My own private Idaho

Tell me you don’t do it too. You’ve got this favorite album and you’ve come to know it like the face of a friend. You play it when you want to listen and when you don’t. It holds up. It holds you up when you need it. Pretty soon you’ve got some habits, maybe bad ones, like reaching across the table to pull a broccoli stalk off someone’s plate and eat it like a piece of licorice. But hey—he wasn’t going to touch it. He doesn’t care about broccoli. (Or table manners.) It’s kinda nice to reach that point with people. But you can miss out on stuff when you get comfortable.

So that album: is there a song whose opening bars make you reach for the Forward>> button? Do you instinctively head for the stereo as one track is ending so as to skip that one you never seem to want to hear?

All that love all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make?
I gave up a life of crime
I gave it to a friend of mine
Something else was on my mind
The only ghost I’m haunted by
I hear her howling down below
Idaho, Idaho

Wolves oh wolvesoh can’t you see?
Ain’t no wolf can sing like me
And if it could then I suppose
He belongs in Idaho
Packs of dogs and cigarettes
For those who ain’t done packing yet
My clothes are packed and I want to go
Idaho, Idaho

Out at sea for seven years
I got your letter in Tangier
Thought that I’d been on a boat
‘Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads
Idaho, Idaho

I used to skip over the song “Idaho” off the (beloved) album The Animal Years. Because I used to listen to it in cafes while I wrote, and the song was too quiet, I reasoned, for the surroundings. But I think truthfully it broke my concentration, even during those times I was listening to not really have to listen. The drawn-out phrases (howls, really) taking flight above barely-there guitar drew my thoughts away from clinking glasses and toward unblinking melancholy, and I was already about as sad as I could stand. The other sad songs were okay, somehow. “Idaho” I didn’t do very often.

My last post chronicled a recent road trip to my native Michigan, and I decided then I’d tackle Idaho. Because it’s a song about home, I figured. (Josh is from Idaho.) But when I looked back at the words I was surprised to find it never mentions home. It’s a unquiet ghost (verse 1), a longed-for destination (verse 2), a place whose very name is escape hatch to transform ocean to land (verse 3). It sure feels like home, and we’re pretty loathe to presume around here (eh hem), but it seems fair in this case.

But what else about this speaker. He reminds me of the poor chap from “Best from the Best,” another wind-blown, wayworn adventurer who winds up on a boat for a spell. But I think “Idaho” puts us on a boat for a spell. How does it do this? By playing with the meter:

I gave UP a LIFE of CRIME
SOMEthing ELSE was ON my MIND

Lapping, rolling waves, a rocking boat; a Michigan kid needs no more. Note the pattern breaks with “I’m,” which I like. There’s a lot of “I” in this song. It plays with meter in the opening lines, and word meaning too. The result is simple and elegant.

All that love, all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make
I gave up a life a crime
I gave it to a friend of mine

Love and mistakes issue from the same source—the same verb—the same impulse?—and who ever thought you might actually give to another the thing you gave up. I always think [insert *grin*] after that fourth line. Despite the desperation, the emptiness, the despondency, there’s a gentle shrug of a shoulders. And it almost all rolls off.

I confess: I don’t know who he is. Well, actually I think he’s made up, like the composite sketch in “Best for the Best.” But perhaps you know of a pirate Idahoan minstrel who once descended into hallucination upon receiving a letter in Tangier? Or a Seven Year War vet. I’ve been looking, but nothing so far.

But . . . there is the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, a once-amorous, then-wounded soul pressed into piracy after ticking off his sweetheart:

Since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences—why shouldn’t they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 108, emphasis mine)

He grabs his soul’s sworn comrades and the adventure is jolly—”It’s nuts!”—at first:

The Black Avenger stood still with folded arms, ‘looking his last’ upon the scene of his former joys and his later sufferings, and wishing ‘she’ could see him, now abroad on the wild sea, facing peril and death with dauntless heart, going to his doom with a grim smile on his lips. (ATS, 113)

Homesickness comes to haunt, however, and the pirates’ lust begins to flag. They try to pawn the life they’ve chose off on one another, and the Black Avenger does defect, for a night, and then goes back with a plan to bring them all home to glory.

