Saturday, February 4, 2012

Getting There: Stickshifts and Safety Belts

Cake: Stickshifts and Safetybelts


Rather than describe a mode of transportation or a destination, this 1996 song from Cake’s Fashion Nugget highlights the narrator’s frustration with the “stickshifts and safetybelts [and] bucket seats” that prevent proximity and therefore physical affection in vehicles. There’s no layered meaning to be found in these lyrics—no stacked symbolism or clever extended metaphor—as will be found in most Cake songs. Instead, this is a straightforward plea: “I need you here with me, not way over in a bucket seat.”

Seeing how this week’s theme title immediately reminded me of a conversation from the era-endearing film Dazed and Confused that ends with the snarky quip, “Son, you wouldn’t know what to do with it even if you had gotten there,” I found this song particularly fitting. “Stickshifts and Safetybelts” seems very much like it could be a song sung from the mouths of many of the characters in Dazed and Confused as they run the gamut of teenage sexual frustrations.

Guest post by Andrew

Getting There: A Perfect Night For Flying Carpets

Kevin Braheny & Tim Clark: A Perfect Night for Flying Carpets


We haven't posted much ambient music on SMM. Maybe all we need is this one and you can easily extrapolate, heh. It's from a collection from the syndicated radio show Music From the Hearts of Space, created way back in 1973 and that features "space" music. The show's format segues the songs one into the other (often making it sound like one long song), bookended by the calm and ethereal voice of host Stephen Hill, who sounds so serene that he should be the guy who gives people any bad news. I used to catch the show in my car, waiting to pick up my daughter from youth group on Sunday evenings. Given that she's a pretty social creature and prone to post-group chatting, I'd wait through a long bit of what I'd call "Music for Old Farts In Space." Chill out, peeps!

Getting There: M.T.A.

The Kingston Trio: M.T.A


If you are a city-slicker like myself then you rely public transportation to get you to where you need to be. In large cities you really depend on a reliable and affordable subway system. In the large cities where I have lived (Chicago, Toronto, Boston) financing of the subway system is always a highly contentious political issue. It was this very issue that lead to the penning of the song "M.T.A." in 1949.

In 1949 Walter O'Brien was running for the mayor of Boston as a Progressive Party candidate. One of O'Brien's major campaign platforms was to lower the cost of the subway fare. He did not have the money to make radio advertisements, so he hired local folk singers to write and sing songs promoting his candidacy. Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes (sister of Alan Lomax) wrote "M.T.A." based on the 1865 Henry Clay folk song "The Ship that Never Returned." (Listen to The Corsairs version of The Ship the Never Returned.)

The song is about a man named Charlie who boards the train at Kendall (in Cambridge near the MIT campus) to go to Jamaica Plain (west Boston). However, he can't get off of the train because he lacks a nickle to pay the exit fare, which has just been added. Thus Charlie is doomed to ride the train in perpetuity. His wife even brings him a sandwich everyday, by handing it through the window, although, for some reason, she can't hand him a nickle. Here's a fascinating article from the Boston Globe that goes more into the details of this politically charged song, including a performance of "Charlie on the M.T.A." using the original lyrics.

Many years later The Kingston Trio heard "M.T.A." being performed by Will Holt in a San Francisco club. They pulled the politics out of the song, and had a cute, catchy pop hit on their hands, which peaked at #15 on the singles charts in 1959.

"M.T.A." is so ingrained in Boston folklore that the transit passes are known as "Charlie Cards" in honor of the man who never returned. I photographed my Charlie Card (above) as an example. At the Park Street station, where Charlie would have transferred from the Red Line from Kendall to the Green Line to get to Jamaica Plain, there is a display on the history of the song. The song is also notable in that it references parts of Boston that no long exist. Scollay Square, where Charlie's wife met him to give him a sandwich, was razed in the mid-60s and renamed Government Center.

Poor old Walter O'Brien did not get elected mayor of Boston in 1949. He only garnered one percent of the vote. In the early 1950s he was run out of Boston, accused of being a communist. He retired to Maine where he became a librarian and ran a bookstore.

