Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Highwayman

This post, like Topsy, just growed whilst it was being written.  A good Sunday read if you have the time.

I watched Walk the Line again last week. This is the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black and Reese Witherspoon as his second wife, June Carter.

The rewatch came about when Kate and I had heard Johnny Cash’s vocals as a backing behind something else we were watching, I can’t recall what, and Kate expressed a desire to see Walk the Line again. 

An amazing part of the performance of Phoenix and Witherspoon is that they do their own singing in the film. They had vocal training for six months with music producer T Bone Burnett. Not only that, they also learned to play their instruments (guitar and auto-harp, respectively) from scratch.

Another couple of interesting facts:
  • Waylon Payne originally auditioned for the role of Waylon Jennings. The director was so impressed by Payne's audition that he cast Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis. The actor who got the role of Waylon Jennings was Waylon's own son, Shooter Jennings.
  • That’s Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's actual home, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, that appears in the movie. It burned to the ground on 10 April 2007 (the film was made in 2005) while under renovation by its new owner, Barry Gibb, of The Bee Gees.
June Carter passed away on May 15, 2003. Johnny Cash followed 4 months later.

Which is all by way of introduction to my subsequently looking into Johnny Cash performing as one of The Highwaymen, and looking into their famous song, The Highwayman.  It's a pity that wasn't included in the movie.

  • In the mid-1980s, Cash recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making three hit albums which were released beginning with the originally titled "Highwaymen" in 1985, followed by "Highwaymen 2" in 1990, and concluding with "Highwaymen – The Road Goes on forever" in 1995.
  • The Highwayman is a 1977 song written by Jimmy Webb which became the most famous of the songs of The Highwaymen. It has nothing to do with the Alfred Noyes poem of the same name and is a haunting, thought provoking song, certainly one that goes a lot deeper than usual C & W fare.
(Old joke:
What do you get when you play a country music backwards?
Your wife comes back, your dog comes alive again, your crops start growing and you get out of prison.)
  • Jimmy Webb, a songwriter, composer, and singer, has written numerous platinum-selling songs, including "Up, Up and Away", "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Wichita Lineman", "Galveston", "The Worst That Could Happen", "All I Know", and "MacArthur Park". He has had successful collaborations with Glen Campbell, Michael Feinstein, Linda Ronstadt, The 5th Dimension, Art Garfunkel, and Richard Harris. The Highwaymen’s version of The Highwayman earned Webb a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1986.
  • Hear the song and see the official video that goes with it by clicking on:
  • A live version:
  • The lyrics:
[Willie Nelson's Verse]
I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five
But I am still alive

[Kris Kristofferson's Verse]
I was a sailor. I was born upon the tide
And with the sea I did abide
I sailed a schooner round the Horn to Mexico
I went aloft and furled the mainsail in a blow 
And when the yards broke off they said that I got killed
But I am living still

[Waylon Jennings's Verse]
I was a dam builder across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around, I'll always be around and around and around and
Around and around

[Johnny Cash's Verse]
I fly a star-ship across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I'll be back again, and again and again and again and again
  • The song is about a soul with incarnations in four different places in time and history: as a highwayman, a sailor, a construction worker on the Hoover Dam, and finally as a captain of a starship. The song was influenced by the real-life hanged highwayman Jonathan Wild. The dam builder verse alludes to the deaths of over one hundred men during the construction of Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nevada.
  • Webb wrote the song in London while working on his album El Mirage with producer George martin. According to Webb, after a night of heavy drinking with friend Harry Nilsson, he went to sleep and had "an incredibly vivid dream":
"I remember that I wrote it in England, I was staying over there and I had a piano in my suite. I had dreamed about this highwayman being chased by these horses, like this kind of classical English scene, like they're folk heroes. Dick Turpin - I don't know whether Dick Turpin was a real man like Jesse James or whether he was like Paul Bunyan. But he's like the highwayman. There's a couple of famous English poems about highwaymen. They were definitely folk heroes of the Jesse James variety. And I had dreamed about this and it was a very vivid dream, came on to me very strong. I woke up kind of sweating and thinking, God, that was so real that was almost like a past life or something. And I went almost directly to the piano and started writing. I went from the highwaymen to the sailor to the dam builder. And a couple of hours went by and I was done, I was finished with it."
  • Webb included the song on his 1977 album El Mirage and it was subsequently recorded by Glen Campbell, whose clash with Capitol Records over his wanting to release it as a single saw him leave Capitol Records. Campbell had been with Capitol since 1962 but it wanted him to release “My Sharona” as a single.  He disagreed and wanted The Highwayman.
  • From Wikipedia:
In 1984, Glen Campbell played the song "Highwayman" for Johnny Cash, who was making a quartet album with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. A few years earlier, Webb brought the song to Jennings, but Jennings, having heard the Campbell version, said "I just couldn't see it then". The four were all together in Switzerland doing a television special and decided that they should do a project together. While the four were recording their first album, Marty Stuart again played the song for Cash, saying it would be perfect for them—four verses, four souls, and four of them. Campbell then played the song again, this time to all four of them, and the quartet had the name for their new supergroup, The Highwaymen, the name of their first album, Highwayman, and the name of their first single. The four thought it was a perfect name for them because they were always on the road and all four had the image of being outlaws in country music.
  • According to Jimmy Webb:
“They did a beautiful Highwaymen album cover where they had portraits of all four of them and then they had a highwayman with a desert, Monument Valley look to it, which was very cool. And then they had it painted on the side of their bus, 'The Highwaymen.' And they travelled that way for a long time. They had ten years or so . . “

  • More Jimmy Webb comment:
Nilsson hated that line, “Along the coach roads I did ride.” He said, “You mean, ‘Along the coach roads you rode?’” In that particular case, I felt it was justified because it was kind of an antique way of speaking.

I didn’t know where the song was going. Then I realized that this guy doesn’t really die in the first verse. He’s reincarnated. I thought, “Where does this soul go?” The verses started to evolve. He becomes a sailor, then a dambuilder. Then the best idea for me was switching the tense into the future and say, “I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide until I reach the other side.”
  • I love Waylon Jennings’ voice on the song, powerful, rich.
  • Whether your take is that the song is about reincarnation, that death is not the end but the beginning of another journey, or about the human spirit and will to endure, it’s a great song by some great artists.

"I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down.'" 
-- Bob Newhart

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