Ain’t no wolf can sing like me

In the late nineties Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk icon Woody, asked English protest singer Billy Bragg to come over and look through a heap of silent lyrics and poems left behind by her father. Never recorded, they’d lost any melody for good upon Guthrie’s death in 1967. The words were filed away at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York—typed or scribbled on scraps of paper. Bragg came to America “searching for the spirit of Woody Guthrie,” as he puts it in the 1999 documentary Man in the Sand. The film opens with footage of him—presumably early on in the project—driving through the streets of Woody’s hometown. Stark black letters adorn the nearby water tower: “HOME OF WOODY GUTHRIE.” Bragg gets out of the car to look. He wants a picture that frames him and water tower, but he’ll have to trespass onto someone’s front lawn to get it. He’s visibly reluctant.

“They might get loads of people doing it,” he says, glancing at the front door and hurrying across the grass.

His concern left me feeling a little sad. A few scenes later one can reasonably conclude that Bragg has realized his mistake.

Playing over those opening scenes are the lyrics to a song Guthrie wrote, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” in 1946. Actually I’ve been wondering if Woody sang it in a minor key. Bragg chose a major one, and he wrote a jaunty, boastful melody reminiscent of summer childhood days to enliven the words. I’ve been playing the hell out of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” a triumphant tale of prepubescent seduction-against-the-odds set in Woody’s home county of Okfuskee, Oklahoma. There’s a dauntless speaker with a plucky refrain: Ain’t nobody who can sing like me, he says.

Bragg’s passion for Guthrie’s music is inspiring and insightful—

Woody was great at falling in love—obsessive love—with people who weren’t really there.

I like him already.

And it’s not that far of a leap—I swear—to Mark Twain, it turns out. I’ve barely read any books yet and twice already Woody’s been compared to Huck Finn: once by daughter Nora and once in the forward of a biography. As you now know I have recently read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And maybe it’s the weather and the longing for the freedom and friends of a summer vacation circa 1987, but I could not help thinking that Guthrie’s words and Bragg’s tune together go rather beautifully with Twain’s tale from his own boyhood . . .

Oh just give it a go. Push the play button to hear “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (words by Woody Guthrie, 1946 & music by Billy Bragg, 1997) and see below for a little mash-up.

Woody Guthrie
Mark Twain, printer’s apprentice
Samuel Clemens

I lived in a place called Okfuskee
And I had a little girl in a holler tree
I said, little girl, its plain to see
Aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face, and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom, and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 11)

She said its hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

When she cautiously faced around again, a peach lay before her. She thrust it away; Tom gently put it back; she thrust it away again, but with less animosity. Tom patiently returned it to its place; then she let it remain. (ATS, 59)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

“Put on your bonnet and let on you’re going home; and when you get to the corner, give the rest of ’em the slip, and turn down through the lane and come back. I’ll go the other way, and come it over ’em the same way.” (ATS, 64)

We walked down by the buckeye creek
To see the frog eat the goggle eye bee
To hear that west wind whistle to the east
There aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Do you love rats?”
“No, I hate them!”
“Well, I do too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing around your head with a string.” (ATS, 65)

Oh my little girly will you let me see
Way over yonder where the wind blows free
Nobody can see in our holler tree
And there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Now, Becky, it’s all over—all over but the kiss. Don’t you be afraid of that—it ain’t anything at all. Please, Becky.” (ATS, 67)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it on to she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“I reckon it’s wrong—but—”
“But—shucks! Your mother won’t know, and so what’s the harm? All she wants is that you’ll be safe; and I bet you she’d a said go there if she’d a thought of it. I know she would!” (ATS, 223)

Now I have walked a long long ways
I still look back to my tanglewood days,
Ive led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying, aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual; he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture. . . . .
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
(Mark Twain, Preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

. . . I’m curious what is meant by being master of the minor key. Is it simply a testament to resilience in courtship, in hard times? Or is there a little . . . manipulation going on here? Is he saying he sings the blues to spark concern and then affection? Hmmph. That works, in my experience. Moving on.

Packs of dogs and cigarettes
De Stijl by The White Stripes“Idaho” may also pay homage to the album at left, De Stijl by The White Stripes. The speaker in “A Dog’s Best Friend” is going in the opposite direction of our man in “Idaho:” away from home, away from love and community. Human community, anyway. But check out the final verse of track nine: Mere coincidence?