Getting There: 2-4-6-8 Motorway

Tom Robinson Band: 2-4-6-8 Motorway

This song came up on my iPod the other day, and I realized that it fit the theme, so I decided to do a quick post. I suspect that one of the themes that will develop as I post more will be “Songs I First Heard at WPRB.” This is one of them. I fell in love with this song, and the Tom Robinson Band, the first time I heard them. Angry, but still tuneful English punk music. Power In The Darkness from 1978 was a musical blast that set me back on my heels. With song titles like “Up Against the Wall,” “Ain’t Gonna Take It,” and “Better Decide Which Side You're On," it was easy to tell that Robinson was calling for a revolution against the status quo, and the liner notes for the album included information about Rock Against Racism. And the music was great.

However, the two most well-known TRB songs were the first two singles (both included as bonus tracks on the "Power In The Darkness" album we had at the station), “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” a catchy tune that seemed to just be about a truck driver, with its sing along chorus that reminded me of the kind of thing that youth sports teams were supposed to chant after games, and “Glad To Be Gay,” with its message of tolerance and gay pride that was uncommon at that time, and was so controversial that it was banned by the BBC. Robinson was openly gay, and an activist at a time when that was still unusual, even in the world of popular music. Interestingly, Robinson later married a woman and had two children with her, but continued to identify himself as a gay man who happened to fall in love with a woman.

But I always assumed that “2-4-6-8 Motorway” was a bit of an anomaly, a nonpolitical song without any gay rights messages, and that was going to be my point. But apparently, I was wrong. In doing a bit of research before writing this, I found a reference to an interview that Robinson gave, in which he said that the chorus was taken from a gay rights chant and the verse from a flirtation between a male trucker and male motorcyclist. I’m not sure I see that in the lyrics, but Robinson wrote it, so he must know.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Getting There: Flyin' Saucers Rock & Roll

Robert Gordon with Link Wray: Flyin' Saucers Rock and Roll


"Gonna rock 'n' roll all the way from Mars!"

Here's Ray Scott, who wrote "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'N' Roll," quoted in Greil Marcus's book, Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'Round the World:

    People ask me how I ever came up with the idea to write a song like "Flyin' Saucer Rock and Roll"...I saw one of those things. Near Indianapolis in '54, I saw something shaped like a big cigar...That's when the flying saucer and UFO thing was in the news a lot, so I sat down and wrote a song about flying saucers rock and roll...I didn't write about exactly what I saw. I talked about little green men in the songs, and, of course, I didn't see any of those fellas."

In 1957, "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll' was a big hit for Billy Lee Riley and His Little Green Men (one of the best backing-band names in music history). The song was updated to great effect in 1977 by rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, with guitar work by Link Wray. The newer version is propelled by a great hook -- the vocal windup on the word "Rrrrrrrock." It's an update that improves on an already stellar original.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Getting There: Motorcycle Mama

Sailcat: Motorcycle Mama


For my money, a motorcycle anthem should roar like Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild"-- unmuffled, dirty and heavy. And yet, in 1972, from the Shoals of Alabama, came Sailcat ...strumming acoustic guitars like the Lovin' Spoonful and singing like a pair of frat brothers about sleeping on the grass and living peacefully with squares. The song hit #12 on the Billboard Charts. (Even the concept album about a drifting biker went Top 40).

   Twenty years later, Bjork's Sugarcubes recorded a cover for Rubaiyat, an Elektra album celebrating the label's 40 years.

Getting There: Gravel

Ani DiFranco: Gravel


Sometimes we travel farthest without physically leaving our rooms. This song’s narrative voice is alerted to the arrival of a wayward lover by the sound of motorbike wheels on the gravel outside and so prepares for both war and surrender. What follows is an extended daydream: we believe at first that she welcomes this arrival on the porch and invites him or her in, but the fantasy sequence that follows tells a different story altogether. Our heroine fantasizes of riding out to California on the back of the bike: I’ll pretend that this is real ‘cos this is what I like best, she tells herself, pretending also that this unfaithful lover can’t prevent her from enjoying life.

But the journey out to the West Coast is not the only imaginary trip the song’s narrator takes, as she goes from anger and a willingness to fight to a seemingly-grudging acceptance of the offer to run away together all in the space of time it takes for the new arrival to switch off the bike’s engine. See, the only real journey she takes – and the only real destination at which she arrives – is the one in her mind, the one brought about by the need to impose a happy ending, or at least the fantasy of one, upon a scenario that has evidently left her in a rut. She needs to get away, and this is the only way she knows how.

