Travelin’ man trope
February 3, 2023 Comments Off on Travelin’ man trope
One time I was listening to “Heard It in a Love Song” by the Marshall Tucker Band. I told my girlfriend that it was an old-time favorite, and sent her the link.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a terrible song. What awful lyrics.”
Shocked and dismayed, I went back over the words and concluded that she was right. The song basically says “Hey, I’m leaving you for no reason, don’t have the guts to say it to your face so I’m leaving before you wake up. Oh, and by the way, I’m the kind of guy who does whatever he wants and is never satisfied with anything. So, bye.” Not much of an anthem to anything other than being a jerk.
It was shocking because the lyrics are so singable and the tune is so good. Then for some reason I thought of the song “Brandy,” the cheesy 1970’s mega-hit about a bar waitress in a harbor town who is in love with a sailor who’s never coming back. So I listened to the lyrics; I’d always liked the tune. Like “Heard It in a Love Song,” when you actually listen to the words, they’re awful. Here’s the summary: “You are cute and good for a one-night stand but I don’t love you and don’t want to marry you but here’s a cheap souvenir to remember me by in case I don’t ever see you again and I’m telling you at the outset that all I want to do is sail around and hook up.” Brandy appreciates his “honesty” and loves him forever, keeping a silver locket with his name around her neck that she wears through the dark streets, forever faithful to this ass-hat who is never coming back and who didn’t give two shits about her anyway.
The subtext to “Brandy” is of course the refrain, “What a good wife you would be!” because every woman’s dream is be a good wife to some dude who lives on a barge. Not to be missed as well is the line “Brandy, fetch another round!” reminding us that although she’s good enough to be a wife, she’s still a dog who fetches for her man, hey waitaminnit, SAME THING!
Next I began cataloguing songs of this type, which I’ll call the “Dumping you to play, bye!” genre. Amazingly, they are everywhere, littering pop music like roadside trash. Before I get to my main point, which is a dissection of the “Travelin’ Man” trope, I thought I’d list a few of the songs that come to mind.
Ramblin’ Man, by the Allman Brothers. Perhaps no other song is needed, as this one is the apotheosis of the genre. We learn that the singer was destined to be a rambling man because a) father was a gambler, shot to death and b) he was born on a Greyhound bus. Genealogy firmly established, we are told in the refrain that when it’s time for leaving, “I hope you’ll understand, that I was born a ramblin’ man.” The only other action he engages in besides “tryin’ to make a livin'” is gallivanting off to New Orleans, where the Delta women think he is the shits (according, of course, to him). And when it’s time for leaving, which is going to be about the time he spends the last of his grifter’s paycheck, it will be time for leaving the New Orleans bordellos as well, but it won’t be because they understand his need to ramble, it’ll be because he’s broke and Suzie Q. don’t put out for free. Buried and unspoken in the song is the question, “Why does having a gambler for a father and a single mom make you a rambling man?” It seemed to make Clinton and Obama, you know, president of the fucking country. More importantly, it doesn’t take more than a second or two to reflect on exactly who was doing the birthing on that Greyhound bus. It was of course mom, who was abandoned by dad and left to care for a kid alone. Rather than a monument to her efforts, to say nothing of what must have been a dangerous, bloody, and embarrassing bus ride, the singer uses the circumstances of his birth to let all women know that he will use them and leave them. Why not? Them Delta women think the world of him.
Ramble On, by Led Zeppelin. If the Allman Brothers are down and dirty and direct about what they’re up to, like the sailor in “Brandy,” Robert Plant eulogizes the travelin’ man with a mishmash of misdirection, silly references to J.R.R. Tolkien, and by blaming the woman he’s leaving because she threatens the “freedom [he] hold[s] dear.” The message is the same, though. The singer is a travelin’ man who is going to travel the world to find his girl, which raises the question of why he’s leaving since he apparently already has one. But we learn that he’s actually looking for the “queen of all my dreams,” a mythical, non-existent woman who, upon not finding her, gives him the excuse to keep rambling, a/k/a traveling to another concert venue. The misogyny in this song is more thorough because it makes clear that any old woman won’t do, she has to be an unattainable ideal, kind of like a Cosmo model. All of this drivel, including his statement that every time he thinks about his baby he “has to part,” and his revelation that his OTHER baby, the one he really loved, got stolen by Sauron and Gollum (???), and is therefore the reason he has to keep searching, adds up to the travelin’ man’s reason for being: I travel, shorthand for hook up with other chicks, ‘cuz that’s what I like to do. If you’ve never read “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein, now might be a good time.
