May 6, 2010

Oh Shenandoah

Sunday 28th March - Day 48

If you thought yesterday was a dull day to read, well this one isn't even going to reach those low thrills. So be warned.

Following on from the joys of the Blue Ridge Parkway we planned to drive along the Skyline Drive today. But the weather had other ideas. The road has risen before us a lot on this trip (and not in the good way that Johnny Rotten was singing about on Rise.) And, unlike in Britain, when the road starts to climb here it keeps on climbing. For miles. Sometimes it's an ear popping fast ascent and other times, like today, it's a looong slooow steady engine droning cruise which takes you into the clouds. Literally. When we reached the entrance to Skyline Drive we were in fog. And fog, Carol tells me, is a cloud that has touched down. We couldn't see more than 50 yards. The toll booth/entrance to the Skyline slipped slowly into vision from the mist, looking like something from a John Le Carre cold war novel. The Skyline Drive pretty much carries on where the Blue Ridge Parkway leaves off. It was created in the same era, it's very high up (clue in the name) and it runs along the Blue Ridge. But it differs in three ways ways: 1) it's shorter, just 105 miles long 2) it's in the Shenandoah National Park and 3) they charge you $15 to drive it! That's another thing that's starting to make me value Britain a little bit more. We don't have to pay to go into our National Parks. True the car parks within the parks ain't cheap but it seems pretty standard to have to pay to drive through a National Park in America. We have yet to pay for that privilege. We would have down in Yellowstone, but as all bar one of the roads road is closed in winter we didn't even have the option of paying. Because yesterday's drive was so beautiful we would probably have paid up today, but there's not much point driving the Skyline when you can't see the sky. Or the edge of the road. Or the 3000 foot drop that's just over the edge of the road. So we turned around and headed for Baltimore.

The song that brought us to this part of the country in the first place is probably the oldest song on our list. Oh Shenandoah is a classic expression of love for either a girl or a place. I've always read it as being about the place but some think it's about an Indian chief's daughter. Either way, as it's folk music there are different versions so you can suit yourself. My money is on the original being about the land because it was a sailor's song, and given that there's going to be another girl in the next port I think that what the sailor is yearning for is home.

To my ears it sounds like an Irish ballad. And seeing as how it's been in existence since at least 1882, it's not surprising that it doesn't sound 'American'. Britannia was still ruling the waves back then with the help of men from all over her empire. So I expect that the old world supplied the main cultural influence on the men who wrote songs about the new world. And according to the mighty Wikipedia a man called J.E. Laidlaw of San Francisco reported hearing a version sung by a black Barbadian on a ship from Glasgow in 1894. But it fascinates me that though the music still sounds British/Irish, the songwriter clearly sees himself as American and that land as being his land. The USA may have been less than 100 years old when Oh Shenandoah was first penned but already the white settlers were prone to a sentimental romanticisizing of the place that was every bit as heartfelt as any Irish ballad.

Is this a well known song in the UK? I'm not so sure. I'm from an Irish family and got bitten by the folk music bug when I was a youth though I doubt my non-folk loving contemporaries would know it. But any serious muso should know it. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Bryn Terfel has sung it. Instrumentalists cover it too and they are equally diverse... from Bill Frisell to James Galway to Keith Jarrett. It's become a standard for classical crossover tenors and jazz soloists with an eye on some sales. And of course it's meat and drink to the folk, country and bluegrass gangs. Others who couldn't resist it include Robeson, Dylan, Van the Man, Judy Garland and Jimmy Rodgers. Ok so not everybody... Slipknot haven't done it (yet) but Thin Lizzy did so you get my point. Here's a couple of versions you might like...

So we drove through Shenandoah and it was wet and green and looked like Ireland. A bit. It also looked at times like it was home to the sort of men in the film Deliverance. You know, the ones who liked pigs. Looking at America from across the water we think the rednecks live far south, or out west. But they live all over. We were picking up Washington radio stations while driving past shacks that looked like they were auditioning for parts in teenage slasher flicks. Not too many Democratic Party members in those parts I suspect. And yes, appearances can be deceptive, but the local radio talk show made me pretty sure the appearances were accurate. The hot topic of debate was the Virginia Governor's willingness (seemingly nailed on) to sign a bill which will change things for members of the public who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Up to now those poor oppressed free citizens were not allowed to carry their guns into places that served alcohol. Unbelievable I know. You may have the right to carry the gun but not into a joint that served alcohol. Despite the cross my heart swear to die promises that they wouldn't get steaming drunk and start shooting... they still weren't allowed to take that concealed weapon into a bar. Or a restaurant. Or anywhere that sold booze. But Let Freedom Ring, the gun lobby had seemingly convinced the Governor that it was downright evil to stop good, God-fearing, gun-loving citizens from taking their heat into a bar. So now (or soon) you can sit next to your buddy at the bar as he glugs his Miller, or your wife in a restaurant as she sips a cheeky little chardonnay, and still get a boner because you can feel that cold steel strapped to you.

The words "fucking" and "insane" spring to my mind.

The shacks and radio show told me I had to get out of this place. So I put my foot down and headed for Baltimore, Maryland. Or as it's also known (because of the gang wars)... Bodymore, Murderland.

(For unbiased reporting of all gun law issues I cannot recommend But I can recommend it for scary mentalists who love guns waaaaaay too much. Fancy some Gun Talk Radio? You got it.)

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