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So Many People

Nell Whittaker


The song ‘Highwayman’ was written and recorded by the American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb in 1977. It remained without much critical or popular attention until 1985 when it provided the number one single for the supergroup The Highwaymen, which consisted of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. I came across and then obsessively listened to the song in July last year, on my way to and from work; I found it soothing to listen to these men, country superstars each of them, singing sort of dispassionately about labour, and the continuation of all things, as I wasted the summer in a dysfunctional restaurant kitchen and on the number 50 bus.


The song begins with an irresistible guitar part, the sound running down towards the first verse like a little stream running down over rocks. It is about a single character, a highwayman, who dies and is reincarnated as a sailor, as a worker on the Hoover Dam, and finally as an astronaut, flying out into space. Each (with the exception of the astronaut) dies fairly violently: the highwayman hanged, the sailor killed when the ‘yards’ break (the internet tells me these are the horizontal spars across the mast, so I presume he was either smashed on the head or drowned in the sea), and the labourer on the dam killed by falling into unset concrete. This is a song about a familiar dream of America, one built by white working men whose lives are given in service to the project of expansion: to the promotion of freedom as it is synonymous with lawlessness, the development of infrastructure, and to neo-imperialist space exploration. The idea of reincarnation, as it turns out, sits easily alongside the logic of capital: bodies are born, go to work, and die, in endless and repeating cycles.


This was my first summer after university ended, and my first in full-time work. I discovered that it just keeps happening - the day ends, and then another one comes along. The beginnings and ends of my days were soundtracked by four old men singing, the way home like the way home the day before. And so my thoughts ran on, in matching repetition. What value is there in continuance? What to make of the weird intimacies generated by routine and by work, by sharing so much space (physical and aural) with strangers? How might one build a life when nothing is certain but continuity?


There are several odd elements to ‘Highwayman’, which help both to make it an enigmatic listen and to make it seem shorter than its three minutes; as one of the comments underneath it’s video on YouTube reads, ‘[I don’t know why] but this is one of the most addicting songs i have ever heard’, and another, ‘I’ve always wished there were 12 more verses to this song’. An oddity of the lyrics is that while the verses run fairly straightforwardly in rhyming couplets, the first two lines of all four verses have the same rhyme, ‘-ide’. This isn't a particularly easy rhyme, and Webb’s effort to maintain it makes for a strange tone, kind of atemporal and emphatic. So the highwayman ‘did ride’ along the coach roads, the sailor ‘did abide’ with the sea, and steel and water ‘did collide’ in the construction of the dam; all flourishes that Webb felt signified a ‘kind of an antique way of speaking’. The effect is characteristic of country’s occasional tendency toward linguistic clumsiness, but it also puts the song into a formal and slightly impersonal register, one where these men or man approach the matter of death with the calm resolve one might expect from those who will be given another go at it all. And this formality is funny, ultimately, when combined with the solemnness of the men singing, their taking it in turns to sing each verse, the sweet uncomplicatedness with which the song treats traumatic and fatal accident.


The song’s most affecting verse is the last one, partly because of how effectively it communicates the pull of the beyond and partly because it is sung by Johnny Cash, bard of all worldly glumness. Here, Cash is an astronaut, ‘fly(ing) a starship across the universe divide’. The full verse continues:


    And when I reach the other side

    I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can

    Perhaps I may become a highwayman again

    Or I may simply be a single drop of rain

    But I will remain

    And I'll be back again, and again and again and again and again


It makes sense that space, the signifier of all-American expansion and achievement, should be where the song finds itself. I found myself in someone else’s garden one night in the summer, sitting on the step, talking about space, by which we meant who we thought we were. I said that I felt oppressed by space and the drama with which it stages the pointlessness of individual human lives: the insane size and age of the planets, the idea of vast burning balls of gas suspended in hydrogen and helium, the delicate balance of gravity and orbit, bodies tilting around each other silently in the darkness. My friend had made a sound installation that included a representation of the way that one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, is continually being pulled out of shape by the gravitational tug of the two moons on either side. He talked about space as being generally misrepresented or misunderstood, as being thought of as something ‘out there’ as opposed to being continuous from the world on earth: it begins here, where our bodies are, not up beyond some imaginary boundary. There is no point at which you leave one universe and enter another; it is continuous, just as the materials that make up human bodies are the same that constitute planets, space dust, the rain. This, he said, makes him feel a part of the perceived universe, subject to the same rules, occupying the same impossible space. It makes me, by contrast, feel intensely lonely, and the total arbitrariness by which it all came into being makes me feel both anxious and silly.