The song ends as it began: she hears the sound of his bike as the wheels hit the gravel, and the engine in the driveway cutting off. The song ends before the unfaithful lover makes it into the house, but in that moment between the key turning in the ignition and boots hitting the ground, the narrator has traveled thousands of miles, physically and emotionally. Sometimes that’s all you get.

Guest post by Houman

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting There: Soul Train Theme

Soul Train: Theme (1973)

[purchase full version]

The death at his own hands of Soul Train founder and long-time presenter Don Cornelius today, February 1, has saddened me like few celebrity deaths ever have. Don Cornelius presided over my favourite sub-genre of popular music, the soul music of the early and mid-1970s. Soul Train – the show was his brainchild – brought all that great music by groups like The Delfonics and The Chi-Lites and The O’Jays and singers like Billy Preston and Billy Paul and Bill Withers to a wider audience. Thanks in great part to Soul Train, these acts crossed over into the pop charts, and across the Atlantic to Britain and to Europe.

Don Cornelius fostered a black consciousness that preached peace and came dressed in gaudy suits, but was utterly radical: Soul Train was a truly black thing on TV; that never existed before. The afro, promoted by the Sheen hair product range that sponsored Soul Train and worn by many of the trend-setting dancers, was as potent as a raised fist. Don Cornelius made a huge social impact. He was a giant.

It is fortuitous that this week’s theme riffs on means of transport. Most other themes would have proscribed the opportunity to pay tribute to one of my heroes.

So here is the famous Soul Train theme, the Gamble & Huff tune better known as “T.S.O.P.”, which was first used on the show in November 1973. It had been commissioned by Cornelius, and became a worldwide hit after debuting on Soul Train. Cornelius was precious about protecting the Soul Train trademark, and refused to let Gamble and Huff use it in the title, hence “T.S.O.P.”. Cornelius soon realised the folly of his decision.

But what have here is not the single version of “T.S.O.P.”, but the theme as it used in the intro to the show in 1973 (see here for more Soul Train themes and the fuller story of them).

Last year I put up a gallery of screenshots I had taken from the splendid TimeLife DVD collection of Soul Train. The picture that illustrates this post comes from it. The whole set is HERE.

“And as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and SOUL!"

Getting There: On Roller Skates

Roger Miller: You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd


Melanie: Brand New Key


Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman: Skate Date


I really wanted to contribute an entry about roller skating -- sure, partly because it fits in with this week's theme. But, mainly because I was looking for an excuse to use this wonderful picture of Edvard Petrini's pedaled roller skates.

Problem is, the first two songs that came to mind actually aren't about skating. The first was Roger Miller's "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd." The title may mention roller skating, but it's merely a non sequitur -- though the advice offered is sound.

Then, of course, there's Melanie's "Brand New Key." But, even when it was released in 1971, few listeners thought the song was really about the missing key to her quad skates. (“I don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far” indeed.) The song's lascivious reputation was cemented by its insertion into the Boogie Nights soundtrack, during a memorable audition scene.

Finally, I remembered a song about skating that really is...a song about skating: "Skate Date" by ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. It appeared on their 1980 album City, made just after Gene Clark bolted what had been McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. The harmonies, as always, are nice, but it's not among McGuinn's most profound songs. "Skate Date" would have benefited from a dash of "Brand New Key" double-entendre.

But, "Skate Date" is definitely about skating.

And now I feel fully justified using the picture.

Getting There: Eye of the Hurricane

David Wilcox: Eye of the Hurricane


Motorcycle songs often seem to come to a bad end, at least for the driver. We saw that last week in Vincent Black Lightning, and here it is again. The driver of the bike called the hurricane seeks the solitude and freedom a motorcycle can provide. The roar of the engine locks the world out, and the rider is free, if only for the duration of the ride. Perhaps this is why motorcycle riders in pop songs are usually rebels. David Wilcox is more interested in that sense of freedom, or of shelter, if you prefer, than he is in rebellion. Even so, when the end comes for his rider, there is still a sense of inevitability about it. But what a ride!

