I was born in the late ‘50s, at which point the Depression was still fresh enough in the popular imagination that many of its tropes were fairly widespread. (I should say here that this post is not about the stock market or economic collapse. It’s about pop music.) Among them was the hobo — the man who rambled from town to town, riding the rails, carrying his belongings in a bandanna on a stick. While they were seen as down on their luck, often drunk, just as often they were portrayed as free spirits that society never got its claws into. Every big city had SRO flophouses. No one ever talked about untreated mental illness or the need for more housing or support services. All of which is the long way around to notice that every so often a song will pop up in an oldies mix to remind me of how hard this archetype was sold, especially with regards to women.
I was driving home the other day when Spotify burped up “Gentle on My Mind,” Glen Campbell’s show-closing signature song. It’s a song about a woman who is fondly remembered by one of these footloose souls, and it had been a while since I listened to the lyrics:
It’s knowin’ that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me want to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch…
You’ve heard it. And just in case you think it’s about a long-haul trucker or something, the final verse makes reference to dipping a cup of soup from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard, which sounds pretty hobo-trope to me.
Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” introduced us to another romantic bum:
Find me a place in a boxcar
So I take my guitar to pass some time
Late at night, it’s hard to rest
I hold your picture to my chest, and I feel fine
But that’s not all. A decade later came the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” When it’s time for leavin’, he hopes you’ll understand that he was born a ramblin’ man.
Carol Leifer used to do a funny routine about Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” something about girl, you need to find a better class of boyfriend. This was in the ‘80s, which shows that finally, finally women were starting to respond to this preposterous romantic archetype.
At least Brandy, that fine girl (what a good wife she would be) had the sense to love a seaman. At least the Merchant Marine is a job.
Times change. Women wake up and smell the coffee in their own kitchens, not the pot bubbling on the fire down in the train yard. They ask themselves, why is my door always open and my path free to walk to this goddamn bum? It reminds me of Rob’s opening monologue in “High Fidelity:”
What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
Not long after I discovered Glen Campbell on Spotify, I sent Kate a link to “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” a song released when I was 10. Even at 10 I knew it was bullshit.
Sometimes I think too much.
I’m writing this at 6 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. Conventional wisdom says Joe has Michigan in the bag, but conventional wisdom about Michigan is often wrong. We shall see who Mr. Right really is.
In the meantime, enjoy midweek.