One of the charms of country music is its economy of expression. A great country song expresses complex emotions in simple words and accessible metaphors: “Your love is colder than a foggy river, rollin’ over a heart of stone.”
In the past few days – I don’t really know why – I have been thinking again about a country song I first heard long ago when I was listening a lot to Gram Parsons records. The Gram Parsons story is a tragic, fascinating one. I am tempted even now to start telling it, but this post is about a song: “The Streets of Baltimore.”
Parsons didn’t write this song. It was written in 1966 by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard. It starts like this:
Well, I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
Then I bought those one way tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore
This isn’t just another old country song. There are so many universal themes packed into these first few lines. The first one is the notion of property; of ownership. Our storyteller begins by telling us that he “sold the farm.” Does that sound a bit dry? It’s not. One of the ideas that this song implies – and the that the bloody revolutions of the 20th century proved, over and over again – is that there is a relationship between private property and freedom; between private property and dignity; between private property and sane living.
In this recent conversation between Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro, Carlson says, without objection from Shapiro, that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the seventy-year social and economic nightmare that followed was the result of the government’s failure to properly negotiate the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. It wasn’t so much that the landowners there “sold” their farms, rather, they were commandeered by the revolution. But the result is the same – misery and servitude. Nothing got better for anybody.
Here in Appalachia the idea of separating the land from the people who lived on it was given a kind of twist. The big money guys from up north didn’t exactly buy the land. Rather, they found a way to separate the wealth and resources of the land – the mineral rights – from the surface. The locals sold the mineral rights for next to nothing and untold wealth was extracted from their counties, leaving them with nothing to show for it but ruin.
In the song the man voluntarily relinquishes his property. Why he does so opens other universal themes. Here are two: the relationship between men and women and the idea of discernment or ordinal thinking. The Bible tells us that we are to have our minds renewed so that we may know what is good and true and noble. This song tells the story – a story lived by millions – of decisions made by that mind that is not renewed and that is dazzled by what the Bible calls “the world.”
Here are the next few lines:
Well her heart was filled with gladness when she saw those city lights
She said that the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night
What we have here is a blatant lack of such discernment. It’s not hard to imagine someone really believing what the woman in the song believes and it is just as easy to see that such a belief indicates a superficial understanding of the world. She thinks she is more sophisticated than she really is. Even if we accept the idea that beauty is to be found in the skyline of a city, there are dozens of city skylines that put Baltimore to shame. More importantly, there is a good argument that the farm in Tennessee, be it ever so humble, had about it a beauty that could put the restless skyline of Baltimore to shame. That beauty – the beauty of the farm – is the beauty of home, of community, of long, steady relationships, and of a humane economy.
What happens to the man in Baltimore?
Well I got myself a factory job, I ran an old machine
And we bought a little cottage in a neighborhood serene
And then every night when I’d come home with every muscle sore
She’d drag me through the streets of Baltimore
Rod Dreher blogs incisively about our modern dilemma. Recently he quoted a long letter from a woman – the “Weary Ghost” – who had in her own way taken to the streets of Baltimore. She had left home and family and spent her youth pursuing a career in the city and had come up empty. She is nearing the end of her fertility and she is childless and without substantial wealth or deep relationships of any kind. One of Rod’s readers wrote her a letter of advice. Her first tip? Move back closer to your family.
This song is a masterpiece. It tells a story of the tensions between men and women; between home and community and the faster, brighter life of the faraway city. On a universal scale, this song “tells it how it is.”