The spectre of space haunts ‘Highwayman’ before it is summoned in that final verse. In the second, the dam builder ‘slipped and fell into the wet concrete below’, and sings, ‘they buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound’: the inchoate dam, like space, knows no kindness, admits no music. The song has an ear to space’s symbolic potential as patriotic emblem, but also to its spiritual antecedent: the vast black space from which water began to run and from which light sprang. It continues; as it was in the beginning, it will be again. And so, the song extends potential avenues of meaning. What are people, and planets, to one another? My friend’s sense of space allows him to see both experience and bodies as continuous, as if the point at which one ends is not at the skin but out beyond the outer reaches of the universe. I felt the pull of other people, their chaotic imprint, and feared losing my boundaries.


Two summers ago, still at university, I had a similar intense relationship with another song. It was ‘Five Years’, by original alien David Bowie, and I listened to it in the brief moments I had each day to myself - cycling to and from the library through the exploding spring hedgerows in the mornings and evenings. I hated revising, partly because I was convinced I didn’t know how to do it and partly because I was mostly reading and writing about climate change. Unlike the accepting passivity of ‘Highwayman’, ’Five Years’ is almost wholly delivered in the register of heartbreak, of knowledge come too late. The line that I would anticipate (and let speak for all my pent-up loneliness and wanting) was at the close of the first verse:


    My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare

    I had to cram so many things to store everything in there

    And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people

    And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people

    I never thought I'd need so many people


This line speaks to how it is to be surrounded by people, unknown, unknowable, as well as those you love and come to know. I have rarely found elsewhere the acknowledgement that one might need strangers as well as intimates, and that the shape of that need is different - that one can (and must) love them without possessing them, without presuming to make any impact on them at all.


This is the key: these songs are about people, how they might pass by, how they might invisibly pull one out of shape. I worked in the kitchen for six months, and then I left. This is another way of saying: for five days a week, I spend around eleven hours a day in one building, talking to the same people, speaking and listening and speaking again. I can hardly remember what was said. This is the strangest part of work, the intimacies and non-intimacies of its routine, the relationships that one can effortlessly discard, that one has no obligation to. This is a fantasy, too. There is no escaping other people, or escaping one’s need for them.


I said that ‘Highwayman’ is uncomplicated, but I might have said that it is naive: its clumsiness, its quirk of register, and its nostalgia for a sentimental America make it seem innocent, unaware. Naivety was not politically expedient in 2019: there was no refuge to be taken in ignorance, no way of turning away from the violence being waged against the poor, the non-white, the disabled, women, the queer, and particularly in its last weeks as Australia burned, against the non-human. This has not changed in 2020; in fact, what hope that might have been sustained feels more precarious, at greater risk of extinction.


Maybe this is another reason why I keep listening to the song; it appealed to me that summer in the face of the machinations of the world, seeing everything anew. Perhaps naivety could be utilised as an ethical force; a way of harnessing empathy as it might grow from encounter and ignorance; to reinvigorate the parts of us that care, that might be able to be tender. Instead of looking to music to bring us together through flattening the peaks and troughs of difference, it can remind us of the essential alienness of the other, how that alienness demands of us that we remain careful, mindful, of one another, respectful of the individual and the crowd’s claim to mystery. I am interested in what potential resonances and repetitions can link us, one to the other, across gaps of understanding.


‘Highwayman’ gestures towards an economy of sharing, in both the content of its lyrics and in its superstars lining up obediently to take a verse in turn, that feels a little hopeful. Maybe if I am patient, I will find myself located in the world; maybe if I let the exploding star of ego wait for its place, I will be able to continue. Maybe it is enough to be here, alone amongst people, to find oneself on the top deck of a bus, unbearably touched by the delicate and timid sound of pan pipes behind an old man singing, against a world which contains so much darkness, and which breaks all its promises.

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