Saturday, July 2, 2011

Five Hundred Miles

This song has been on my mind.  It seems to me such an essentially American song: simple, strophic, tuneful, and mournful, sharing its themes -- of a trip taken far from home, of loneliness, of a kind of exile imposed in equal measures by the exigencies of circumstance, and by those arising from personal shame and pride -- with other great American songs (like "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," for instance, or Woody Guthrie's "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad").  It's supposed to have been written by Hedy West, a singer on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 1950s-early 1960s, who based it on songs sung by her Appalachian grandmother, and wrote it from the point of view of a railroader.

 My friend Rodak has recently made me a Peter, Paul, and Mary convert (which didn't take much), and here is their almost-heartbreaking version of the song:  

Here is Joan Baez's winningly ingenuous version.

And perhaps my favorite, by the Australian group The Seekers, which sounds slick in comparison to the simplicity of the others, but whose beauty can't be denied.

Happy Fourth of July to all my American readers.

8 comments:

Elise said...

Johnny Cash had list on his list of quintessential American country songs, and his daughter Rosanne has a lovely version on her CD, "The List".

Pentimento said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Elise. You can also hear Roseanne's version on Youtube, and lots more. My personal preference is for the sparsest arrangements, so I think my favorite is the P,P,& M.

Rodak said...

When I decided to put a Peter, Paul & Mary song up on Facebook the other day, this was the song I wanted to share. Because I was not satisfied with the sound quality, I went with "Early Morning Rain" (also a favorite) instead.
I just now finished listening to all the versions you've found and posted, and I like every one of them, very much. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I particularly value the Hedy West clip, because I learned something there, thanks to your commentary; and, yes, because of its "authenticity." *grin*

Pentimento said...

Rodak, I've been thinking about the "authenticity" thing in the turning away from pop music and toward "folk" music in the 1950s-60s. I've written about that here before and may do so again. Thanks for putting me on to that beautiful version of "Early Morning Rain."

Mac said...

I tired of this song in the old days, thanks partly to too many overly-earnest amateur renditions. Hearing it afresh makes me appreciate it again. And I'm delighted to hear Hedy West's version. In my teens I had a Vanguard folk anthology (well, I still have it, but I got it in my teens) which included her singing two folk songs, and they were two of my favorite tracks from the multi-disc set. I always wanted to hear more, but her records never seemed to be in the stores, and the Vanguard recordings at least seem to be out of print. This one can be had for a mere $150 at Amazon.

I also grew too "sophisticated" for Peter, Paul and Mary, but have come to appreciate them again, at least in their best moments. And as for "Early Morning Rain"--goodness gracious, what a song, surely one of the very best from the '60s folkies (Gordon Lightfoot, as I guess y'all know). My favorite version is Ian and Sylvia's.

Pentimento said...

Thanks to Rodak, I have seen how good P, P, & M were. I wasn't too familiar with their catalogue outside of "Puff the Magic Dragon" and their superlative "Blowin' in the Wind."

I've been playing "Five Hundred Miles" on my autoharp. Everything is easy to play on that axe, luckily.

Mac said...

If you haven't heard the whole album that includes "Blowin' in the Wind," (In the Wind), you should. Some of the more obscure songs are great, like the very strange "Long Chain On" and the little-known Dylan song "Quit Your Lowdown Ways".

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the tip, Mac. Going over to iTunes . . .