Freebird, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. You gotta like Ronnie Van Zant’s elevation of the travelin’ man to something akin to Jesus. In this song, the singer is “free as a bird,” and “this bird you cannot change.” Then we learn that he must be traveling on now. Why? No idea. Is he coming back? He doesn’t say, but “free as a bird” doesn’t sound promising.What we do know is that if he stayed, “things just couldn’t be the same.” Sounds like he might have to get a job, start paying rent, help around the house, pay child rearing expenses, stop boozing at Harry’s Bar, get up before noon … all things that for sure wouldn’t be the same, especially when you recall that this is the same guy who crooned about his anonymous teen groupie in “What Was Your Name?” One element that “Freebird” injects, also found in “Heard it in a Love Song,” is the fake guilt, a key part of the travelin’ man trope. This is the part where the guy says he’s sorry but justifies it because he can’t help being an irresponsible dick. In “Freebird” it’s the line “Please don’t take it so badly, ’cause Lord knows I’m to blame.” Then he adds that dumping his gal is kind of inevitable because there are “too many places I got to see.” We know, we know. They are the same whorehouses frequented by the Allmans. The woman getting abandoned can find some other sucker to be a partner, or she can just make do as best she can with three small kids and two full-time jobs. I’m sure the kids will grow up to be freebirds, too, the boys anyway. The girls will eventually find work in New Orleans and maybe meet daddy that way.
Tuesday’s Gone, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I hate to load up on Skynryd, but for a bunch of Jacksonville homebodies they really laid the travelin’ man on thick. Like 99.999% of all rock lyrics, these make little cohesive sense. He’s leavin’ his woman. He’s on a train. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He wants to be left alone.” BUT then we find out that his baby has actually left him. She’s got to be free. He has to carry on. Please come back to me baby. So which is it? And how can she come back to him when he’s on a train? And why should she, since he just wants to be left alone? The mumbo-jumbo is easily parsed, though: he has left her and now she’s “free” to carry on with rent and child support on her own. The train will roll on (trains do that) and he will ride his blues away. So dumb. Such a travelin’ man.
I’m a Ramblin’ Man, by Waylon Jennings. Leave it to the outlaw to come up with lyrics that perfectly state the case: I screw women and dump them. And I’m warning you that I’m a bad person. But I will be bad to you anyway. I travel all over the country “messing with” women’s minds in order to have sex with them. Then I leave them. Of course, I also have my bad points …
Movin’ On, by B.B. King. The plot line for this song is, guess what? He’s moving on. Why? Because it’s time. Why is it time? Because he’s lived it up and “done it in this town.” But don’t worry! You are you and he is he, so it’s all good. Gestalt therapy, anyone? Plus he’d like to thank you for the “ride” ’cause “there’s nothing we ain’t tried” except perhaps commitment and stability. Also, thanks for the memories and you can call him “Mr. Breeze.” Oh, and he’s going to Vegas or Hollywood to … fall in love again. How sweet.
Travelin’ Man, by Ricky Nelson. This 1961 classic really sums it up. He’s got a girl at every port in the world. He has girlfriends in Mexico, Alaska, Berlin, Hong Kong, Hawai’i, and they are all waiting for his return. Maybe he’s also the guy who hooked up with Brandy? Anyway, why does he have so many girls? Easy! He’s a travelin’ man. And travelin’ man means wham, bam, thank-you ma’am. Bonus trivia: who knew that there was a port in Berlin?
Travelin’ Man, by Bob Seger. Updating Ricky Nelson, Seger has a much better reason for his travelin’: he’s lazy! Finally a travelin’ man tells it like it is. Anyway, he “runs” away from friends and family when things get “too crazy,” that is, rent is due. Women, you see have come and gone, and you know what? They’re always trying to “cage” him! Like a pet. Even though he managed to escape their evil clutches, he appreciates the “traces” they’ve left on his “soul.” Even the traces of a court judgment ordering payment of child support and alimony? Whatevs. He’s a travelin’ man and sooner or later he’s goin’. So amazing and enviable and noble. And of course free!
Travelin’ Man, by Lynyrd Skynyrd. This song is full of surprises! He’s a travelin’ man! No woman puts her hold on him! You’ll see him once or maybe twice! But at least he’s … (drumroll!!)…free! Wow! Didn’t see that coming! Oh, fyi, he’s had so many women but shockingly none of them have lasted. Wonder why? Oh, I know! It’s because he left! Good ol’ travelin’ man! At least he’s predictable!
