Reviewing this song is an immense task. The Road Not Taken is so powerful in its imagery, emotion and beauty, that no amount of words on any review will ever do it justice. Judging by its high position (4th on the all-time “Top 83” on Simon Twining’s poll of the songs Bruce Hornsby has performed), it seems that I’m not alone in holding such an opinion.
This song ranks among the greats, and deserves to be regarded in the same historical vein as the ballads of John Lennon, or Simon & Garfunkel. In some ways, this presents a little difficulty for me, because every piece of music Bruce has released since this song can never, ever compare with The Road Not Taken. My frustrated initial reaction to Spirit Trail, which I threw up on Simon’s guestbook in January 1999, is not really a criticism on “Spirit Trail” in itself, which I have since discovered to be a strong, and wonderfully diverse album, with many powerful messages. It’s just that there’s no The Road Not Taken on it!
I apologise here and now to Bruce, Simon & Bruce’s fans for my harsh remarks, and hope that this review of Scenes from the Southside, in particular The Road Not Taken, will help make it up to you all.
“In the South-West Virginian town of Richlands” is the first assertion. As I have suggested earlier, it’s not often that Bruce pins down history to a particular geographical location. Here, however, we are drawn immediately to the location, a small, close community in the Appalachian mountains, of course a strong mining region.
“The long line of little row houses” and “… the hills out there so up and down, only see as far as the next big ridge” leaves us in no doubt about the location here. Bruce’s European fans could get some idea of this terrain if they visited South Wales. Believe me, listening to this song while travelling in former mining areas such as Islwyn, Ebbw Vale, or Rhondda Valley is like watching a video of the song in digital.
However, the main theme of the song is not restricted to one particular area. As I mentioned before, Bruce’s style is similar to a classic short-story writer, in that he takes a situation from one part of the world that is readily exportable, and equally applicable, to human nature across the globe. Here, the theme is unrequited love, and longing. “Another time, and another place, feel her in my heart, and still” reveals that there is sincere longing for a girl, regardless of the fact that both the passage of time, as well as the physical distance in mileage, has put an end to the realistic possibility of relationship.
There are further complications. We hear of the closed nature of the community. “Some things never change the way out here, an outsider could always remain that way”, suggesting that there was a possible cultural or social barrier, that the pursuant was not regarded as “one of us” in terms of the local community.
More mysterious is the assertion that “She walked along on the jagged ridge She told me she was thinking of me But every time I tried to take her away She always ran back to the rocks and the trees”. So, the pursuant has not been categorically turned down by the girl, it’s just that a combination of factors – circumstances – has prevented the potential for love from actually materialising. The reference to the girl running back to hide in the “rocks and trees” suggests a certain mysterious beauty about her. It’s obviously going to be difficult for the pursuant, or indeed any other boy, to pin her down. So we’re left to dwell on this.
Meantime, Bruce is embarking on one of his most remarkable recorded piano solos, involving a series of minor and diminished chords which seems to emphasise the gravity of the situation facing the poor bloke in the song. Bruce eventually comes back down from the solo – a series of straight chords realines and refocuses the work, back into the major key, and the third verse:
“I went back there after many years, so curious and so secretly As I looked back I held back a tear: the road not taken overcoming me. I saw her, she was sitting there. Older, thinner on the front porch It seemed the light a little brighter there, maybe I still carried the forgotten torch”.
The symphony ends with a final chorus, while the rest of us go and find the Kleenex (or whatever you guys have in America) to dry our eyes. A lesser composer would have left us there to die. However, this is no ordinary composer. Hornsby goes and launches into a spirited piano rendition of “Going Down a Coalmine”, almost as if it were his way of telling us to snap out of our lovesickness. The old “bonehead” drum sound comes back, I suppose a bit like an old familiar friend with a consoling bottle of beer.
Carwyn Tywyn, St. Valentine’s Day, 2000.
The Road Not Taken
» 10.5 MiB - 785 downloads
Band show; audience recording
October 3 2009
Follow-up from Carwyn:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth.” (Robert Frost)
I have decided to re-write my interpretation here, because of the strength of literary influence behind The Road Not Taken which I did not acknowledge in my first attempt.
As you can see, the title of the song, The Road Not Taken, can be directly linked to an earlier poem, of the same title, by New England poet Robert Frost. I have given you the first verse here, which gives you the general taste of the poem. Now to the main part of the song.