I must confess that I have never been on a motorcycle myself. My description of the feeling is what I understand from the songwriters I have heard on the subject. So, I will ask the motorcycle riders in our audience, how did I do? Did I get it? Comments, please.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Getting There: Nine Million Bicycles

Katie Melua: Nine Million Bicycles


Katie Melua's sweet 2005 single Nine Million Bicycles uses Beijing doubly, as a musical setting and as a cultural touchstone for population mass, in order to frame a sweet, gentle song of love in scale; indeed, a close read of the song reveals that its effect is driven, in part, by quite deliberate production parallels, in which the use of relatively authentic traditional Asian instrumentation and rhythmic flourishes fade in and out as the city is mentioned, only to dissipate into soft folk pop (which then, predictably, expands at the mention of outer space).

But the song is of cultural interest, too, for the way in which notable naysayer Simon Singh - a well-respected science writer for the Guardian - suggested that the Georgian-born, UK-based star was engaging in "pop sci politics", by noting at the beginning of her second verse that "we are 12 billion light years from the edge", a measurement which doesn't really match most agreed-upon measurements of the size of the universe. In response to this accusation that her song was a thinly-veiled attack on the accuracy of cosmologists, Melua appeared on a BCC program with Singh, and performed a version of the song which changed the lyrics to Singh's specs as follows:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe, That's a good estimate with well-defined error bars, And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a copy of the entire BBC recording, but here's an audio clip of the performance of Melua's new and totally hilarious verse replacement as compared with the original, embedded in a TED talk found over at YouTube:

And just for fun - because it's brand new, and because our rules allow for recent covers of songs as long as the original song being covered dates back far enough - I've included Arap Strap frontman Aidan John Moffat's tiny 2012 cover of the song, from his all-covers solo album Stolen Songs. Because I love the way it trades the bridge and final chorus away, leaving us with just 1:45 of weary, stripped-down glory. And because the song is quite different, in the end, without all the orchestral majesty and "ethnic flutes" credited on the original.

Aidan John Moffat: 9,000,000 Bicycles


Getting There: The Metro

Berlin: The Metro


Do you remember when every song featured a synthesizer? Then you're as old as I am! Bet you remember legwarmers and fringed t-shirts tied at the sides, too.

Berlin was an American synth-pop group that made it big in the 80s with their oft-banned hit Sex (I'm a…), which featured the vocals (and heavy breathing) of Terri Nunn. The Metro was the bigger MTV hit, though. The Metro of this New Wave song is the Paris mass-transit system.

I just got back from London, which also has a subway/tube/Metro system. My own home town is slooowly building a light-rail system, but otherwise we remain chained to the auto. So when I travel, I adore the speed and flexibility of these urban necessities. Beyond London's version (the oldest) and Paris' Metro, I've tasted the delights of mass-transit systems in Tokyo (where cell-phone conversations are banned, FYI, but everyone is madly texting away), Kyoto, Munich, Mexico City, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, and New York. You residents are so lucky to have these systems. Go ride one for me, 'k?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting There: America

Simon & Garfunkel: America (live bootleg, 1968)

[purchase studio version]

One of my big dreams is to one way travel coast-to-coast through the US, maybe in a camper van. At least in part, the seeds for that dream were planted many years ago by the Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. Of course, the subjects of the song — Cathy and the singer — did not travel in a motor home, but by Greyhound bus (boarding in Pittsburgh, among the passengers is a “spy” in a gabardine suit whose bowtie is really a camera) and by thump, hitch-hiking from Saginaw. But by the time he starts counting cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, all the travelling seems to have become a bore. Which should put me in two minds about ideas of an itinerant journey across the USA.

This recording comes from the excellent Live At The Hollywood Bowl bootleg from 1968 (also known as Voices of Intelligent Dissent Bootleg, based on something Paul Simon says in response to an audience interjection after “Feelin’ Groovy”), which was engineered by Al Kooper. It seems likely that the concert at the Hollywood Bowl on 23 August 1968 was recorded for possible release (why else have Kooper engineer it?). In the end, it obviously wasn’t issued; indeed, no live album was released, except some tracks on the Greatest Hits collection, until the Concert In Central Park reunion gig more than a decade after Simon & Garfunkel had split.

This recording of “America” has an amusing introduction by Paul Simon about the recording of the Bookends LP, on which “America” originally appeared. But that sound at the beginning: is that Garfunkel burping?

