Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Down the Dirt Road Blues

One of the seminal works of the Delta blues, Charley Patton’s version of “Down the Dirt Road Blues” opens with the persona suspended in an existential abyss: “I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown.” At the mercy of unknown forces, the helpless speaker is carried toward a hidden fate. The first verse concludes with the potent ambiguity of “I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long” which sounds very much as though he is approaching death, but which might also mean he is close to happiness.

The second verse introduces the erotic motif, reinforcing the positive side of the implications of the opening. Though the woman may be standoffish, what the troubadours called “daunger,” this may be part of a love-game, biologically determined, or an element of an individual relationship. With the repetition of the euphemism “something” intensifying the psychic energy by indicating taboo territory, the singer carries on a pursuit of the beloved even as he is being trundled off to the unknown.

The term “rider” triggers an entire series of metaphors. The vernacular expression is entangled with blues history from the outset. [1] In its earliest uses the expression “easy rider” described a skilled horseman or his animal. The ambiguity between the reference to horse and to rider remains with the expression through its development. It became naturally associated with the complex of sexual metaphor based on the similarity between riding and intercourse familiar from William IX as well as Patton’s own “Pony Blues.” [2] From there some occurrences of the expression emphasize the “easy” element, referring either to promiscuous sex or to freeloading. Thus, at the same time that the singer laments the evasiveness of the object of his desire, he alludes to her habitual complaisance.

In the third verse the speaker’s psychic agitation has increased; his world is in disorder. The “chopping” metaphor for intercourse is close to the etymological roots of “fuck”: to strike, while the phrase “chips flyin' everywhere” suggests confusion. The same anxious instability is then expressed in geographical terms. The singer can find no greater contentment in a “foreign” land, the [Indian] Nation (that is, Oklahoma).

He then develops the metaphor of going abroad as a statement of alienation. The bluesman always finds himself “a long way from home.” Whether the fourth verse refers to the longing for home of a WWI soldier or more generally to the feeling that the human is stranded on this earth, the fourth verse moves the song deeper into melancholy. Apart from being in some sense “overseas,” the speaker’s gloom is unappreciated by the unnamed “others.”

This depression is dramatically deepened in the penultimate stanza when the atmosphere has turned lethal: “Every day seem like murder here.” Surely the line “My God, I'm no sheriff” expresses not only sadness but the speaker’s vulnerability. Whereas a sheriff might be expected to be at home in a murderous situation, the singer suffers due to his beloved’s rejecting him.
The final stanza emphasizes the intolerable loneliness of the solitary traveler on a lost dirt road in a remote area. Though no respite is available, he cannot endure the road alone. But his complaint elicits only a mocking interjected line suggesting that, should he want a companion, he would find little solace but rather would himself bear a greater burden. Then the garbled syntax of the masterful conclusion, while clearly seeking to reject the previous line’s suggestion, suspends meaning.[3] The subject may after all carry someone, but he may also be carried.

Thus the poet continues down that obscure and dusty road, uncertain about the future, unsettled in soul, just as his listener or reader must do, sustained only by the thread of his lyric. Though it frames its narrative around a love relationship, Patton’s song speaks to the same audience that Gilgamesh commanded when he reflected on mortality, Agamemnon when he returned finally from war, or even St. John of the Cross when he wandered in the dark night of the soul.

I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown
I'm goin’ away, to a world unknown
I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long

My rider got somethin’, she's tryin’a keep it hid
My rider got somethin’, she's tryin’a keep it hid
Lord, I got somethin’ to find that somethin’ with

I feel like choppin’, chips flyin' everywhere
I feel like choppin’, chips flyin' everywhere
I been to the Nation, oh Lord, but I couldn't stay there

Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad
(spoken: Why, of course they are)
Some people say them oversea blues ain’t bad
(spoken: What was a-matter with ‘em?!)
It must not a-been them oversea blues I had

Every day seem like murder here
(spoken: My God, I'm no sheriff)
Every day seem like murder here
I'm gonna leave tomorrow, I know you don't bid my care

Can't go down any dirt road by myself
Can't go down any dirt road by myself
(spoken: My Lord, who ya gonna carry?)
I don't carry my, gonna carry me someone else

1. Big Bill Broonzy claimed to have learned the blues from a former slave who went by the name See See Rider in 1908 or so. Ma Rainey’s song with the title See See Rider was released in 1925.

2. To mention only a few other variations: In Astrophel and Stella #49 love rides Sydney while he rides a horse. For Freud the horse was the id and the rider the ego. (See, for instance, The Ego and the Id: On Metapsychology.) Plato constructed a more complex chariot allegory in the Phaedrus. In voodoo the divine loa “rides” the worshipper when she or he is possessed.

3. The text is transcribed differently by different listeners. I comment here on the most common version, taking that as my text, whether or not it exactly corresponds to Patton’s intentions. (Authors’ intentions in general can no more be known than individuals’ in our lived experience.)

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