That single word

My money’s on Idaho.


Reading the Mississippi

Mark Twain tears into the Mississippi river like, I don’t know, a serial dater relative telling you about her latest guy over the potato salad at a Labor Day family picnic. Both presume a healthy skepticism and rush to their subject’s defense. Both take strength in the superlative. Twain begins Life on the Mississippi like this—

The Mississippi is well worth reading about.

—just in case you’re feeling a little queasy about the 414 pages and four Appendices. By the end of page one he’s proudly pronounced her the longest, crookedest, most expectation-defying river in the world. And so fertile! He dispatches the St. Lawrence, the Rhine, and the Thames with their inferior water discharge. And he starts in on perhaps his most beloved observation—for don’t we all love to find ourselves reflected back—the mighty stream’s great eccentricity. Doesn’t it narrow and deepen at its mouth when the other tired conformists do just the opposite?

And there begins page two.

If you’re standing on a riverbank south of Baton Rouge, Twain tells us, the mud deposit of the Mississippi likely created that land. And it can just as easy take it away by eroding its alluvial banks at will and charging off in any direction it pleases. It makes and breaks towns this way—lively port towns can become sleepy country ones when the river deserts—and can change your state of residence overnight. In this way it could have rendered a Missouri slave a free inhabitant of Illinois.

One begins to feel a little enthusiasm. And then Twain, reminding us that the first white man, De Soto, first glimpsed the stream in 1542, goes for broke:

Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.

Take that, Europe! And then, like the cousin breathlessly contemplating how he can still be single, Twain takes aim at over a century’s worth of crap explorers who, though they were crawling, robbing, and enslaving all over the place, didn’t think the river was worth a look. He sniffs

In our day we don’t allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel. (LM, 43)

In a recent post I alluded to Life on the Mississippi as a love letter of sorts, and I must say that now as I approach page 414 I have a clearer vision of why that would be: the trajectory of Twain’s affection resembles my own for a handful of people and things I’ve known. He does longing so brilliantly, and to this I can relate. But it gets complicated, of course, for he gets a lot closer than sixteenth century musings and the stoic statistics of the river’s drainage basin. And longing rarely—in my experience too, Mr. Twain—survives possession, or mastery.

He gets right behind the wheel, actually, apprenticed to the renowned steamboat and famously cool-headed pilot Horace Ezra Bixby in his early twenties. Twain’s love of the river stemmed from a vivid childhood obsession—he played pilot and first mate like other generations played cops and robbers—and he’s in his glory to be living out a dream.

Here I must quickly give a rudimentary description of a rudimentary science: the piloting of steamboats down the Mississippi in the mid-nineteenth century. There was no GPS, no buoys, no charts, no lights save the “flickering, smoky, pitch-dripping, ineffectual torch-baskets.” (LM, 176) There was just huge, frightfully expensive boats, an ever-changing river, an engine powered by boilers producing steam under enormous pressure, and an economical (and testosterone-driven?) need to reach the destination as fast as possible without, well, blowing up. And many did blow up. Twain’s beloved younger brother Henry died of injuries sustained in the explosion of the Pennsylvania.

Sometimes they tossed in a cargo load of highly flammable cotton.

The pilots sat up high in the pilot house armed with a wheel, a speaking tube, some bells, a log book filled out by the previous watch, maybe a whistle. They rang the bells to signal the leadsmen down below to go to starboard or larboard (now called port) and take a sounding. This entailed lowering oneself half off the boat and dropping a lead line in the water to measure the depth, which was of vital interest since about 1,543,442 things (no exaggeration as Twain tells it) could conspire to change the depth or introduce a crisis and thus ground or sink the boat.

Leadsmen would report depth findings back by singing the mark—and they really did sing it. Mark One signaled six feet above the lead (lead-filled pipe attached to bottom of lead line), Mark Twain signaled twelve feet above the lead (Twain calls it two fathoms) and was a guarantee that the tub sat in safe water. The bells and speaking tube were used to communicate with the engine room and the engineers: they would reverse the wheel or alter the steam on command.

