Townes Van Zandt: Texas Troubadour

Townes Van Zandt: Texas Troubadour (Charly Records)

March 2011

The troubadours were poets of medieval France who sang their verse rather than just read it aloud. The word ‘troubadour’ simply means someone who composes in verse. Poetry has its roots in music, and troubadours can just as easily be discovered in the country music of twentieth-century Texas as the courtly music of twelfth-century Provence. Yet still there are many people who say that they love poetry but have no time for popular song at all, let alone country music. Bring up that last topic, and wait for the standard reaction: it’s music for rednecks, both crude and  reactionary. Well, I’d argue that some of the most interesting and challenging American poetry of the last century came from people whom you’d associate with the Grand Ole Opry rather than the Pullitzer Prize.

Consider this by Hank Williams (1923-53), bearing in mind that it is so much more effective when you hear the music that accompanies it: ‘Did you ever see a robin weep / When leaves begin to die? / Like me he’s lost the will to live / I’m so lonesome I could cry.’ And look at the startling way he concludes his lament: ‘The silence of a falling star / Lights up a purple sky / And as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry.’ Williams was once perceptively referred to as ‘the poet of pain’; and reading these poignant lines you can understand why. Yet he still hasn’t been afforded the respect he deserves for what he achieved in his short life, as a skilful writer who addressed the tragedy of existence.

Townes Van Zandt (1944-97), a great poet of country music if ever there was one, learnt a lot from his gifted predecessor about the art of crafting a song. Not only did he learn how to write a memorable tune but he knew how to put the best words in the best order. For him, the two skills went together. Listening to this new four-CD collection of his work, I’m struck how the discipline of the musical form enabled Van Zandt to express his thoughts with economy and wit. I should explain that by ‘wit’ I mean a way of stating an idea or feeling that makes you feel that it’s just right – what the poet T.S. Eliot once called ‘the tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’.  Take for instance these lines from ‘Many a Fine Lady’, in which the songwriter catches the melancholy air of a woman he loved and lost: ‘Ah, her words like the mountain stood lonely and lofty / With her face like a daydream and her hair like the shawl / Worn by a mourner as he steals away softly / From those that would have him mourn nothing at all.’ How he fits the complex thought into the strict form of the song is a wonder to behold.

Though that song is sad, it seems almost cheerful next to the more characteristically bleak songs. If Williams saw life as tragic, Van Zandt seemed most of the time to see it as futile. Consider ‘Waiting Round To Die’, a meditation on the way that people somehow manage to get through their blighted lives: ‘One time, friends, I had a ma, I even had a pa / He beat her with a belt once ’cause she cried / She told him to take care of me, / [She] headed down to Tennessee / Ah, it’s easier than just a-waitin’ ’round to die.’ Yes, that’s bleak, but it’s very well said: beautiful in its precision, I’d suggest. Equally bleak, though rather more romantic, is ‘Kathleen’, a song which I interpret as being about wanting to join one’s beloved in death: ‘Stars hang high above, the oceans roar / The moon is come to lead me to her door / There’s crystal across the sand / And the waves, they take my hand / Soon I’m gonna see my sweet Kathleen.’ Again, the words couldn’t have been better chosen, whatever one thinks of the sentiment.

There’s no denying that many of Van Zandt’s songs express a profound gloom; but his genius lies in the way the gloom is channelled by way of his sense of form, his love of language – above all by what I’ve referred to as his wit. Consider finally ‘Rex’s Blues’. Of humanity in general, the songwriter observes, with a playful use of words that stops you in your tracks: ‘Legs to walk and thoughts to fly / Eyes to laugh and lips to cry / A restless tongue to classify / All born to grow and grown to die.’ As for Rex himself, he is assigned these simple but striking words: ‘So tell my baby I said so long / Tell my mother I did no wrong / Tell my brother to watch his own / And tell my friends to mourn me none.’ That is a beautiful enough epitaph, but the songwriter pushes his song that bit further as he concludes: ‘I’m chained upon the face of time / Feelin’ full of foolish rhyme / There ain’t no dark till something shines / I’m bound to leave this dark behind.’ The songwriter is simultaneously facing up to his own mortality and resolving to make the best of what is left of life. The paradox of listening to Van Zandt is that, though he faces the worst, and though he uses what he modestly calls his ‘foolish rhyme’ to do so, he really does help you – for the duration of the song, at least – to leave the dark behind.

Laurence Coupe