Getting There: Mule Train

Tennessee Ernie Ford: Mule Train


Count Prince Miller: Mule Train


In 1949, America went "Mule Train" crazy. Now, more than 60 years later, it's not clear what drove that obsession. Maybe the song "Mule Train" was a metaphor, or perhaps it was just the beneficiary of old-west nostalgia or a clever PR campaign. It's not a particularly compelling piece -- it's largely a laundry list of dry goods being hauled by a mule-drawn convoy. There are some funny rhymes and wacky vocal gymnastics. But, that doesn't explain the "Mule Train" mania that gripped the nation.

Beginning in November 1949, a half dozen separate versions of "Mule Train" were recorded and charted in what was then called The Billboard. The magazine documented the craze in a series of articles. In the Nov. 5, 1949, issue, one such essay, titled "Scramble to Climb Aboard That Old Mule Train Turns Disk Biz Dizzy---But Good," proclaimed:

    This is the week which will be marked down in the annals of the music industry as "Mule Train" week…

    Furor started Monday when KLAC disk jockey Al Jarvis unveiled the Mercury Frankie Laine disking. Laine's platter brought out rival record men in force and within two hours Jarvis had been supplied with pressings of the RCA version by Vaughn Monroe (cut the previous night in Hollywood), and two Capitol interpretations, one with Gordon MacRae and second featuring hillbilly Tennessee Ernie…Disney Songs Inc., pubbers of the song, was flooded with calls from diskeries and others asking for dubs and lead sheets.

    Wednesday Decca latched onto the tune with a fast recording by Bing Crosby….Decca also owns the Buzz Butler hillbilly version…MGM also evaded the pop market on the opus by slicing it as a country item with Arthur Smith…

    In contrast to almost continuous play disks received when first launched, platter pilots went easy the latter part of the week. Several disk jockeys aired announcements saying "Mule Train" would "not be played today so that you don't tire of the song."

America tire of "Mule Train"? Don’t be crazy! The next issue of The Billboard continues panting:

    "Train" started a disk jockey feud which centered around veteran platter pilot Al Jarvis. Several rival jockeys, burned because Jarvis was first to air the Laine, Crosby and Monroe versions of the tune and benefit the most publicity wise, attacked the disk pilot on their shows, one going so far as to say that he would play only the Buzz Butler-Decca version of the tune. Jarvis struck back…condemning colleagues who boycotted any version of the song for personal reasons…

    [American Federation of Labor] delegates...assembled in San Jose to name Laine's version of "Train" as the union's official song…

Before the furor died down, America's platter pilots and labor leaders had still more versions to choose from, including takes by Woody Herman (with the Nat King Cole Trio vocalizing) and Spike Jones (the latter satirizing the song with a bit of now-offensive ethnic stereotyping called "Chinese Mule Train").

Here are two versions, the first my favorite version from that dizzying week in 1949, recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The second is from the early 1970s, when "Mule Train" inexplicably enjoyed new life as a minor reggae hit by Count Prince Miller.

(A side note: For anyone who enjoys music history, the half-century worth of full-text, fully searchable issues of (The) Billboard available for free on Google Books, is an amazing resource, and a great way to waste an afternoon. Get along!)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Getting There: Every Woman I Know (Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile)

Ry Cooder: Every Woman I Know (Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile)

[purchase song]

Every Woman I Know (Crazy 'Bout An Automobile) is quintessential Ry Cooder. This version showcases his best guitar style - just the right number of notes - sparse but still full. The vocal backup is also classic Cooder: a superb 3-part harmony. It is also a great example of his chops on the slide guitar for which he is famed. Like many of the "roots" songs he has chosen to revive, the lyrics tell a story that could be considered slightly politically incorrect in our day and age.

Not only does the song tell a story of the classic age of the car in America (the '50s), it also references indirectly an alternate meaning of "Getting There" (the back seat). This is the age of the Drive-In movie theater: to get there, you had to have a car. Without a car, you couldn't even get a date (he sings: "seems like the women in this town don't pay no attention to you 'less you're drivin'")

William R. (Billy "The Kid") Emerson, who wrote the song in the mid 50s, played his version in more of a rhythm and blues style - almost a big band sound that included a horns section. Cooder's version almost veers to a reggae style but still manages to retain an air of the original. Cooder has played this song with a number of different musicians, including John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner (in their short-lived group called Little Village) as well as with David Lindley.