Regarding the origin of Sam Clemens’ pseudonym, it is a typical Twain mystery: he says he stole it upon the death of a grizzled old mariner from the ancient days of steamboat piloting, one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who wrote down purely practical information about the river and published it under the name Mark Twain. But, as footnote 50 in my Penguin Classic reports, there is “no absolute evidence” to prove or refute this claim, and the scholars are obviously nettled by this. The footnote sighs and shakes its head and sends us off to another text for the most in-depth exploration of “this whole difficult issue” (LM, 449).

Twain would object to my calling it a rudimentary science. He goes to great lengths in the first portion of the book to intimate just how exact a science it was: a science whose facts and principles and methods were lodged wholly in the prodigious brain—the memory—of the steamboat pilot. That organ had to house the Google Earth capture of the Mississippi before there was Google Earth. Twain is endlessly praising of it, and I can see why.

His own training in the river did not begin well. As I read the early chapters, of his arguments with Bixby, of the painful unfurling of the minute attentions the river would require, I was reminded . . . of a familiar cadence and sentiment from a beloved book from my own childhood. And since I’ve had mash-ups on the mind, I figured . . .

Mark Twain Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

The below sticks quite close to the text, saving you, by my estimation, 23 5/8 pages of reading. You’re welcome or I’m sorry, I can’t really decide.

[Green indicates Horace Bixby speaking
Red indicates the leadsmen
Black is Samuel Clemens].


Learning* a River Cub

You’ll learn this river
By heart, you’ll see!
You’ll know this river
Like A, B, C.

Must I learn it upstream and down?
Of course you dash-dash-dashed clown!

Must I learn all brands of night?riverboat.gif
Pitch-black, gray mist, and yes, moonlight.

Must I learn it without buoy?
From New Orleans clear through St. Louis.

Each craggy stump and wet wood pile?
Only for the next twelve hundred miles.

Oh hellfire, blazes, and damnation!
I’ll chip a piece of that plantation!

You’ll get this river
By heart, you’ll see!
You’ll know this river
Like A, B, C.

seuss1.jpgBut I can’t remember in the fog
buried wrecks or Hanging Dog.

I can’t remember all the marks
caving banks or in the dark.

I can’t remember Madrid’s Bend
Jacket Pattern or fickle wend.

I can’t remember in a raft
in a yawl or fore-and-aft.

I can’t remember shapeless shore
I can’t remember one thing—

Half Twain! Half Twain!
Half Twain! Half Twain!

Look out now—
You’ll bash her brains!

I quit! A roustabout I’ll be!
I’ll kill the cub who quits on me.

Bluff reefs and sand bars and to think
I can’t even recall the ways to sink!steamboatpainting.jpg

Would you, could you, had you notes?
Start writing or you’ll kill the boat!
That there is Six Mile Point, so look
and use your Memorandum book.

Oh wait—what’s that I see?
A friendly sight, that cottonwood tree!
I know him from our last trip down
And hell—I recognize this town!

I did it! I’ve got this river now.mississippiriver_nearhannibal.jpg
(And you said I couldn’t pilot a cow.)

But somehow nothing seems as fine.
The romance is gone, new burden mine.

The water now a telling yarn
I read to keep the boat from harm.

Say farewell to beauty and grace
And fix an eye on the shoalest place.

*As Twain puts it, “‘Teach’ is not in the river vocabulary.” (LM, 90)


I quite like this passage about learning to read the water:

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . . There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with ever re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface. . . but to the pilot that was an italicized passage . . . for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. (LM, 94)

And reading the river did, in Twain’s estimation, rob it of romance:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water . . . I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! (LM, 95)

But I said it gets complicated, and that’s because the book is an amalgam of diverse parts: there’s the river’s early history, then the text about his pilot days published years earlier in The Atlantic and called Old Times on the Mississippi, a segue in chapter 21 in which Twain explains away the intervening twenty-one years of his life (in half a page), and the last part captures his return to the river in April 1882 when he was forty-six years old. The last is by far the longest, and one senses that Twain has forgotten that romance exited the river when he was just twenty-three, for he drifts up and down its banks in his middlish age bidding it farewell all over again: lamenting loss and bygone days and change, and muttering doubt over the efficacy and wisdom of some of the endeavors that are meant to symbolize progress.

