Sunday, November 29, 2009

Woman Walk the Line

Lyrics in Songwriting Example:
"Woman Walk the Line" music and lyrics by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley

I first bought the album, The Ballad of Sally Rose, when it was released in 1985, and it is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris albums. There's just something about the first five songs that grab me every time. To tell you the truth, I don't even think I ever made it to side B of the album back then... I just kept playing the first five songs over and over again (playing my guitar and singing along the entire time!). (and yes, when I say album here, I really do mean vinyl!)

The Ballad of Sally of Rose is a concept album, based on Harris' relationship with the late Gram Parsons. The story is about a girl, Sally Rose, who was born on a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota ('raised with a proud but wandering heart'). Sally leaves her home in South Dakota to follow her passion and pursue music ('she had stars in her eyes and greater expectations'). She plays a bunch of gigs around town, meets a hard-living/hard-drinking musician/mentor, joins his band ('next thing Sally knew she was one of the band'), and -- although she tries to resist -- falls in love with him ('heart to heart there'll be no other'). There's more to the story than this, but but I'm ending my description here because this is where "Woman Walk the Line" comes in.

Lyrics to Woman Walk The Line :
(Emmylouy Harris / Paul Kennerley)

Don't bother sittin' at my table
Just because I'm on my own
Yes I'm a woman and I'm lonely
But that don't mean I can't be strong

Once again he's not beside me
And tonight he won't be coming home
So I just need a place to miss my baby
When he goes out to do me wrong

Tonight I wanna do some drinkin'
I came to listen to the band
Yes I'm as good as what you're thinkin'
But I don't wanna hold your hand
And I know I'm lookin' lonely
But ther's nothin' here I wanna find
It's just the way of a woman
When she goes out to walk the line

Every night's a little longer
Than the one that came before
But when I hear them sing a sad song
I know just what I'm cryin' for

I don't wanna stay home waitin'
Don't have to wonder where he's been
He'll be someone else's baby
Before he's in my arms again

I have to say that this song 'gets' me every time. It's so simple, and it's so real. I love the opening two lines ('Don't bother sittin' at my table just because I'm on my own'). This is plain 'no frills' language, yet I can 'see' and 'feel' everything so clearly. I know Sally's in a bar, I know she's alone, I know she's angry and I also know she's sad. That's a lot to know in a small amount of time. This sets the scene and the mood perfectly. I'm hooked from the very beginning. This is good storytelling.

As the song progresses, you realize that Sally is struggling -- she admits outright that she's lonely...but she's trying to be strong. More importantly however, we learn that she's 'used to' being alone... this is no isolated incident ('once again he's not beside me'). And, since this has happened before, she knows exactly how the evening will play out ('and tonight he won't be coming home'). But here's where the 'hammer' really hits... here's where we learn the full extent of the situation -- it's when Sally laments 'So I just need a place to miss my baby when he goes out to do me wrong.' Wow, these are some pretty powerful words! We now know that he is cheating on her -- and not for the first time either!

As we move through the chorus, we feel Sally's anger and frustration growing. We find out that she just wants to drink, listen to the band, and be left alone. We know that men are trying to pick her up, and she's just not interested. Then Sally relents, and reveals to us that 'It's just the way of a woman when she goes out to walk the line'. Now, I'm sure there are a few different ways to interpret these particular lyrics. Maybe 'walk the line' implies doing the 'right thing' even when it's not easy (i.e. not straying even though he is). Or maybe it implies moving through a situation with 'blinders' on (i.e. looking straight ahead so you don't 'see' the situation you're in). My takeaway is that Sally is trying desperately to stay in control of her emotions and thoughts - and life -in an unbearable and uncontrollable situation (even if that 'control' means drinking to forget). She 'sees' her situation all too clearly, but she can't change it... she can't control him or what he's doing...the only thing she can do (with great strength and effort) is control her reaction to it all. She must essentially 'pretend' that everything's 'okay' in order to cope and function in her relationship. The 'walk the line' analogy here being -- a 'drunk' must focus hard to maintain control so that he/she can walk in a straight line (an impossible and 'uncontrollable' task for someone who's intoxicated) in order to prove to an officer that he/she is sober.

As we move into the third verse, we learn that these lonely nights are beginning to take their toll on her ('every night's a little longer than the one that came before'). That's such a 'telling' line... you can almost hear her heart breaking at this point. We sense that the nights are excruciatingly long for her. And although she's 'used to' being alone every night, it's just not getting any easier for her (as a matter of fact it's getting harder). I mean, can you really get 'used' to someone cheating on you???

In the forth verse we learn why she's at the bar. Quite frankly, she just doesn't want to stay home waiting for him anymore. We sense that maybe (once upon a time) she used to sit around at home, waiting and waiting, driving herself crazy, wondering where he was -- but now, thanks to experience, Sally knows exactly what he's doing... there's no need to guess... ('don't have to wonder where he's been, he'll be someone else's baby before he's in my arms again'). This is another 'hammer' for me, perhaps even more painful than the first - because it really drives home the fact that Sally is fully resigned to the situation. We know now that, no matter how many times he's cheated on her, and no matter how much it hurts her, Sally fully intends to be with him again ('before he's in my arms again'). She has reached the point of no return... she's desperately in love with him and has no other choice than to accept him and the situation for what it is.

Overall, I think one of the reasons I like this song is that Sally is so human. She's a strong, independent woman, yet somehow she let herself fall in love with someone who constantly hurts and disappoints her. She's angry, she's sad, she's frustrated, she's vulnerable. She has great resolve, yet she is resigned. She's trying to forget, yet she has a clear understanding of her situation. In a nutshell, she's a woman who's struggling to hold onto a failed relationship.

The Ballad of Sally Rose

Emmylou Harris links:
Emmylou Harris: The Ballad of Sally Rose
Emmylou Harris Wikipedia


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  2. The Ballad of Sally Rose has Great songwriting and lyrics with outstanding melody touch.