posted by KKafa

Getting There: Starship

Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship: Starship
This is not the Jefferson Starship of “Miracles” (which is still a great song, by a good band, in my opinion, despite its lack of critical respect) or the Starship of “We Built This City” (a bad song by a bad band, in my opinion, consistent with its critical loathing). This Jefferson Starship was what Paul Kantner, of the recently disintegrated Jefferson Airplane, decided to call the band that recorded a science fiction/popular revolution concept album called “Blows Against the Empire” originally released in 1970. The album included contributions from Kantner, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jack Casady, David Freiberg and others.
I came to this album, which became one of my favorites, in high school, probably 5 or 6 years after it was released, never having heard it before. I, like many others who listened to classic rock radio in the mid-70’s, became a fan of Jefferson Starship and bought “Red Octopus” because of “Miracles.” In what was probably the first time my obsession with music manifested itself, my friend Chris and I started working our way through the Starship and Airplane discography, mostly by buying albums from the Korvette’s cutout bins. There was no Allmusic or Wikipedia, so we learned about the albums by reading books and magazine articles, or by just buying what the store had and listening. Our exploration of the catalogue led us to listen to classics, like the Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and not-so-classics such as Slick’s “Manhole.” The first time I heard “Blows,” easily the best of the Kantner/Slick solo projects during this era, I fell in love with its goofy, but sincere, idealism and the loose, well played music. I read the liner notes booklet so many times that it fell apart.
The story of “Blows Against the Empire” tells of a revolutionary band that steals a government built spaceship with the intention of traveling through space and creating a utopian society. Its theme fits the era of its recording and release, during the anti-war movement, the Reagan governorship of California and the Nixon presidency, and shortly after the first moon landing. The music, written by the performers, and others, including Marty Balin and Rosalie Sorrells, includes rock, folk and noise, but the bulk of the album is beautiful jammy folk rock, with great vocal harmonies and guitar playing. “Starship”, the finale, features Kantner on acoustic guitar and vocal and Slick on vocal and keyboards, with Garcia on lead guitar, Crosby, Nash and Freiberg (of Quicksilver Messenger Service and later versions of Jefferson Starship) on vocals, and Harvey Brooks (of Electric Flag, and who worked with Dylan and Miles Davis, among others) on bass.
It took a while for the album to be released on CD, and I remember buying it and enjoying it for the first time in years. It is still a good listen, even if its themes of revolution and space travel seem a little dated now (although with Newt Gingrich’s pledge to build a moon base if elected president, maybe Kantner will rally his friends and try to hijack the moonship).

Getting There: The Kenworth of my Dreams

Richard Shindell: The Kenworth Of My Dreams


Nominally, this twangy countrified folk song is about a truck, and its new owner, who purchases and fixes up the titular Kenworth with the help of his brother-in-law, and settles into the life of a long-haul trucker despite the ridicule of his friends and family. But like all Richard Shindell songs, there's hints of the confessional around the edges of our narrative voice, and the upbeat bounce of the production is a ruse, designed to strain and pull at deliberate odds with the subtext. And these textual cues call his honesty into question, pushing us to dig deeper.

But this way lies despair. Why did the narrator sell his fishing boat, and his Camaro? Why does he turn the radio off, late at night, when those sad country songs hit the airwaves? What is he running from? We can ask, but we will not find the answers: Shindell has withheld them, so that we may live in the mind of the narrator, and experience his emotional state through sharing his avoidance. And so, in the end, like all great folk songs, this song is really about us: how pride can haunt us, how our dreams live and die through our actions and inactions, the lengths to which we are willing to change our lives in order to escape and pursue, the ways in which the engines of the past linger in our hearts and minds, no matter how hard or fast we run.

Getting There: The Thresher

Pete Seeger: The Thresher


Even though our theme is called Getting There, the USS Thresher never did. She was a nuclear submarine that sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1963. It was the height of the Cold War, and the fear of anything nuclear was very real. I grew up with it, and we felt that any large war that broke out had the potential to be the last one mankind would ever see. I was three years old when the Thresher sank, so I can’t say I remember it. But I imagine that the first thing people worried about would have been the radiation. This context adds resonance to Pete Seeger’s song The Thresher. To Seeger, the sinking is a morality tale that demonstrates the folly of war in general, and nuclear weapons in particular. He makes his case quite eloquently.

I should note that, in the sinking of the Thresher, we got lucky. The ship’s nuclear rods were eventually recovered intact, and no leaked radiation was ever discovered.