Sunday, December 7, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Snowin' On Raton

Townes Van Zandt: Intro to Snowin' on Raton
Townes Van Zandt: Snowin' on Raton

[live, 1995]

Robert Earl Keen: Snowin' On Raton


In the intro track to a 1995 bootleg I picked up somewhere along the way, just before he refers to himself as a “lonely schizophrenic,” we hear troubled singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt says that his song Snowin' on Raton is “about” a mountain pass between Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico, “depending on whichever way you're going”. And, on the surface, the song certainly presents as a story of a man on the wrong side of Raton Pass, a national landmark which is usually the best way to get between two lush valleys in the American West, but which is famous for turning treacherous in the occasional winter snowfall.

But perceive the power of metaphor in the hands of a genius: what Townes doesn't say is that in its layered, deceptively deep lyric, and in the lugubrious tone, the tune is, ultimately, a vividly perfect portrayal of restless depression and the drive to escape it. The urge to travel becomes a mechanism for avoidance and forgetfulness; the macrocosm of snow in the pass a clear representation of the fleeting wisps of family and obligation which drag against men trying to keep moving against the wind and weather.

Van Zandt had his demons; at the time of the 1995 recording in question, he was "withered" in the late ravages of alcoholism, and the message of Raton Pass was one he knew well: stand still too long, and your demons catch up with you; though the way holds danger, better to hit the welcoming road the moment the snow lets up. But the power here is in the song as much as it is in the performance. Fellow Texan singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen proves the point by crooning the same sentiment, with perhaps a little less wistful and a little more weary; it's hard to imagine, but TvZ's original produced recording of this song had a hidden seed of hope in it, too.

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