last letter.

About 12 hours from now I’m gonna take that slow walk.

To The Chair.

To The Chair.

I been drifting too far from the shore for a long time now.

Drifting too far.

Counting down the hours sets your mind thinking all right.

Mine goes back to the beginning.

A cabin in the Piney Woods.

Listening to the radio at night with the moon and stars shining through the windows and ol’ Bill Monroe (with Mama’s harmony) singing me to sleep.

Ain’t no one sing like Bill.

Today, the Tempest rose high,
And clouds o’ershadow the sky

There’s many a guy in here who’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you they is innocent.

Not one of them telling the truth.

Well, not me.

Not me.

I’m here because I killed a man.

Shot him twice through the heart.

Caught him carrying on with my wife.

Glad I done it.

Ain’t no reprieve from The Governor coming.

Just counting down the hours.

Counting down the hours.

Eight hours now.

Eight hours.

Drifting too far from the shore.

Drifting too far.

Can’t get that song out of my head.

Come to Jesus today,
Let Him show you the way

Padre came.

Told me all about repentance and forgiveness.

Told me all about tender mercies waiting for me.

Mama would have said the same.

Jesus name was never very far from her lips.

Just tidying up she would be singing, ‘Kneel At The Cross’ or, ‘Just A Closer Walk’.

She was a true believer.

True believer.

Never did take with me.

No, when you go.

You go.

No Sun. No Moon.

No Heaven. No Hell.

Black earth and the worms.

Four hours now.

Four hours.

Still, I sure would like to hear Mama sing Drifting Too Far one more time.

No one forgets their Mama’s voice.

No One.

One more time Mama – as I drift further and further away.

Further and further away.

Sure death is hovering nigh,
You’re drifting too far from shore

Well, I had my steak and eggs.

Everybody’s lined up.

Lined up to take me away.

Minutes not hours now.

Minutes not hours.

Drifting too far from the shore.

Drifting too far.

I’m gonna stand up straight and walk with my head up.

Ain’t gonna cry or scream.

Keep my eyes open wide when they shave my legs and head.

Can’t get that song out of my head.

This time.

This last time it’s Hank Williams I hear.

He never made it to thirty too.

If there’s one man who looked over the River of Death then it has to be Hank.

He walked with Death all his life.

Walk with me now Hank.

Walk with me.

Hold my hand Hank.

Hold my hand.

Hold …

Notes:

If you want to assess the influence and reach of Drifting Too Far From The Shore consider this statement from Bob Dylan The Keeper of American Song:

Maybe when I was about ten, I started playing the guitar. I found a guitar… in the house that my father bought, actually.

I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top.

And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there–country record–a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.”

The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else …
that I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.”

Bill Monroe – the Father of Bluegrass and one of the greatest figures in 20th Century music first recorded Drifting Too Far with his brother Charlie in the 1930s.

I like to think this was the mystical version that opened up Bob’s head!

The RCA/Bluebird recordings of The Monroe Brothers are eternal treasures.

Boone Creek – featured the wonderful high tenor voice of Ricky Scaggs and the Dobro King, Jerry Douglas.

Their late 70s recordings, ‘Boone Creek’ on Rounder and, ‘One Way Track’ on Sugarhill glow with passion.

Emmylou Harris – Her luminous version of Drifting Too Far is from her, ‘Angel Band’ collection of Country Gospel songs.

Hank Williams – His version was unreleased during his lifetime. One thing I can say – you can never have too many Hank Williams records.

Ry, Ray, Bobby, Hank, 5000 Country Music Songs (And Thank You 50,000 times!)

‘I wake up in the morning and I wonder,
Why everything’s the same as it was,
I can’t understand, No I can’t understand,
How life goes on the way it does’.

(Arthur Kent/Sylvia Dee ‘The End Of The World’)

‘Life has its little ups and downs
Like ponies on a merry-go-round.
And no one plants the green grass every time’

(Charlie Rich)

There will be no end to the making of country music songs. For the blood and guts themes real country songs deal with will remain central to our human experience until the sun’s light is finally dimmed some six billion years from now.

The winning, holding onto and losing of love – along with lust and the demands and urges of loyalty and longing are the currency of a genre which speaks to the hard grind of our daily existence and the dreams that carry us through the inevitable peaks and troughs of our passage through life. No one plants the green grass every time.

The protagonist of our anchor song today, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ by Ry Cooder, believes in the power of the country song to connect with the truths of life and that one day Ray Price or Bobby Bare might just record one of his stack of returned to sender songs : ‘You’re bound to get you one just wait and see’ says the concerned rural route mailman.

Still he always had the support of the bride he married in 1963, ‘Honey I’m feelin’ something there’ and together they kept their dreams warmly alive in their old house trailer out in the countryside. In the country you can live free and as you sit in your rusty old Cadillac ideas for country songs will surely materialise just like they did to the greatest country songwriter of all – Hank Williams.

