Have you ever longed for adventure? How about for home? Do you ever feel unsatisfied with the ordinary, as though your lifestyle can’t contain you? Or do you wonder if you’ve ever really known what it’s like to have roots – to have a place that’s yours, utterly and indisputably yours, to identify with it, and to prize it more highly than any possession? I have had and do have these feelings, often. Usually it’s a paradoxical mix of all them at once, combined with an irrational urge to adopt the Pacific-Northwestern aesthetic. For lo, I am hipster. I’m sure I’m not unique in these feelings: the themes of wandering and home have run through songs in all ages, from Homer’s Odyssey to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.”
The American folk singer-songwriter genre especially lends itself to these themes. Songwriters around the world have had the penchant for self-expression since the rise of Romanticism (see Robert Burns’s autobiographical “There was a Lad was Born in Kyle” for example), and the American heritage is particularly conducive to the paradox: We have the European love of civilization as an established entity, as well as the adventurous spirit of the frontier. Sure, Europeans discovered the new world – but the typical European didn’t. The overwhelming majority of the American population is descended from a set of people who pulled up stakes – the western states especially, as immigration there was more recent. A glance through a list of tracks by James Taylor, John Denver, or the band America reveals titles like “Ventura Highway,” “Wandering,” “That Lonesome Road,” and “Babe, I Hate To Go” (later covered by Peter, Paul & Mary and retitled “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane”).
Meditating on the Meaning of Home
One of today’s most popular incarnations of Americana, the group The Head and the Heart, spent their entire first album meditating on the meaning of home. For a self-titled album, it’s remarkably cohesive in this way. Here are two stanzas from the first track, “Cats and Dogs,” as they appear in the liner notes:
Fallin from the sky, there are raindrops in my eyes, and my thoughts are diggin in the backyard. My roots have grown but I don’t know where they are.
Don’t know where they are. Don’t know where they are. My roots have grown but I don’t know where they are. Cats and dogs and rooster calls, telephones and pay-phone stalls. They take away the lonely days for now. They take away the lonely days, for now.
Notice the words “telephones and pay-phone stalls.” To previous generations, the lyric would have been redundant, because the pay-phone stall was where you found the telephone. But if you’re near my age, “telephones” is a separate concept from “pay-phone stalls”: if you see a payphone stall in a public place today, it probably doesn’t have a telephone in it, and even if it does, there’s probably nobody talking on it. Your phone isn’t tied to any one place, but moves around with you in your pocket. Now, the song’s central idea: “My roots have grown but I don’t know where they are.” Having grown up, young adults have grown roots – but like the telephone, they aren’t attached to a geographical location.
Living in Abstraction
Americans of my generation live in abstraction. We’ve barely known a world without the Internet, let alone Interstate Highways. We can change our location with absurd speed. Sure, we can’t teleport, but I don’t think the public will ever demand teleportation with the funding to make the research possible. Instead, we pour our money into social media, which make location irrelevant to our identities, which social media also contains – and even defines.
As a culture, we don’t have attachment to place anymore; but human nature requires attachment of some sort. Another contemporary American folk group, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros suggest, “Home, let me come home / Home is wherever I’m with you.” The Head and the Heart concur: “I am lost in my mind, I get lost in my mind. Momma once told me, you’re already home where you feel loved.” That is to say, if you can’t find home and identify a place, find love and identify with another human being. If you belong to no place and no place belongs to you, find a somebody and let the two of you belong to each other.
Matthew Arnold in the 19th century proposed the same solution, but to a different problem: that of ungrounded philosophy. The Enlightenment had failed to supply meaning for humanity, and so had Romanticism. Arnold wrote in “Dover Beach,”
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In the Victorian age when Arnold wrote, the very concept of knowledge was slipping away, to be replaced by love. Today, the very concept of place is slipping away, to be replaced by love. But human love is never perfect, and often disappoints. Where do we turn when it fails us? Our world is unraveling.
The World Isn’t Mean to Last
But in a way, that’s how it’s supposed to be. This world isn’t meant to last, and we weren’t made for it. Throughout history groups of people have identified with place, and opposed other groups because they identified with other places. The archetypal example is Ancient Israel, charged to maintain a Promised Land for a divine covenant – and even that was a shadow of realities to come.
The first commandment God gave to humanity, the statement of our earthly purpose in a perfect condition, was to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Adam failed. This is why the wild tries to kill us. This is why the things we build decay. This is why we his descendants struggle for a place where we and everything else belong.
“The present form of this world is passing away,” Paul tells us. But it is not passing away to leave us in oblivion. Paul knew the word of God to Isaiah, with all the promises of a new heaven and a new earth that would remain. We have an allegiance to a place: it’s just not here yet.
There’s a lot more to say on the subject. But I’ll leave you for now with the words of another American songwriter, Andrew Peterson, in his song “The Far Country”:
I can see in the strip malls and the phone calls
The flaming swords of Eden
In the fast cash and the news flash
And the horn blast of war
In the sin-fraught cities of the dying and the dead
Like steel-wrought graveyards where the wicked never rest
To the high and lonely mountain in the groaning wilderness
We ache for what is lost
As we wait for the holy God
Of Father Abraham
I was made to go there
Out of this far country
To my home, to my home