Highway Kind and the Existential Blues

Part I

Since my early twenties I’ve had an affinity for Existentialism and The Blues. My frustrations and angst boiled over into a very worried time for me. I can’t remember how it happened now, but somewhere I discovered Existentialism. I think I stumbled across it flipping through a textbook for a philosophy class I took in college. (I made a C in the course.)

I was fascinated with overcoming the Absurd, trying to learn how to abandon cultural programming and to make my own meanings out of life. (These ideas still plague and uplift me respectively.)  I’ve tried to understand works by Albert Camus (loved The Stranger), Jean-Paul Sartre (still trying to read and understand Being and Nothingness) and spent some time reading parts of a Kierkegaard anthology. I even found Existentialism in the Bible in Ecclesiastes. “There is a time and purpose for everything under Heaven.” and “All is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

I tried to apply Camus’ perspective on Sisyphus to myself. Sis doesn’t feel doomed by the boulder he must repeatedly roll up a mountain and let roll down again. Instead Sisyphus makes his own meaning and finds joy and curiosity in his daily task. To overcome obstacles, we must first learn to not see them as obstacles but as something to teach us what we need to know about life. This is a daily task I have to breathe into and not deny. (I probably rank about a C+ at this time, based on my own scale.)

Part II

I remember in my late teens somehow hearing John Lee Hooker and being blown away by the raw power of his playing and singing. And I also heard Lynyrd Skynyrd for the first time. A friend introduced me to the song ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and it was like a doorway for me, ushering me into a musical journey full of discoveries. I grew up in a very sheltered, home-schooled environment so lots of music was foreign to me and I had no idea how much soul and emotion could be found in music I “wasn’t allowed to listen to.”

I became obsessed with music and especially The Blues. I’m still obsessed. To me, The Blues is a form of music that comes from other worlds or dimensions, sent by the gods. The Blues has everything. Love and death, hate and theft, God and the Devil. All of life distilled down to a 12 bar riff and some soul bursting screams!

The old Gospel song I used to sing, ‘Power in the Blood’ was no longer important to me and instead I put my power in The Blues. I listened to all the music I could, never thinking I would play guitar or write my own Folk songs one day. I just knew that the flood gates were open and I had to let the music flow.

I absorbed all I could, eventually coming back to Gospel songs so I could study them. Some Gospel songs still move me deeply.  Gospel has its own kind of Blues. I go through phases of being a very amateur folklorist and study song traditions. (Mostly traditions of the Appalachian area and of the Southern states.) Music of all cultures is fascinating to learn about because, I think, music evolved to help us understand and cope with the universe. Each culture has its own tradition of musical progress so by learning/ hearing world music one can begin to understand the human condition a little better.

Part III

So I was maybe 21 or 22, thought I knew a little bit about Blues and Folk music and had a novice understanding of Existential angst and turmoil, when I discovered Townes Van Zandt. I was skimming through a bunch of discount CDs when I discovered a soundtrack to the documentary film about Townes, ‘Be Here To Love Me.’ I knew nothing of him. An instinct told me I needed to have this album. I often wonder where that instinct came from and glad I listened to it.

My thoughts on Existentialism and The Blues molded into one philosophy when I heard Townes. He was a rambling, gambling, hard living, poet of the highest order. I relate to his deep sensitivity and his love and respect of nature. A lot of his songs have helped me view the natural world in a way where I feel connected to it and not removed.  He could sing and play in a plaintive way that just opens up your soul.

He understood that mankind is “born to grow and grown to die” and that “to live is to fly, both low and high.”  His poetry is almost like a mirror of life and nature. His muse took him far and wide and even deep inside the mind where many are scared to go, but Townes seemed to dive in head first. “Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things, and the only words worth remembering.”

After my own philosophy of life began to develop, I felt inspired to write songs. I learned that life can be understood through music. A lot of the Folk tunes I discovered had a philosophy in them and I loved seeing how music is linked together through Tradition. I feel like I fit into that storytelling Tradition. I studied all types of songwriting  and poetry to pick up what I could. No matter what other songwriters, poets or philosophers I gravitate towards, I always end up back with Townes. There is just something so comforting about his music, even in his saddest songs.

Part IV

In my opinion, Townes’ best song “describing” Existentialism is ‘Highway Kind.’ The highway in this song is a metaphysical or spiritual highway. Every one of us will travel on this road, whether our conscious selves realize it or not. This highway goes beyond ideology and superstition. This highway goes beyond space and time. Townes lays it all out with four verses and a finger picked, minor key Blues tune.

He sings, not only of light and dark in the world, but also of darkness and light within the human mind. The duality of man is summed up in the lines, “Pour the sun upon the ground. Stand to throw a shadow. Watch it grow into a night. And fill the spinnin’ sky.”

He sings of different moods, attitudes, feelings and how they all play a part in our perception. Should we believe our own feelings, especially when they point to our dual nature?

“Time among the pine trees. It felt like breath of air. Usually I just walk these streets and tell myself to care. Sometimes I believe me. And sometimes I don’t hear. Sometimes the shape I’m in won’t let me go.”

Townes tells us that all these emotions confuse and mislead our true spirit. Emotions are not a reliable guide. They lead to a circle of questions that has no way of being solved. But if emotions aren’t true then what is? Our hearts and minds tell us that we exist, but what are we really? A collection of ideas? A spirit formed into a body?

“I don’t know too much for true, but my heart knows how to pound. My legs know how to love someone, my voice knows how to sound. Shame that its not enough. Shame that it is a shame. Follow the circle down, where would you be?”

The last verse of the song confused me for the longest time. I used to think Townes was singing about a companion or lover that he has not yet met. “You’re the only one I want now, I’ve never heard your name. Let’s hope we meet someday if we don’t its all the same…”

I realized that he is talking about a future self. A self beyond name, beyond hope and beyond understanding. He wonders why he can dream of this better self, but can’t become this better self.  “I’ll meet the ones between us, and be thinkin’ ’bout you, and all the places I have seen, and why you where not there.”

Part V

Cut to present day and I’m still on my Existential Blues journey. I follow the songs and stories wherever they lead. In homage to Townes I sang ‘Highway Kind’ out in the South Mississippi woods and photographer extraordinaire Charlotte Blom was there to film it.

Filmed by Charlotte Blom, in the woods and trails that run along the Longleaf Trace, Hattiesburg, MS. August 2018

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