Townes Van Zandt: Texas Troubadour


Townes Van Zandt: Texas Troubadour  (Charly Records)

Ringing Roger, March 2011


The troubadours were poets of medieval France who sang their verse rather than just read it aloud. The word ‘troubadour’ simply designated one who ‘finds’ or ‘invents’ a song. 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; it continually reworks certain limited themes, such as drink and divorce. 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 began to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live:
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

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 just the right turn of phrase. At the risk of appearing pretentious — though it’s about time that that risk was lessening — there is at work in his songs the same ‘tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’ that the poet T. S. Eliot once advocated:

If only she could feel my pain,
But feelin’ is a burden she can’t sustain:
So like a summer Thursday, I cry for rain
To come and turn the ground to green again.

Or take these lines from ‘Snowin’ on Raton’, in which Van Zandt declares his intention to travel through the mountain pass on the border between  Colorado and New Mexico:

Bid the years goodbye, you cannot still them,
You cannot turn the circles of the sun,
You cannot count the miles until you feel them,
And you cannot hold a lover that is gone.

It’s snowin’ on Raton:
Come morning, I’ll be through them hills and gone

The song conveys a yearning for departure, and by implication a readiness to journey through and beyond this mortal existence. How he fits the complex thought into the strict form of the song is both striking and moving.

‘Snowin’ on Raton’ was one of Van Zandt’s last songs, but the same theme was expressed more explicitly in one of his very first, ‘Waiting Round To Die’.  It’s a challenging song that forces us to reflect on the way that people somehow manage to get through their blighted lives. Here are the first two verses:

Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me,
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why.
I guess I’ll keep on gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’:
It’s easier than just a-waitin’ ’round to die

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:
Well, 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:

The 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.
And 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 sadness; but his genius lies in the way the gloom is channeled by way of his sense of form, by his love of language, by his emotional precision. Consider finally ‘Rex’s Blues’. Dedicated to a friend of the songwriter, Rex (‘Wrecks’) Bell, known for his turbulent lifestyle and his failed enterprises,  it conveys the paradoxical nature of the human condition:

Ride the blue wind high and free:
She’ll lead you down through misery —
Leave you low, come time to go,
Alone and low as low can be.

The paradoxes become more striking as the song progresses:

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.

There is still time, though, to prepare for the final departure:

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 life has yet to be lived through and concluded:

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 song invites us to confront our own mortality and resolve 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