Mostly he misses his old friends:

Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woful. The absence of the pervading and jocund steamboatman from the billiard-saloon was explained. He was absent because he is no more. His occupation gone, his power has passed away, he is absorbed into the common herd, he grinds at the mill, a shorn Samson and inconspicuous. Half a dozen lifeless steamboats, a mile of empty wharves, a negro fatigued with whiskey stretched asleep, in a wide and soundless vacancy, where the serried hosts of commerce used to contend! Here was desolation, indeed. (LM, 172)

He’s really quite sweet about it, and is rather brave and fair about the myriad changes that have befallen the river and the river life. He’s nostalgic, but he draws an exacting line, for he is quite critical of people and places clinging to fraudulent principles—religious and aristocratic, for example—that hinder society’s progress. It’s lovely to be there with him on a personal journey so obviously close to his heart, even if Kaplan, our resident Twain biographer—telling us how Twain said he’d live his life over as a lifelong pilot—had to go and write this

[Twain’s] fantasy was of a time and a Sam Clemens that had never existed. (SMT, 382)

Ah, but they existed for him. I suppose it is the biographer’s sober office to point out such truths, but I’ve nurtured my own self-fulfilling fantasies and mostly they’re harmless to others and bring joy to me. If one has to long—and I think artists do, if not all people—bygone days and repainted memories will take you a good part of the way. And anyway, Twain’s river lives and will endure in such treasures as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the paper brick that is our subject now. So . . . score one for things that don’t exist.

But Life on the Mississippi is much more than a trip down Twain’s memory lane. Twain had a hell of a time writing it, and I’m only guessing that might have been down to the amount of things he was trying to do, or the amount of things he felt. He’d already written some straight travel books, but those were about places he’d never been and to which he had no emotional connection.

We know he did want it to be the indispensable guide to his beloved Mississippi from discovery through the present day, threaded through with the earliest and dearest memories he had. But once on the five thousand mile journey, the richness of the material must have staggered him a little: the singular river characters and their tall tales, the port towns in every state of boom and blight—some still wearing the wounds of the recent war, the new industries cropping up, famous feuding families, an opportunity for some commentating on the contrasts between north and south, slavery, and, of course, the utterly changed aspect of the “stupendous flood,” in which former islands had sidled up to the shore and new ones—called tow-heads—had formed.

And much more—and much of it very funny. He shares the narrative with a number of travel writers of the time, quoting from their reviews of the area and poking fun—one Captain Marryat, R.N. declares the river “the great common sewer of Western America”—and whole chapters are submerged in other people’s stories, told in their own voices. (LM, 201)

It can feel—like this post, I fear—a little like an all-but-the-kitchen-sink performance, but despite the structural oddities and dense content and avalanche of details, one emerges announcing the whole wild thing a success, feeling warmly toward the Mississippi and awarding her the pivotal place in American history and identity that Twain argues for from page one. And with the benefit of over a century’s worth of hindsight, one can fish out a lot of evidence that human nature is remarkably the same, even if your 1860 steamboat is a 2007 subway car.


Josh Ritter has said that his album The Animals Years was influenced by Life on the Mississippi. There’s no neat quote comparison between it and Twain’s literary carnival. But I think there are subtle parallels in theme, structure, and effect. There’s nostalgia in Idaho, present-day social commentary on religion (God himself in particular gets walloped), war, politics in Thin Blue Flame and Girl in the War. Tall tales and colorful characters in Lillian, Egypt and Best for the Best. Journey in Monster Ballads, which, like Life on the Mississippi, guest stars Huck Finn: he suddenly appears and narrates the third verse of the mysterious song—Twain sunk a whole chapter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the third chapter of his Mississippi book. And all against a rich backdrop of things that could be one man’s Mississippi river valley: America and her history, the American West, home, books . . . love.

And would it be blasphemy to compare those eleven tracks to . . . Twain’s “chocolate tide” itself? Is it the same album in the dark, in the rain. . . at the park . . . on the train? No. Does it boast a few . . . eccentricities? Yes. Does familiar scenery drift by? Leaky buckets, blowing boilers, sure. But play it forwards or backwards, set it to shuffle, lock it in repeat, get it by heart . . . unlike in Twain’s, in my experience you don’t lose a thing.

The effect, for me—if it isn’t clear—is enthusiasm, and inspiration. So even if that’s all that Josh intended to borrow from Life on the Mississippi—its winning passion, humor, tone, reach, power—well, in making my point perhaps Twain would lend one thing more:

The Animal Years is well worth listening to . . .


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River days

There was a moment recently when I and everything I own was out on the road between my old place and this new one. I sat in the cab of the rather overlarge moving truck, my computer backpack resting safely on my knee, feeling exhilarated and chatting to the classics student who had come to help me move. Brandon told me about his recent trip cross country with the moving company’s owner, how they hiked the Grand Canyon and skied at Tahoe while shepherding some family’s possessions from one life to another. It was a write off, he explained.

Did you know Mark Twain once claimed a gorgeous, unsettled virgin forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and then promptly burnt up nearly every tree on it? He and a friend had to launch a boat into the lake to escape the accidental conflagration. You won’t believe the things that happened to Mark Twain, and the things he made happen. The life he lived. I’ve been reading a fine biography of Twain since I wrote about Best for the Best and had to admit ignorance about his life.

So, first a clarification. Regarding the riverboat scenes in Josh Ritter’s song Best for the Best, I wrote, I can see that riverboat, the captain’s propped-up boots, the hat pulled down over his eyes. It turns out this was not the preferred way to pilot a steamboat down the—albeit placid—Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It turns out it required rather constant attention, and Twain spent much of his time behind the wheel quite frightened that he would crash or run aground. In fact he had recurrent nightmares about it. But the river—his piloting years were interrupted by the Civil War and he never took it up again—was a great source of nostalgia throughout his life, and, as was often his way, once some years had intervened he remembered it slightly differently than he had lived it. When things got sticky he often spoke longingly about returning to the river, as if he’d be immune to troubles there.

In the final verse of the cryptic song Monster Ballads we hear from Twain via Huck Finn:

And I was thinking about my river days
Thinking about me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

There’s reflection here, and high adventure, fluent friendship, flight from the law, and yet the setting imbued with the solemn and sacred. The river as church. In light of what I’ve read about Twain and those four evocative lines, I’ve been thinking about the notion of river days. Those stolen seasons of our lives when we drop our bags and forget who we are or were supposed to be and run barefoot through the tall grass of life. When the experience becomes all.

Travel is usually required. Youth helps. I chose London: went for six months, came back with hardly more than my original suitcase four years later. I had the time of my life, or so my heart keeps telling me, when Parliament or Piccadilly rises up in my mind’s eye and mocks the routine that has worn down an easy path—or a rut—that I’ve begun to follow without having to watch where I’m going. That first year in London everything seemed injected with the novel. I went about buzzing with the heightened awareness of it all, as though outside myself. Even I was a novelty, and this new me observed the other in the huge glittering city and in interaction with new foreign friends, questioning all sorts of things never questioned—or even acknowledged—before, and tending a bumper crop of new insecurities. They were good, though. They made me grow. And they made me think quite a bit about America and her place in the world.

Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been drawn to water, and some of my best thinking and feeling during my London days occurred while staring out at the muddy Thames. How to describe what happens when two human eyes linger over a body of water? Words don’t seem enough . . . soothing, I suppose. Monster Ballads just might prove that music can do better. You’ll also get the sound of journey, with the hypnotic, playful bass line and gentle, regular percussion. And so much more, or something else entirely: Monster Ballads is extraordinary in that it’s one of the most vibrant and vivid musical portraits I’ve ever heard, seen, touched, and yet it’s also . . . a pristine ivory canvas . . . being caressed by wind-rippled curtains on the windows . . . of a room of sunshine-scattered gold coins . . . in a mountainside cabin. Grab a brush, it says.

Of course the problem with having had some river days is that one can get a little impatient when the adventure dies down. One can find herself standing in her kitchen belting I don’t give a damn for just the in betweens. She might walk blocks and blocks out of her way to have a secret serenade by a foreign accent. The hard times abroad, marinated by memory, will soften.

And if one is honest she might find herself trying to replicate that frusterated river days sensation in compartments of her stateside life. She might sell all her furniture and move into a condo share across town, just to shake things up, to see if anything can seem new again. And she may, as the moving truck approaches the turning off the main road—the westward journey broken at just four miles—be tempted to turn to the driver and say, “Can we keep going?”