A New Series
From time to time, you hear a song that flows like pure unadulterated art…a song that might even impel you to look up the lyrics. That is certainly the first thing I do when the guitar strings hit my heart strings. What I have found over the years of that practice is a goldmine of politics, poetry, and philosophy. Now, I do not want to condescend, but I think generally the artistry of music, like movies, is lost on many people. Unfortunately we can come to look upon those things as entertainment alone, something that just sounds good. And music does, indeed, fall under the broad jurisdiction of the entertainment industry, not the art industry. Sure that could well be a matter of linguistics, but when in doubt…
So I think it fitting to open a new series on this blog dedicated to music: Songs of Ages we’ll call it. Perhaps what we have said that most people ignore the art of music might be a bit far-fetched. Regardless, I would enjoy bringing light to music that hasn’t been so heavily scrutinized. Not to mention this blog is partially about me branching out my writing.
That lengthy explanation out of the way, like most things that I do here, I will preface by stating my credentials: I have no musical credentials. So enjoy and thanks for tuning in.
Today we will attempt to explicate what I find to be Kris Kristofferson’s most somber and subversive piece, “Casey’s Last Ride. You see, Kristofferson is widely regarded as a country artist and, being that he is a former army helicopter pilot, a modern day cavalryman, I wouldn’t expect less of him. Yet his days stationed in Europe were undoubtedly influential for, in this piece, we find the cowboy’s guitar strumming in no place other than the London Underground. The setting, though, is only the first of things to shatter our expectation of what a country song is. Casey, the very subject of the song, is really a nobody. This, amongst the metal absurdity of the city, hits like an overdose of reality which is particularly shocking to listen to…especially for newer generations like mine overloaded with upbeat pop-country.
Setting the stage for that OD, I think if anyone were to listen to “Casey’s Last Ride,” they would instantly classify it as a country song by ear: it comes together quickly with Kristofferson’s drawl, the slow rhythm, and acoustic twang. Nonetheless anyone who deeply listens to what that drawl is communicating, can see this is not an average country ballad. Generally we can note that Casey does not have any lines of his own. He is only spoken of by the narrator and spoken to by his old flame. Perhaps I’m going out on a limb but I think characters in country music tend to be boldly outspoken, be they a hell raiser, sheriff, or just a rigid old country inhabitant. Consider Charlie Daniel’s protagonist Johnny, who challenges the devil himself, in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia;” consider the players in any Marty Robbins Song or Johnny Cash’s unnamed personae. They might not all have lines, but their actions speak for them and their rigid (im)morality.
In Casey’s instance, we find that he does not stand tall on either side of the law, figuratively speaking. He does stand on the right side of the reflective paint in the Subway. He “minds the arrows” like everyone else. Really a standout nobody in the world of country music figures to remember. Perhaps he is even a coward if we are to consider a couple things. First that he “ignores the fatal echoes of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of [its] chains” and, second, that the fatal echoes represent some sort of call to action.
His lack of voice in this country tune lends confusion to his meeting with his old girlfriend as well. We do not see Casey give in to her seduction as we might expect but, significantly, we don’t hear him reject it either. He is just gone…gone to what might be the physical embodiment of the country, “the Golden Crown” or our figurative saloon. There, we see a fragile shell of the brazen saloon our dads might know from 50’s westerns. At the counter, the song comes full circle and affirms any suspicion of Casey’s inconspicuousness: “Seeing his reflection in the lives of all the lonely men // Who reach for anything they can to keep from goin’ home.”
Now, all this comparison is not to say that all country music is cathartic or happy. Rather, I find that “Casey’s Last Ride” stands in stark contrast to my impression of country music which is more positive (especially considering my generation as previously mentioned). On the other hand, I have read that some people consider country music generally depressing. This, I would assume, is an older mentality. Regardless, I think the song has something to offer anybody. No matter how sad your country music is, you don’t often see a completely voiceless subject. And no matter your generation you don’t know of a story in London set to the tune of country music.