So week by week, month by month, year after year, the envelopes were mailed off to Nashvile town where country songs were sorted to separate the hit wheat from the unrecordable chaff. Despite his wife’s steadfast support he couldn’t quite work up the courage to approach the great Ray Price when he came through town. Sometimes we just can’t fill the shoes of our ambitions.

Now a song taken on by Bobby Bare would surely lead you somewhere but it seems Bobby never got to hear any of the 5000 songs – though not for want of trying. But, at home in the trailer love flourished so that his wife in a death bed scene worthy of a John Ford movie can make a last request – ‘Sing me something in your real old style, the one I like to hear Bobby Bare passed by, I’ll just close my eyes and rest a while’. And so, in the trailer in the shade of the big old tree amid the scent of the honeysuckle vine with tender harmony provided by the mockingbird he sings his heart out as her heart beats its last.

Now he wakes up in the morning to a world outside the window that looks the same but is now filtered with tears in the monochrome of grief. As the flies buzz around the rusty Cadillacs he knows that what made their home sweet home was not a building or classic cars but the love they shared throughout the years when 4999 country songs were sent back from Nashville town to gather dust. Now, it’s time to pack up those song words and the old guitar and throw away the key.

Of course, it turns out, as we hear above, that song number 5000 would be one that Ray Price would break your heart with. And, surely good old Bobby Bare, a man with a reputation for spotting songs that promise to be jukebox classics would have picked this one out of the pile and said, ‘This one’s a keeper!’

Ry Cooder gives the song a beautifully understated reading that allows all the emotion contained within the story to naturally present itself to the listener. Ry Cooder’s career has encompassed virtually every aspect of roots music, movie soundtracks and international collaborations. The connecting thread is a wonderfully sympathetic musicianship alert to and respectful of the demands of the song at hand.

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Ry Cooder records tell truthful human stories brought to life most thrillingly through his eloquent rhythm and slide guitar playing, which though capable of grandstanding, usually operates in a ruminative conversational tone which draws the audience in to savour all the song has to offer. Recently, he has added startling songwriting prowess to his instrumental virtuosity to round out an already very considerable talent.

Finally, as, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ plays on the Immortal Jukebox, somewhere in the back seat of a celestial Cadillac the shade of Hank Williams will take his hat off and join in the chorus:

‘You can take what you want after I’m gone,
It’s only just a little place that we call home, sweet home
One old house trailer, two rusty Cadillacs and 5000 country music songs.’

Thank You 50,000 times:

I am amazed and delighted that the Immortal Jukebox has now had some 50,000 views since it began at the end of March last year. A huge thank you to every reader for taking the time to visit here. I hope checking out what’s new on the Jukebox has become a good habit!

There’s many, many more treats in store so as the great Hank said, ‘If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll see you soon’.

Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow!

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Somewhere in my memory and imagination there’s always a train. Maybe it’s the evening train soothing me to sleep or perhaps it’s the night train letting loose its eerie lonesome whistle as it heads off into the darkness in search of the dawn.

Trains heading from shore to shore, north and south, east and west, over the mountains, through the valleys and the deserts, across the endless plains.

Travellers, clutching their ticket to ride, look out the window at the passing show wondering anxiously or excitedly about the welcome waiting for them at their destination.

We get on trains for all kinds of reasons. Because we got in trouble and had to roam, because we need to make a new home, a new life, in a new place where nobody knows our name.

Because we are starting a new adventure or running back to safety after a failed adventure. Because we need a hand to hold or because we are wrenching away the hands that want to hold us down and hold us back.

We wait on station platforms to wave our children away as they move inevitably, happily, heart-wrenchingly into adult life. We wave the boys away as they go off to war and stand sombrely as some of them come home again to rest in the ground; never to leave the home place again.

Trains are alive.

They scream and shout. They roar and they rumble.

They keep up a constant conversation with the world as they clank and click, click and clank, over the shining steel rails.

They echo as they rush through the tunnels pushing the very air out of their way.

Above all trains have, are, Rhythm!

As soon as you get on a train you can’t help but listen to and fall under the spell of that rhythm. It’s no wonder that songwriters and singers love to write train songs.

Trains – their rhythm, their sounds, their names and the stories that train journeys reveal about love and life and history are manna for the songwriter in every genre of popular music.

Thinking about this post I easily drew up a list of about 100,’Favourite’ train songs I thought I would like to write about (Warning! There’s a series coming). I’ve managed after much internal debate to limit myself to just four songs today. So take a stroll to the dining car, order your refreshment of choice, settle back in your seat and listen up!

First, from 1965 with fellow Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, a marvel from the gentle genius of soul – Curtis Mayfield.

Whenever I feel the night closing in and it’s starting to feel like November in my soul I find that turning to the songs of Curtis Mayfield is a sure-fire way to see the light of dawn rising and feel the promise of the month of May approaching.

Curtis’ work and vision of life was grounded in his faith. The very strong faith of a man who was both strong and gentle. A man and a musician who spoke with authority and wisdom about life and love, war and peace, justice and injustice.

Curtis was a warrior for a better world, a champion of civil rights and for people standing up proudly for their human dignity whatever their race or station in life.

