Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman have collaborated to bring us Dear John, a tribute album to the great folk artist John Hartford (1934-2001). Dear John includes ten of Hartford’s songs, one being “Gentle on My Mind,” which won Hartford four Grammies.
There are several versions of “Gentle on My Mind” written, recorded, and performed by Hartford and others. The most popular one has lightning-quick banjo and fiddle parts (Hartford was a virtuoso of both instruments). But Ellis and Hartman offer a cover that moves with the slow pace and stooped posture of a weathered vagrant shuffling down another dirt road to catch another train to another town in an endless tour of towns.
There are quiet interludes, but no solos, no exhibitions of musical prowess in this reading of “Gentle on My Mind.” Instead, Hartford’s words stand out. If they were left on paper never to be put to music, they would make a respectable poem, one reminiscent of the work of James Wright, who lyricized 20th century America in all its beauty and sordidness. “Gentle on My Mind” rambles down the page as its itinerant, knapsack-toting speaker wanders across a desolate American landscape in which the industrial and the natural are part of the same continuum: The “wheat fields and the curled vines / And the junkyards and the highways come / between us,” Hartford sings in verse one.
“Gentle on My Mind” is about the freedom of the road and the freedom to love someone without being tied down to him or her. The speaker drifts wherever he pleases and warms himself in the beds of women who long for something more than sex and pine and weep when he unmoors and moves on. Yet he is clearly in love with a particular woman, who is “wavin’ from the backroads / By the rivers of (his) memory” in the chorus. To find her, the speaker has to travel in his mind, which is itself a map, a network of waterways and obscure byways, and whether she waves goodbye or hello, we don’t know.
The speaker, a true tramp through and through, is incapable of thinking outside of geography and traveling. Thus, he loves not the woman, but the fact that she agrees to his come-and-go-as-I-please policy. She is an ideal, an emblem of freedom. He loves her solely because she is free and respects his freedom. The knowledge that her “path is free to walk” and that he’s “not shackled by forgotten words and bonds” makes him remember her. More to the point, this knowledge allows him to remember her without remorse. It’s not the memory of “some other woman cryin’ to her mother” that he revisits, for guilt haunts those recollections. Jilted and abandoned, those women expected commitment, and he doesn’t care to dwell on how their hearts broke when he split.
We could rightfully accuse the speaker of selfishness. He lives fully for himself and takes his pleasure without regard for others. And even the woman of his memory is just an embodiment of what he truly loves, a type of freedom that always prioritizes the self and justifies using others and discarding them when they’ve served their purpose.
Consider the imagery at the end of the song. He imagines that his tin can full of steaming soup is the head of his beloved resting against his chest. He nourishes himself on the thought of her just as he nourishes himself on the soup. She keeps him going, and she is the only constant in his life. In his mind, she always awaits him, never the other way around.
This kind of freedom is romanticized in the cultural figure of the drifting loner, who, brooding and uncommonly attractive in movies, snubs convention and claims that society, with its man-made institutions and endless expectations, is a prison. But should we romanticize this figure and the idea of freedom for which he or she proselytizes when it teaches that “I” should always be first?
Anyway, “Gentle on My Mind” is a classic, and Ellis and Hartman do it justice.
Dear John is available online, and the day after Christmas, Robert Ellis will be performing at House of Blues.