Friday, January 28, 2011

I Wish I Was a Headlight on a Northbound Train

I wish I was headlight on a northbound train
I'd shine my light through the cool Colorado rain
I know you rider, gonna miss me when I'm gone
Some time around 1934, the musicologists and folklorists John and Alan Lomax heard a young African-American woman, in prison for murder, sing a verse from a song they came to call "Woman Blue." The Lomaxes found other verses of "Woman Blue," which may be over a hundred years old, and published the lyrics in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs. The "rider" of the lyrics is either a man or a woman; the term possibly finds its origins in images of mounted prison guards.

Consigned to obscurity for nearly thirty years, "Woman Blue" was resurrected by the white folk singers of the early Sixties and recorded for the first time, as "I Know You Rider." From the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, the song migrated to rock acts interested in folk music; it eventually became a concert staple for the Grateful Dead. (They performed it more than 500 times.) A few years ago, the Allman Brothers began playing it, and the song with roots in Texas prisons and work farms became a transcendent communal anthem complete with virtuoso guitar solos.

The enigma of "I Know You Rider" is why it lay dormant for so long. It's a great song of dogged hope, the yearning for freedom, and a devoutly wished-for flight to a better world -- feelings and desires that resonate throughout human history. If young people experience that as celebratory, perhaps they are dancing for humanity's unique connection to itself from one generation to the next. Or maybe they're dancing for the sake of dancing. That's okay, too.


Roy said...

Cool! I never knew that this was one of the Lomax discoveries. The first version I ever heard was Jorma Kaukonen's on the first Hot Tuna album. I still have a special fondness for that acoustic blues version. Hmmmmm... Maybe we should convince Jack Hayes that he needs to do his take on this for his Monday Blues post!

K. said...

That would make a great bookend! I'll contact him. HT's is terrific, too.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

I've been blessed to see Phish in Chicago, Hot Tuna in Memphis and the Dead in Memphis their last tour and Jackson, MS in '77. Missed this song every time!
It is arguably one of my very favorite songs, up there with Special Rider Blues, Midnight Rider, CC Rider and Ride My Pony.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

BTW I tweeted this too:!/Editilla/status/31071567089766400
Follow me, chickens, I'm fulla corn!

K. said...

I haven't glommed on to this Twitter thing yet, but I approve of this particular use.

We saw the GD is '88 at Frost Amphitheatre (Stanford). Ideal California afternoon for crowd half-Deadhead and half-Cardinal. We thought about skipping the encore, but wound up staying for their only encore presentation of China Cat > I Know You Rider. The only time I saw them do it, too.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

You couldn't stay away now could'ya.
Admit it. Ya'missed us like Toy Story III.
Come ooonnn. We sure as fuck have missed youz.