21 March 2010

American History Through Its Folk Songs

All history is linear. A line can be drawn from Jamestown, Virginia or Plymouth, Massachusetts to Lima, New York, where I grew up. The same could be said for my interests. If I like Bruce Springsteen, I'll probably like one of his influences, Bob Dylan. If I like Dylan, I'll probably like his influences, people like Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. It's kind of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Or six degrees of Kevin Bean. Or, as has been said before, six beers with Kevin Bean. In this case, however, history is literally linear: the construction of the Erie Canal, a straight line of travel that cut through Western New York.

Bruce Springsteen released and toured behind a record of folk songs made popular by Pete Seeger, called The Seeger Sessions. One of these songs is "Erie Canal". I have obsessed somewhat about travel in my life: rivers, trains, cars. Mark Twain escaped on a river, Woody Guthrie on a train, and Bruce Springsteen in a car. Like the man in "Proud Mary" who left a good job in the city, where he was working for the man every night and day, I dreamed of escape and freedom. Hiking over the field across the road to hop a train and go wherever it takes me, or floating down the Mississippi River on a raft like Huck Finn, was romantic to me. The Erie Canal was dug only miles from the homesteads of both my parents' families and I wonder if the sense of escape and adventure had overtaken any of the young men in my family, and if they had thought of escaping by way of the canal.

The canal had been proposed late in the 18th century but digging did not begin until 1817. In the early 1800's Western New York was a wilderness, and the California of its time. Americans have always pursued their dreams in the West. Go West, young man! Hollywood, the Gold Rush, the Great Land Rush, and the refugees from Oklahoma who gambled everything on a plentiful California.

The song "Erie Canal" was written by Thomas S. Allen in 1905. It is a sentimental song, lamenting the loss of the past, when the canal was powered simply by mule. By 1905 canal traffic had converted to steam and diesel power, passing by the 15-miles a day covered by the boater and his mule. I like this song for lots of reasons. The canal was a handful of miles away from my families 19th century homesteads. It opened up the area my family made their home. And I like it because Bruce and his band really rock the song.

1 comment: