Some things make the room a little dusty. I sit, stare at the picture, or watch the video of the a German Shepherd greeting a returning Sergeant and the room gets a little misty. Whole warehouses of video and photos on the internet are designed to bring my emotions up to my throat. I know where that warehouse is and I don’t choose to park their very often.
However, I cannot accurately predict when the dust is going to come blowing into my room. As I get older, I find that my emotions rise and the water falls at fairly unobtrusive moments. I know that, for whatever reason, I tend to find reading the end of Gunga Din difficult. Something that has been tied down and fastened in the pickup truck of my heart gets loose and starts rattling around until “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.” I don’t know if it is a the memory of a favorite uncle or the noble sacrifice of a water carrier, but the poem always does me in. So I keep a fair distance between myself and Kipling, unless I need to muster up some tears. Thankfully, my list of emotional triggers is short and easily avoided.
Or so I thought. Last week, I found myself wandering through the radio stations when I heard Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger start in on the “Wabash Cannonball.” I had to pull over:
“Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar,
As she dashes through the woodland and speeds along the shore,
Hear the mighty rush of engines, hear the lonesome hoboes call,
Travelling through the jungles, on the Wabash Cannonball.”
Weeping. Full, Homeric, manly tears fell on the side of Route Two. Nothing made sense, everything was tossed into the air, and I was paralyzed while the train ran. I knew all of the words, knew their tune, and felt an old road reopen into my heart. Afterwards, I turned off the radio and looked out a the rolling Deerfield River. Since I live in the twenty first century, I opened up iTunes and bought the Pete Seeger version, then found a YouTube video, send it off to my brother, and ask him to explain my weeping. Perhaps they played at a funeral or for some sort of great moment of tragedy (perhaps the 78 Red Sox Yankees playoff?). He didn’t remember but he did get a little choked. I played the song two more times in the car and, each time, found myself loosing control of the watery cargo we all carry.
Proust writes of the madeleine, the little, buttery biscuit which transports him deep into his past. Eventually, he recalls his Aunt Leonie, on a Sunday morning in bed, giving him a taste of the cookie dipped in her tea. This involuntary memory rises up in him and sends his present day life cup over tea kettle until he settles into this old memory. The Wabash Cannonball transports me, but I cannot tell to what. I do not remember bouncing on my father’s knee to the song or dancing in a circle with the other toddlers. The specific death that I weep for remain hidden and anonymous.
Perhaps, if I am to dig deep into my history, I might just go to Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. the two of them moved into my life in the early seventies, when folk music and unadulterated liberalism rose up from the cynicism of the Nixon years. My mother surely owned “Precious Friend” and she, just as surely, played it as loud as she could inside the house. I do not remember it, but she could have waltzed and whirled my six year old self through the house while the song rumbled and roared. The specific moment does not rise to me, but who is to say that it didn’t happen? I do remember other songs blowing through the house. Most of them were show tunes. My mother loved Wildcat, Godspell, and Hair. For one famous moment, I was brought to the teacher’s desk in fourth grade and told that I really shouldn’t sing the “Sodomy” song. My mother loved her record player and she shared that love with everyone in the neighborhood.
My tears may not have a Proustian trigger; It could be in the song itself. The two singers call out in an unfamiliar tone. Pete Seeger, in particular, had an earnest voice that brought out the best of anyone. Irony does not ride on the Wabash Cannonball, nor does doubt or regret. Pete doesn’t celebrate the pollution or the porters on the Wabash Cannonball; he just celebrates. No American knew Walt Whitman as well as Seeger did; he heard America Singing and he sang the Body Electric. Unlike Pete, my life has been etched in grays. No triumph comes without defeat, no victory without loss. Every trophy comes mired in all of the difficulties that came before it. The Red Sox win the World Series and I think of my grandfather who listened to every game, but died before Big Papi hit the big ones. Pete’s clear tenor doesn’t know gray or doubt or R.E.M. self-consciousness. He stands and rings his bell. To hear Pete Seeger celebrate the Wabash Cannonball is to stand on a duck boat amid all of the confetti.
If it isn’t my history, or the singers, it could just be the song. The song, like a poem, has been shaped to slide past your brain into your heart. Both Gunga Din and the Wabash Cannonball share a tight AA/BB rhyme scheme and a tight iambic meter. Internal rhyme, repetition, and alliteration fill both works like chips in a cookie. As a result of all of this tightness, both works race along to their conclusion. However, Gunga Din ends with a melodramatic death and the Wabash Cannonball (unlike “the City of New Orleans”) continues to ride the rails.
The song continues to affect me, although I am no longer paralyzed by it. I look out over the sand and ocean of the last fifty years and mourn whatever loss my heart has tagged to this one song. But that is the way with literature. At core, we don’t know why it affects us. We don’t know why all of those kids stayed up all night with Harry Potter or why Cordelia has to die. We have a mechanism that songs, poetry, novels and fiction can trip and send our emotional carts riding downhill. Non-fiction, like essays and journalism, accesses something else in us, something more public and more explicable. Orwell, E.B. White, and Swift engage our minds from the front. They knock on the door and demand to be let in. But we can only feel the human truth when it slips hidden into our heart and sprouts unbidden, unwelcome, and painfully familiar.