For the hundreds of years through which our folk songs developed, farewells could well mean forever. You can hear that melancholy, that longing, the fatalism of that almost certain grief, in folk song after folk song. I’ve thought about this a lot while listening to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack over and over.
If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly the river to the one I love.
Fare thee well, my honey
Fare thee well.
For hundreds of years, long journeys meant horseback, or wagon, or ship, through wild lands or over rough seas. Relatively recently, it could mean a train. That lonesome whistle haunts many a blues.
Long journeys meant days and weeks and months of danger and uncertainty. They meant permanent change. Not just a change of landscape, climate and home, but the changes that come from traumatic parting and long separation, and falling in with strangers, and the struggles, compulsions and compromises of survival far from home and family.
You leave to find adventure or blaze a trail to a new home and you might not bargain for how your soul meets the journey and the journey bends your soul. To leave for that long and travel that far meant to never return the same person, if you could ever return at all.
If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles…
Lord I’m one, lord I’m two, lord I’m three, lord I’m four,
Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home…
Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name,
Lord I can’t go back home this a-way.
There’s a mournful song that Marcus Mumford sings in Another Day, Another Time, the concert featuring many of the players from Llewyn Davis. He’s all alone on stage. The singer has been gone from his home for years. He’s ashamed that he’s never written to his family. He gets word that his father has died and his sisters have gone wrong. But he’s afraid he can’t go home as he is. We don’t know what he’s done while he’s been gone, but we know he’s seen and done some serious things, and he’s forever changed. The man who left can never return because he no longer exists. When he said goodbye he may not have known it, but it was the Forever Farewell.
I’m going away to leave you, love
I’m going away for awhile
But I’ll return to you sometime
If I go ten thousand miles
Think about it. Really put yourself back there. No email, no cell phones. No text messages to make an instant connection, convey an everyday casual or urgent thought. No Facebook for Check-ins and Status Updates and to share the images of your journey. No Skype. Perhaps if you weren’t separated by an ocean or a frontier, you could write letters; perhaps they might even ultimately make it to their destination. But you might truly never ever see the ones you loved alive again ever on Earth.
It’s fare thee well my own true lover,
I never expect to see you again.
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad,
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.
You can see what a consoling thought it would be that one day you’d be reunited with your loved ones after death.
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger,
My face you’ll never see no more.
But there is one promise that is given,
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.
There are many themes in old folk songs, and the Forever Farewell is just one of them. But it’s certainly a frequent one. And the long journey is really our foundational American myth—from the Pilgrims in the Mayflower to the wagon trains west. Our great, grand central story is the story of the road. With the journey, with the road, comes the toll on the heart that it takes.
So you can also see how revelatory the book and the journeys depicted in On the Road were, in the mid 50s. By then we had cars fast enough and hardy enough to take us all the way out to the Western horizon and then back again, and the roads to carry us. We could zoom from the sunrise to the sunset and bounce right off of it back into the arms of the sunrise. The story was no longer about the Toll of the Heart from migration. It was the ecstasy of the journey and return, journey and return. A whole new American rhythm, fast and triumphant. You got the adventure, and yes, a journey still meant inner change. But without the same grief. Without the cost of the Forever Farewell. So it became a celebratory and revelatory journey. The foundational American road myth had its celestial catharsis.
It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
So to bring this meditation on the Forever Farewell in Folk Songs back around, think about how the 50s freedom from the Toll of the Heart that was the Forever Farewell eased into the 60s folk song revival. In the 60s, it was now safe, even cozy, to look back with a melancholy nostalgia to the costs of the journeys sung about in those songs. The middle-aged buyers of Peter, Paul & Mary and Kingston Trio records; and the young folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, all partook of that shared cultural reflection for the time that already seemed distant and receding like the train whistle a hundred miles, two hundred miles, five hundred years away.
[Songs quoted, in order: Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), Five Hundred Miles, The Storms are on the Ocean, Man of Constant Sorrow, Route 66. Image credit: Found the photo at http://derlandstreicher.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/down-by-the-railraod-tracks/.]