He always had one eye fixed on the shore across the Jordan while keeping the other focussed on the need to build the Kingdom right here, right now. Curtis’ warrior’s weapons were melody, rhythm and folk poetry which he deployed with consummate skill.

Listen to the way his falsetto vocal and the arrangement of the sing beckon you lean in, to listen closely and to get on board. Curtis Mayfield had the very rare and extraoridinary gift of being able to speak of faith, love and justice not as pious platitudes but as living fires expressed and incarnated in his songs, his guitar playing and his vocals.

His unutterably lovely guitar style feels like the strings in Chekhov’s heaven being softly plucked to wake and warn us as we journey through life as individuals and neighbours.

He reminds us of our duties in both roles. That’s what prophets are sent to us to do.

Next, from his 1991 live album, ‘Deep Neon’ John Stewart with the compressed epic, ‘Runaway Train’.

John Stewart as a songwriter and performer with The Cumberland Three, The Kingston Trio and as a solo artist made the term Americana a living, breathing, up and walking reality long before it became a term beloved of over eager genre defining journalists.

John Stewart looms in my mind like a figure out of one of the great Westerns directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks – think of someone who’s two parts Henry Fonda and one part James Stewart with a singing voice like the wind crossing the Painted Desert and a guitar style that can summon up the runaway train of American History.

This version of a song originally recorded in 1987 has something of the lion in winer about it which makes it all the more poignant as it describes the dangers of the curves around midnight and the flashing red warnings unseen in the rain.

Stewart knows that steel rails and hard lives are always in twos and that too easily we light the fuses on our relationships without thinking about the cost for those who remain. And he does it with a hell of a guitar riff!

In the late 1960s and through the following decade in particular John Stewart created a series of mythopoetic records that speak of an America and an American people that’s filled with a continental grandeur and generosity as well as fabled characters with shoulders broad enough to carry the past while facing unafraid the challenges of the future.

Coming into the depot now from Jamaica are The Wailers with a live in the studio 1973 version of the irresistible, ‘Stop That Train I’m Leaving’.

Commonly at this time The Rolling Stones were described as the best live band in the World and there’s no doubt that they had a strong claim to that title. But, for my money the real holders of the crown were The Wailers.

In Bob Marley and Peter Tosh they had two winning songwriters who were also entrancing vocalists and deeply charismatic performers. The rhythm sections of brothers, Aston, ‘Family Man’ and Carlton, ‘Carly’ Barrett (base and drums respectively) are only rivalled in my estimation by Duck Dunn and Al Jackson from Booker T and The MGs for the ability to establish and maintain a groove that never lets go.

Earl Lindo adds the swelling colourful keyboard textures and the legendary Joe Higgs adds vocal seasonings and percussion fills in support of the band he had mentored from their boyhoods.

You can feel the heat and languor of the Jamaican sun in this recording of Peter Tosh’s song and understand how the train in question might have been a swelteringly slow ride.

Country boys would have looked up from the fields as the train went by and thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to hop aboard (if they could avoid the conductor) and see whether the delights of Kingston town were all they were promised to be in story and song.

Jamaica was and is a deeply unequal society which offers few opportunities for advancement for the poor beyond music and sport. Reggae music in particular became the vehicle whereby those seemingly born to live small found a way to get up, stand up and walk tall in the world.

Finally, I turn to the song that gives this post it’s title – the peerless Hank Williams with, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’.

Hank Williams. Hank Williams. Hank Williams.

When I think of Hank I think of a figure straight out of myth.

A figure from Homer, Virgil or Dante.

In a typically artful song Leonard Cohen speaks of Hank never answering the question of quite how lonely life does get but instead coughing all night long 100 floors above him in the Tower of Song. Cohen is deeply versed in literature and American song so I have no doubt there is no irony in his ranking of himself and Hank.

Hank Williams consistently had the power in his work to command your attention by imposing and projecting his wounded spirit and will into a song with such intensity that listening to him is almost always as troubling as it is inspiring and rewarding.

I doubt that anyone has from such seemingly slender musical resources ever had such a gigantic impact on popular music.

Listening to Hank I feel as if I am sitting with my tribe round some ancient campfire when out of the snowy mist an unknown, unknowable, wandering bard appears.

Without hesitation he offers his songs of loss and loneliness: the loss or loneliness we all know or fear. As he sings the listeners, the fire and the night are stilled until, his song sung, Hank, the eternal stranger, without adieu vanishes into the darkness he came from.

Notes: Thanks to Glen for pointing me to the best video to illustrate People Get Ready

If you are new to the Jukebox do take a few minutes to check out the archive! Especially the first post which sets out some of the aims of the blog.

I am really pleased when my readers take the time to comment – it’s enormously encouraging. Tell me what you think, send in suggestions – set the Jukebox spinning!

Those of you who have enjoyed the thematic approach of this post may well enjoy two earlier posts:

‘Swinging Summer Sisters … ‘ and ‘Guitar Instruments a Go Go !’ – Check them out!