The flourishing of art is necessary for the preservation of any people or tradition. Over-reliance upon didactic or dialectical methods of communication is trademark of rationalism’s withering grip. Artistic expression, whether in architecture, on the canvas, in prose or verse, in works of literature, or in music, possesses the ability to conjure or reinforce the values and traditions of a land and people by instilling an aesthetic directly into the soul; bypassing rational appeal.
Constituted as a historic people the South has always had her poets, authors, and musicians. In the creative explosion of the 1960s and 70s the South was not to be left behind. Musicians such as Ronnie Van Zant and Charlie Daniels used their craft to reinforce the love of folk and place which were characteristic of their own experiences growing up in the South.
While Daniels, Van Zant, and others were Southern front and center, openly singing about Dixie and “the hills of Carolina” there is one artist from their time period who, although not a Southerner himself, I seek to make the case for being interpreted as a prophet of agrarianism. This artist is Jackson Browne.
Advocating Browne as a prophet of agrarianism, I will consider four tracks; three taken from his 1973 release, For Everyman, and a fourth from 1974’s Late for the Sky. Arguing for Jackson Browne to be heard as a proto-agrarian may seem strange but taken together these songs weave a tapestry which presents life close to the soil as a necessity for sustainable and meaningful living, the importance of place and people to our sense of belonging, and the increased foresight and memory which springs from an innocent and simple lifestyle.
I turn now to the first of the four selected songs. It is the second listing from For Everyman entitled Our Lady of the Well. Browne here speaks in the first person, likening himself to a refugee from the dark land of modernity. The song is a conversation with a farmer’s daughter named Maria; and to his own character he gives the words “it’s a long way that I have come, across the sands to find your people in the sun; where the families work the land, as they have always done; Oh it’s so far the other way my country’s gone.”
The imagery employed here is of a treck across the desert to an undefiled land where women draw water from the town well, men employ traditional tools in the working of the land, and couples “watch their children run.” As a refugee in their midst Browne admits that “a cruel and senseless hand” has overshadowed his own land and that “love and truth” remain only in the hearts of a strong few. Reflecting on this he adds, “it has taken me this distance, and a woman’s smile to learn; that my heart remains among them, and to them I must return.”
These reminiscences lead Browne to realize that even though this place he has journeyed to is a paradise, his heart remains with his own folk “and to them he must return.” Listening to this over and over again in my youth, the motif of agriculture as a stand-in for untainted innocence and the inescapability of one’s place being amongst one’s people made a serious impression upon me.
Second on my list of songs is the ninth track from For Everyman: Sing My Songs to Me. Here Browne rhetorically asks that his songs be sung back to him, making a gesture to the power word and music possess as a buttress for memory. He says “sing me sunlight and shadow, forest grove and meadow, let your voice bring back my memory.” This is the same loss of memory which Richard Weaver had previously described as symptomatic of those cut off from their native soil. In verse and in music there is a path to remembering. Browne is again longing to see beyond the modern world of concrete high-rises and asphalt freeways. He needs to remember “sunlight and shadows, forest groves and meadows” because it seems to him that “there may never a better time to see who I am.”
Following immediately after Sing My Songs to Me and providing the closing track is the titular song For Everyman. This track is Browne’s ode to the prophets. The song opens with one of my favorite lines: “Everybody I talk to is ready to leave with the light of the morning. They’ve seen the end coming down long enough to believe, that they’ve heard their last warning.” This line has always resonated with me as Browne accurately describes the general sense of foreboding which grips almost all in our civilization. Having lost our innocence and our memory, time is running out, though we cannot explain why or from whence our destruction will come. We simply perceive, at some instinctive level, that a sword hangs over us. Those who can remember, and those who can see the signs, are the “dreamers dreaming about everyman.”
He says that “Everyone is just waiting to hear from the one who can give them the answers; lead them back to that place in the warmth of the sun where sweet childhood still dances.” And then he asks “Who’ll come along and hold out that strong but gentle father’s hand.” The answer: “Long ago I heard someone say something ‘bout everyman.” For Everyman is the beginning of true foreboding and the sifting of those who take the necessary steps to live a more innocent and healthy life from those who will not heed the omens. It is the prelude to the disaster which befalls those who endlessly ask what their life is about.
Before the Deluge, taken from 1974’s Late For the Sky, is the grand finale and it does not disappoint. A masterpiece of musical arrangement, it is also the most poignant in verse. Browne now deals with those who have discerned the times and done whatever they could to prepare. Browne sings that “they were making plans and thinking of the future. With the energy of the innocent, they were gathering the tools they would need to make their journey back to nature.” Of the apocalyptic moment Browne relates “when the sand was gone and the time arrived, in the naked dawn only a few survived, and in attempt to understand the thing, so simple and yet so huge, believed that they were meant to live, after the deluge.” The concluding fiddle work of David Lindley put into Before the Deluge tells of hope and of new beginnings; of adversity, triumph, and rebirth through the washing away of that which can be shaken.
Listening to these songs as a kid and taking the words to heart made me very receptive to Weaver, Ransom, Davidson, and others in years to follow. Art should communicate truth and beauty in a way that buttresses meaning and purpose. Acting the part of a bard Browne calls into question the motives of those who would substitute profit for truth, and utility for beauty. He portrays the soulless, rootless, world as ripe for destruction and lying under the threat of “deluge.” The path back home is by remembering the old ways and sorting out where it is that one truly belongs.
It is in this way that Jackson Browne was to me a prophet of agrarianism. Roughly a decade would pass from the time of my first exposure to Browne’s music until my discovery of the Southern literary tradition but the seeds which Dabney, Davidson Ransom, and others sowed found fertile ground partly because of the tilling which Browne had previously affected.
Browne cannot be interpreted as a Southern apologist or even as self-consciously lending himself to the homespun values of agrarianism. But his consistent focus upon finding meaning in the midst of a rapidly changing world, distrust of innovation, importance of place, and willingness to advocate for the simple and innocent life makes him an unlikely prophet of agrarian values.