Bruce Hornsby does acknowledge the inspiration of Lee Smith in the liner notes of Scenes from the Southside. We may trace this inspiration to a specific source, namely a novel titled “Oral History”. It’s a complex novel, written in 1983, which traces several generations of the Cantrell family, who live at Black Rock, in the mountainous south-western tip of Virginia, close to the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.
A large portion of the book traces the haunting story of a young gentleman called Richard Burlage from Richmond, VA, who travels out, around 1924, to teach in a classroom in the mountains, partly out of a sense of adventure, and partly out of a sense of somewhat colonial mission to try and impart education on the “backward” Appalachian natives. We can sympathise with him in has fresh, open and inquisitive nature. The problems start, both in the book and Hornsby’s song, when he falls in love with mountain girl Dory Cantrell:
“I clapped the erasers together, raising chalk dust which hung dreamily in the shafts of sunlight that came in the windows. It was then she came, it was then she appeared, and stood in the door… she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen… The sun streamed into the schoolhouse door behind her, turning her curls into a flaming gold halo around her head.” (Oral History, pp. 118-119)
Throughout Oral History, Lee Smith manages graphically to fill in what Bruce Hornsby has sketched for us – the high, jagged ridges, the “hollers” and the “hills”. We also sense there is no way that a young town gentleman from Richmond will ever be able to prize away young Dory Cantrell. As fellow Hornsby fan David Uttal puts it, she is a “ridge runner”, born and raised in the hills, and forever destined to stay there. Although Richard and Dory do sleep together at one point, there comes a point where they have to decide on a long-term relationship. In the end, he goes back to Richmond and she stays in Black Rock – without knowing that she is actually carrying his twins!!
I suppose it is at this point where we hit the instrumental piano solo – in my view one of the finest ever recorded by Bruce.
The series of minor and diminished chords seem to reflect the sad reality for Richard Burlage in the story – or, for that matter, anyone else who has been the victim of unrequited or lost love.
Bruce eventually comes down from the highs of the piano solo, and with a few chords he realigns it back into the major key ready for the third verse. It is at this point where we rejoin the story in Oral History, where Richard Burlage comes back so curious, and so secretly to the mountains in 1934. It’s here where the author describes, through the eyes of Richard, the impact of the coal industry in the intervening years…
“One mountainside was layered with small identical company houses, rickety coal-blackened flimsy squares each with its door in the middle, its two windows giving out into the porch, the porch itself on stilts as the houses were set back against the steep mountain.” (Oral History, p. 225)
More importantly, we get to the bit which describes the emotions in the 3rd verse of Hornsby’s song…
“…two lovely girls, apparently twins, holding hands as they come down the steps, frail and angelic… Finally Dory herself appeared in the lighted rectangle of the door…they age so fast in these mountains…” (Oral History, p. 228)
“I saw her she was sitting there / older, thinner on the front porch / it seemed the light a little brighter there / or maybe I still carried the forgotten torch” (Bruce Hornsby)
Most ordinary composers would have left us there to die. But as we all agree, Bruce Hornsby isn’t an ordinary composer. Instead, Bruce launches into a spirited rendition of “Workin’ in a Coal Mine”, which another Hornsby fan, Jennie Crabbe, aptly describes as an “Appalachian barefoot stomp”. Certainly, “Workin’ in a Coal Mine” is like Bruce telling us to snap out of our lovesick state, and the familiar “Bonehead” drum rhythm emerges, I suppose a bit like an old friend with a consoling bottle of beer…
“In the southwest Virginia town of Richlands I fell in love with an Appalachian girl … The coal dust settles on the window display They have to change it about every other day”
After developing black lung and emphysema working in the mines, my grandfather was lucky enough to become a manager for a company called S Mart, which owned department stores in Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. He managed several stores for them in different locations.
When my mom was in high school, around 1960, her dad took over management of the store in Richlands, VA. My grandmother was his assistant, and my mom worked in the store for minimum wage after school and on weekends. One of her jobs was to “change about” the window display because of all the grit and grime from the coal dust, but it was so bad that she had to do it every single day.
While clearly to most people this is an unrequited love song, the association of the lyrics with my mother’s life gives it a very different meaning for me. After a short stint in the “big city” of Columbus, Ohio where I was born, my parents came back to the mountains of West Virginia not far from where my mother was born. She lives in a now dying town and occasionally talks of moving away, but I’m certain that if she did she’d just run back to the rocks and the trees.
Dr Jim Casebolt