Saturday, January 31, 2009

Telegraph Road--Elegy For America

The frightening pace of our lurch toward economic darkness in the short time since the era of Obama began got me to thinking about our economic history and how we got here. Tocqueville's warnings about the tension between liberty and equality, and the tendency of democratic peoples to favor equality over liberty do not make the spectacle of liberty's loss any easier, especially when it comes under the subterfuge of an economic crisis. A song by Mark Knopfler (one of America's most thoughtful writers), Telegraph Road, came to mind; I have always found a kind of solace in its wistful look back, the burgeoning desperation of its look forward. It's how I'm feeling now, as I see the actual outlines of what David and I have been writing about here for a year begin to take shape. Are we going to escape the deadening stillness, the suffocation, of a socialist paradigm pressed down on us by political masters who have managed to turn the tables on us? There is no more wilderness to push into; a free America is the world's last best hope; without it, there is the dark, the cold, and the rain of Michigan's Telegraph Road, Knopfler's inspiration for the song.

Knopfler lays out the American experience, from the pioneers' push into the trackless wilderness to the beginning signs of industrial civilization's exhaustion. Told from the perspective of a factory worker, the descendant of that man with the sack on his back, its lament is even more poignant now, after the heady and high times of the long boom. The rich, the powerful, the connected, always escape worst of it, while the producers and the workers are left to "pay what's owed", to "reap from some the seed that's been sowed":

I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there's no work here to be found
yes and they say we're gonna have to pay what's owed
we're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed

The fundamental injustice of it all, and the political contrivance that is its source, may yet gall enough of the rank and file to rise up and head off our fall from grace; but many just wish they were like the birds on the wires on the telegraph road, able to fly away from all the signs saying "sorry but we're closed".

Listen to it here: Think about what this country started out to be, and what it is turning into--and what it still could be. Like any truly epic saga, it is long--14 elegiac minutes.

A long time ago came a man on a track
walking thirty miles with a pack on his back
and he put down his load where he thought it was the best
made a home in the wilderness


He built a cabin and a winter store
and he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
and the other travellers came walking down the track
and they never went further, no, they never went back


Then came the churches then came the schools
then came the lawyers then came the rules
then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
and the dirty old track was the Telegraph Road


Then came the mines - then came the ore
then there was the hard times then there was a war
telegraph sang a song about the world outside
telegraph road got so deep and so wide
like a rolling river. . .


(Bridge)

And my radio says tonight it's gonna freeze
people driving home from the factories
there's six lanes of traffic
three lanes moving slow. . .


I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there's no work here to be found
yes and they say we're gonna have to pay what's owed
we're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed


And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
they can always fly away from this rain and this cold
you can hear them singing out their telegraph code
all the way down the telegraph road


You know I'd sooner forget but I remember those nights
when life was just a bet on a race between the lights
you had your head on my shoulder you had your hand in my hair
now you act a little colder like you don't seem to care


But believe in me baby and I'll take you away
from out of this darkness and into the day
from these rivers of headlights these rivers of rain
from the anger that lives on the streets with these names


'cos I've run every red light on memory lane
I've seen desperation explode into flames
and I don't want to see it again. . .
From all of these signs saying sorry but we're closed...


all the way down the telegraph road.

4 comments:

Roundhead said...

terrific post -

great, great song, I've loved that album (`Love Over Gold') for years, I think it's pretty much as good as `Brothers in Arms,' though a far less well-known Knopfler song.

btw, though, I hope you're wrong and that liberty endures (I'm certain it will...)

harold said...

ah, Roundhead, you have shown yourself to be a man of taste. Love over Gold is also one my favorites.

As far as liberty goes, I know that the desire for it will never be extinguished, but the actual article we know can be snuffed out for decades at a time--Soviet Union, 70 years, Cuba 50 years and counting, ditto China; and the many burgeoning socialist Chavez client states in South America are giving it a run. Sigh...

Roundhead said...

I know Harold - it's not optimistic.

But the darkest hour is before the dawn, as they say...

Benjamin Shaw said...

Only one nit to pick, as it is a great song. But Mark Knopfler was born 12 August, 1949 in Glasgow, Scotland. Now that seems to me to make him a Scottish, not an American, songwriter.