Soudscape: I Dream a Highway – Gillian Welch’s Song of America Explicated

Time The Revelator

I could die happy after writing a song like “I Dream a Highway” by Gillian Welch. It’s personal, cultural, spiritual, and historical. The lyrics are at the end of this post.

One of my poems has a line that goes “you, that fourteen minute song in my head…” That’s this song.

This song is also discussed at Tiny Cat Pants, where they come to some of the same conclusions as I do.

I want to start with all the references to country music, folklore, and spiritual things. The first verse has three. John, I believe, is Johnny Cash, who broke stage lights at the Grand Ole Opry in a drug-infused rage. Then she mentions the Opry’s “brand new band,” which I take to mean as the new life of the Opry and the new sound of country music. The Opry used to embody country music, with old-time sounding bluegrass and country and western, along with skits and banter. Well, we all know what country music is considered to be now. People either love country and are referring to the stuff on the radio, or people love country but not the stuff on the radio, or people just plain hate all country. Folk is a name now given to acoustic pop and Country is a name given to sentimental, twangy pop. Taylor Swift is not a country singer.

(But I just found Steve Martin playing the banjo on the Grand Ole Opry! Sweeeeeeet!)

Wow, got on a tangent there. The third line: “Lord let me die with a hammer in my hand,” refers to John Henry, the folktale hero who beats a steamdrill on a railroad track, and then dies. The line is a prayer to always be working to beat the machine who takes away from our real work. This line coming after the discussion of the downfall of Cash and the Opry gives it a whole different meaning, though. What sort of machine is taking over our music? (Hmmm could it be commercialism?) AND, this line alludes to Gillian’s other song, “Elvis Presley Blues,” which compares Elvis to John Henry.

The next line about Memphis, too, alludes to the contemporary country culture. By mentioning Memphis, the other major city of Tennessee than Nashville, she is alluding a move from the spirit of Nashville to Memphis, which is another nod to Elvis as this is where Graceland is. So maybe Elvis is the hatchet man who taught her to speak.

As for the wagon/truck and the bones, it makes me think of a scene in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a play by August Wilson, where one of the characters has a spiritual vision. He sees thousands of skeletons rattling and then they rise up and grow flesh. I think the image of rattling bones comes from a very old idea of spiritual resurrection.

The Jack of Diamonds verse refers to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, quite obviously. Which lover is Jack? Emmylou is still living, still making music (and collaborating like there’s no tomorrow with everyone under the sun!), and Gram died at 26, leaving the world as quite a legend. They were musical soul-mates, much like Gillian and Dave Rawlings, might I add.

The next verse is about a television. The most beautiful verse written about a TV I have ever read. I have stolen many poem images from this verse. But what does it mean in the context of the song?  The TV can be a symbol of postmodern perceptions of ourselves–that things don’t seem real or relevant unless they’re on the small screen. The previous verse asked the question “who am I?” This one gives no answer, leaving the speaker vague and anonymous, with the only resolution being to “dream a highway back to you.”

So now would be a good time to write about this all-important line. A highway is a very American thing. It connects us to each other. Yet we are all very isolated from many things. Family members, true friends, our own identities, heritages. The problems of our world here maybe are more mental/spiritual than physical. Or maybe there’s just a lot more going on in the radio waves and the world that we cannot see than we realize. The repeated line is a constant effort to return to that one thing that made us tick in the first place. Back to something genuine.

In the next verse, she mentions Jack of Diamonds again. There is an old folk song about the Jack of Diamonds symbolizing wealth and prosperity. The next lines allude to crazy/bad behavior. The next verse alludes to even deeper danger. Viper, knife, arsenic: all deadly.   Then the next verse feels like a hangover, as Tiny Cat Pants says. It is a painfully bright realization of consequences of actions, of life going on.

The “Sunday morning at the diner” verse has one of the best lines: “Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears.” This moment for the speaker lasts a long time. Watching the waitress, she sees a microcosm of humanity. It is a revelatory moment (“heard a call within a call”), and that’s why it lasts a thousand years. (Time is the revelator.)

The Lazarus verse alludes again to spiritual and biblical themes, but it also alludes to the folk song “Po’ Lazarus,” which is sung by the chain gang in the first scene of O Brother, Where Art Thou, on which Gillian makes an appearance and sings for the soundtrack.  “Let me see the mark death made” brings up the motif of death once again, and also resurrection.

The last verse of this marathon song brings us back to the moment, to simplicity. What will sustain us through the winter? Do we ever learn anything? The speaker chooses hardship, “rain and snow,” with the quiet knowledge that this is what life is.

Also notice that with each chorus, the silver vision has a different action. Rest, arrest, molest, and bless.

Well, that’s my explication of my favorite song. I hope you enjoyed it and are able to listen to this song. I suggest searching for it on Lala.com.

Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come and rest my soul
I dream a highway back to you

John he’s kicking out the footlights
The Grand Ole Opry’s got a brand new band
Lord, let me die with a hammer in my hand
I dream a highway back to you.

I think I’ll move down into Memphis
And thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue
I lie and wait until the wagons come
And dream a highway back to you.

The getaway kicking up cinders
An empty wagon full of rattling bones
Moon in the mirror on a three-hour jones,
I dream a highway back to you.

Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come arrest my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

Which lover are you, Jack of Diamonds?
Now you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram
I send a letter, don’t know who I am
I dream a highway back to you.

I’m an indisguisable shade of twilight
Any second now I’m gonna turn myself on
In the blue display of the cool cathode ray
I dream a highway back to you.

I wish you knew me, Jack of Diamonds
Fire-riding, wheeling when I lead em up
Drank whiskey with my water, sugar in my tea
My sails in rags with the staggers and the jags
I dream a highway back to you.

Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come molest my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

Now give me some of what you’re having
I’ll take you as a viper into my head
A knife into my bed, arsenic when I’m fed
I dream a highway back to you.

Hang overhead from all directions
Radiation from the porcelain light
Blind and blistered by the morning white
I dream a highway back to you.

Sunday morning at the diner
Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears
I watched the waitress for a thousand years
Saw a wheel within a wheel, heard a call within a call
I dreamed a highway back to you.

Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come molest my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

Step into the light, poor Lazarus
Don’t lie alone behind the window shade
Let me see the mark death made
I dream a highway back to you.
I dream a highway back to you.

What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last year’s lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow
I dream a highway back to you.

Oh I dream a highway back to you love
A winding ribbon with a band of gold
A silver vision come and bless my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

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