One of my favorite expressions of art is the use of words to paint pictures;   to create visual imagery.  It is even better if multiple layers of meaning are conveyed. I especially appreciate it when it is put to music that conveys  the intended non-verbal feel, mood, or emotion.  It is  better yet if the complete package challenges or elevates us in some way;  makes us think twice,  or takes us to a higher spiritual place.

One night not too long ago, my wife and were watching a Country & Western show on TV.  Well,  she was watching, and I was at my desk working.  It was a reunion show. Moe Bandy sang the awesome ‘Bandy, the Rodeo Clown.’  That song always reminded me of ‘Gentle on My Mind.’ There have been so money covers of ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ I bet most people have heard it. The lyrical quality of that song, the visual imagery with nuance of meaning, is as good at it gets in American music.  I rate its lyrical quality on par with a few others  from a bit a later;  Steve Goodman’s ‘City of New Orleans’ and Don McLean’s ‘Vincent {Starry, Starry Night}.’  Or from a few years earlier, Dylan’s  ‘One Too Many Mornings.’  Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides, Now  (Clouds}’ is another. All have a timelessness.  They are as fresh now as they were 38 to 46 years ago. I actually appreciate them more now, than I did back then.

Here is a little background.  The late John Hartford (1937-2001) composed ‘Gentle on My Mind’ circa 1965 -1967. It took  him about 15 minutes.  He said, fwiw, that he wrote it after viewing Davis Lean’s epic film,   ‘Dr.  Zhivago.’  Hartford was not sure what that meant, if  anything.  His friend, Glenn Campbell, recorded an urban country style version that became a smash cross over hit.  John himself did a smooth folk version that earned a Grammy.  There have been so many well received covers, in so many genres, that the royalties from this  one song made John Hartford financially independent for life.

John himself did a number of different versions. My favorite is done in his ‘New Grass’ style; with Benny Martin,  Sam Bush,  Hargus ‘Pig’  Robbins,  and Buddy Emmons.  The choppiness, the way John spits out the words;  maybe like the auditory texture of gravel beneath wheels,  gives the right sound quality to go with the visual imagery; like this line, “I dip my cup of soup back from the gurglin’ cracklin’ caldron in some train yard”

hyperlink to the new grass version in a new tab at youtube by clicking here

hyperlink a smooth folk version by John

hyperlink Glenn Campbell’s megahit version of Gentle on My Mind

One of my High School English teacher’s taught to me look for both visual images and multiple layers of meaning in novels, poems, lyrics, and so on. On the surface, ‘Gentle on My Mind’ is about a hobo that misses his lady.  On a another level, the life of the hobo is maybe metaphor for musician’s life on the road.  It is tough to maintain relationships.  There has to a spiritual bond, a platonic level of love. Like the bond between  Dr.  Zhivago and Lara?

It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk,

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch.

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line,

That keeps you in the back roads by the rivers of memory, that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

There is an attachment and a detachment; non-attachment.  He is not always there; but he keeps his sleeping bag rolled up behind her sofa.  He is not tethered by a marriage contract, a thought that was echoed  by Joni Mitchell’s classic line from the 1971 album ‘Blue’,  “We don’t need no piece of paper From the city hall. Keeping us tied and true.”

Those themes repeat here:

It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me,

Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walkin’.

It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving when I walk along some railroad track and find

That you’re moving on the back roads by the rivers of my memory and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.

It is not a physical clinging or binding.  It is not based on the approval of  others. The bond is not  judgmental, not demanding, neither rejecting nor condoning.  The contrast between physical separation and the spiritual bond of affection that transcends separation is further elaborated by:

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines and the junkyards and the highways come between us,

And some other woman’s crying to her mother ’cause she turned and I was gone.

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face and summer sun might burn me till I’m blind,

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the back roads, by the rivers flowing gentle on my mind.

That stanza makes me wonder who was/is this woman? The imagery is hard to penetrate.  What comes between them? Wheat fields? Clothes lines? Junkyards — the junk of life?    Highways — separation, distance?  Other women do not satisfy, he leaves them crying to their mother.

I dip my cup of soup back from the gurglin’, crackling cauldron in some train yard;

My beard a roughening coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face;

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can, I pretend I hold you to my breast and find,

That you’re wavin’ from the back roads by the rivers of my memory ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind

Who is the woman that dwells on the back roads,  by the rivers of his memory. The woman of his dreams that is always gentle on his mind?  Maybe his wife, the late Marie Hartford {1934-2001}?  I have no idea how long they were together.  The teacher I mentioned taught us to look outside, inside, beyond, above, below, and beside the artists’ own perspective; to look for the universal themes; for why I relate; for why others relate.  There are repeating themes in country music; of roads, trains, lost or  found platonic love (metta /  maitri},  lost or found  erotic lust (kama),  and a  sense of being lost and yearning for or even finding a way back home .

I guess in my own mind, the woman who waves, from the back-roads, by the rivers of our memories, represents the higher love of metta, maitri, 慈 {ji}, agape, or amor platonico; the love that is forever gentle on one’s citta 心 {shin}.

The New Grass version of Gentle on My Mind is found on the playlist  ‘Trains, Roads, Rodeos, Rivers, Home, & Visions’  at Music Playlists: Country / Folk Genre