Caught by the River

Tracks for Tracks: Ten Walking Songs

Robert Macfarlane | 18th September 2009

Guest selector, Robert MacFarlane:

Songs to keep you company. Songs to learn by heart. Songs to lend a beat to tired feet. Songs to yell from the top of a hill. Songs to sing together or alone. Songs that breed in the brain after miles on the go, and will not be shifted. Songs as charms against harm. Songs as maps. Songs of appetite – for more miles, for food, for drink, for stopping, for sleep.

Track-listing: The order of the ten songs given here is arranged very roughly according to the morale-profile of a long day’s walk: eagerness at setting out; miles passed on light feet; encounters along the way, the mild madness of the footsore afternoon; an earned tiredness at the day’s end. There are also digressions, sidetracks.

1. ‘The Vagabond’. Words by Robert Louis Stevenson, arr. by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Stevenson’s /Songs of Travel/ were published in 1896, and they catch the late-nineteenth-century romance of the open road and the wayfaring life, in its absurdities, beauties, self-deceptions and longings. Stevenson read his life as a foot-journey, thick with hope and loss, even when ill health kept him from travel. ‘Give to me the life I love/’, ‘The Vagabond’ begins – its vigorous rhythm driving song, feet and imagination onwards – ‘Let the lave go by me,/Give the jolly heaven above/ And the byway nigh me.’

2. Walk The Line, Johnny Cash. This needs no gloss from me.

3. ‘The Road To The Isles’, trad. Scottish air. The song is a map, really, of the westwards way, from the Southern Highlands to the Western Isles. Its place-names guide the singer-walker westwards, its melody lures him and its rhythm sustains his progress. The song cites the locations that will bring the singer from Tummel in Perthshire to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, by way of Loch Rannoch, Lochaber, Shiel, Ailort, and Morar. Singing therefore becomes a means of navigation. In this way, ‘The Road To The Isles’ has a family resemblance to Aboriginal songline cycles, which describe the ‘dreamtracks’ left by the ‘Ancestors’ at the creation of the world. The route of these dreamtracks – and they can run for hundreds of miles – is preserved in the form of songs, in which each note or phrase corresponds to a landscape feature (a claypan or rock outcrop, say, or turn in a creekbed). It also puts me in mind of the songs of the nomadic Chemehuevi of the Mojave Desert, who use songs to navigate the self-similar expanses of red rock and sand which characterise their territory. Chemehuevi songs give the names of certain places or landscape features in geographical order, and these place-names are evocative – sufficiently so that a person who had never been to a particular place might recognize it from the song’s description. ‘How does that song go?’ in Chemehuevi also means ‘What is the route it travels?’

4. The Doors, ‘Break On Through To The Other Side’. A very personal walking song, this one. I sang it to myself one summer while crossing many glaciers in the Alps, as a mantra against falling into crevasses. The perverse logic of singing about breakthrough to ward off breakthrough held firm, except once on the approach to a peak called the Nadelhorn. Crunching over the glacier in pre-dawn cold, I heard a creak, then came an awareness of collapse beneath my feet, like a trap-door opening. I dropped vertically, and jammed at belly-level in the ice. My feet, heavy with boots and crampons, kicked in emptiness, until I realised this might dislodge me, and I let them hang, and spread my arms out across the snow. I felt like a magician’s assistant who’d been cut in two at the waist; half of me in the upper world, the other half in a blue Hades.

5. The Pixies, ‘This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’. The distinctive loud-quiet dynamic of The Pixies’ /Doolittle/ produced Nirvana’s /Nevermind/; it also shares its counterpoint with long days of walking – their rocking rhythm of effort and rest, energy-expenditure and energy-conservation. A song I’ve sung at top volume on high roads, and on bouldery ascents.

6. ‘Miller and the Lass’, trad. English folk song arr. and sung by Eliza Cartwright. Lusty, funny, jaunty, a British Breughel. The chorus is so bouncily simple that even when knackered and rattled by miles on the go, my brain can hold it. Though, given that the chorus is a single line which runs ‘Singing dum dub a dum dum day’, it would be worrying if I couldn’t remember it.

7. ‘Wildwood’, Paul Weller. High tide, mid afternoon…A song to get lost to, lost in, lost with.

8. ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’. Trad. English counterpoint, dated to c. 1260. Middle English, in Wessex dialect. ‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’ This is the song that wells up in my brain late in a long day and infests it, shoving all other thoughts (cuckoo-like) from my skull. It’s the song of the far gone. Sultry with late-spring energy, it carries a charge of deep-country madness, a madness that has something of Carry On Up The Footpath! to it, and something of /The Wicker Man/. It is only to be sung aloud when you’re sure you’re alone, or if you are in the company of other confirmed maniacs and have all signed a group confidentiality clause. Edward Thomas (a walker, wayfarer and depressive) preferred it to ‘anything by Beethoven’, and he made it the closing song in his fine pocket-sized anthology /The Pocket Book of Poems & Songs For The Open Air/, which also contains (as Thomas put it in his preface) ‘about sixty of the sweetest songs which it seemed that a wise man would care to sing or hear sung, in the fields…on the road at dawn or nightfall.

9. Loudon Wainwright, ‘The Swimming Song’. I know, I know, it’s a song about swimming. But one of the results of walking long distances, day after day, is that you start to fantasize about easier forms of motion – flying, swimming, even driving – and about those elements (water, air) that are less resistant to motion than earth. This is also the song that I associate most strongly with the writer Roger Deakin, a friend of mine with whom I walked plenty of miles, and who is also the quiet patron saint of Caught By The River.

10. Nick Drake, ‘Day Is Done’. The end of a long day, the last few miles with dusk falling, looking for a place to sleep, beneath the stars or under a roof.

Postscript. There could have been many more songs on this list, or many variants to it. A cheese-version exists. As does an entirely un-singable but highly motivational drum & bass version, and a blue-grass version, and, and…. That cheese version might include, for instance, S Club 7’s ‘Don’t Stop Moving’, Five’s ‘Keep On Movin’’, and The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, as spurs to keep walking and wandering. For the opposite reason, it might also include ‘Sit Down’ by James and Elbow’s ‘Running To A Standstill’, plus – another late-day song, this – ‘Walking On Broken Glass’, by Annie Lennox. I’d also ideally have had one or more of Duke Spirit’s ‘Love Is An Unfamiliar Name’, PJ Harvey’s ‘Big Exit’, Zazdrosc’s ‘Hey’ and Patrick Wolf’s ‘The Magic Position’, for their ability to set my feet moving again when nothing else can. Any suggestions for other walking songs, other track-listings, most welcome. I have many miles to walk. Onwards!