Key to the Highway, by Eric Clapton. So, he’s leaving to go down south where he is “better known.” Why? Because his girl drove him from his home. And when the moon comes up, little girl he’ll be on his way. Is she eighteen? Doubtful. Oh, and give him one more kiss because he won’t be back no mo’. Doesn’t it make you feel good to kiss the ass-hat who’s ditching you for some other women down south? ‘Course it does!
Leaving on a Jet Plane, by John Denver. Johnny Boy gets it all in this one. He’s leaving on a jet plane. You know, with wings. He’s already terribly sad and lonesome, but please wait for him because of course he doesn’t know when he’s coming back. Is that important? Just wait. It will be worth it, sort of, because he also admits to so many times of letting you down and playing around but you know what? “They don’t mean a thing.” No. Of course they don’t! That’s why he’s leaving. You mean so much he has to leave you. Get it? No? Oh, well, he’s sad anyway. By the way, when he comes back, whenever that is, he’ll be bringing a wedding ring! Wow! What a good wife you would be (like Brandy)! Hey, close your eyes and dream of me and those future undetermined days when I won’t have to leave you. It will be so awesome! Hugs and tears and ciao!
So where are all the travelin’ women?
I suppose there is “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, but, um, she’s actually not leaving her boyfriend, she’s traveling with him. Why is that? Could it be because single women traveling alone are inordinately at risk for violence? Or is it simply that mass culture reflects what the singers actually say: men are free to fuck and move on, women are not. And as soon as things get “too crazy” as Bob Seger puts it, they bail.
The only travelin’ gal song by a woman I’m aware of, though there are doubtless more, is “Little Red Wagon” by Miranda Lambert. The message is for the boy to fuck off and quit trying to tie her down. She’s out sowing seeds and chasing men and that’s just the way it is. Why does any of this matter? And what does it have to do with cycling?
Well, funny you should ask. One aspect of bicycling is freedom to travel, and from the very beginning women were told that bicycles were off limits. Early women cyclists were pioneers on multiple fronts, none moreso than Susan B. Anthony:
Bicycles came to symbolize independence amongst women representing the quintessential ‘new woman’ of the late 19th century. In 1895, suffragette leader Elizabeth Candy Stanton said “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self respect, self reliance” predicting the power of the bicycle. Echoing Stanton’s claim was Susan B Anthony who played a key role in the suffragette movement. She said ‘’Let me tell you what I think about cycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’https://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2022/2/17/an-introductory-history-of-women-in-cycling
Nonetheless, misogyny kept women bike racers out of the Olympics for almost one hundred years; the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling was Connie Carpenter, in 1984. That misogyny continues full force today, with leaders in the professional male community continuing to denigrate women in cycling. As recently as 2021, Patrick Lefevere was still spewing invective against professional women cyclists, comparing pro women teams to welfare offices, and comparing Sam Bennett’s return to Bora-Hansgrohe with “Women who return to men who abuse them.” Needless to say, these offensive comments provoked outrage everywhere except inside cycling.
The message that women have always received regarding independent mobility, which is the essence of bicycling, is “Do it at your own risk.” The threats of violence inherent in being a single woman traveling alone, to say nothing of a ramblin’ woman in the vein of a Zeppelin or Allman Bros. song, are more than threats. Birthing a child on the bus is the least of your problems as a solo woman traveler. Of the most dangerous places on earth for a woman to travel solo, the good ‘ol USA ranks 19th, right above Ukraine and below Tunisia. A similar ranking by Thomson Reuters in 2018 ranked the USA as No. 10.
And where do American women cyclists have to travel solo when they are in the US? Surprise–in the US! And what is the definition of solo travel? It means going somewhere by yourself.
Fast-forward, or rather fast-backward, to gravel racing, or as I prefer to call it, “bicycling.” Suddenly the murder of Mo Wilson starts to make more sense. Rather than being an incredible anomaly among a peaceful, loving community, gravel events can be seen through the lens of society and the solo woman traveler as a whole. Mo Wilson was allegedly killed by another woman, but it happened in an extremely misogynistic culture that features sexism and sexual objectivization as its most obvious characteristic. Doubt it? Look at Michael Marckx’s key cycling couture product, “Le Bon Wagon” which is slang for “Nice Ass.” Marckx, by the way, runs the Belgian Waffle Ride and has done so since 2013. Female participation in his events, judging from the numbers, is an utter afterthought, and he’s not alone.
The fact that Mo Wilson’s murder resulted in no introspection, no review by anyone regarding the general atmosphere of these events, and no examination of what role the gravel “mystique” played in Colin Strickland’s alleged behavior that in my opinion was the linchpin in Wilson’s murder, shows how resistant gravel is to change, and confirms that its guys-only mentality isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the silence of the lambs was deafening. None of the women gravel stars publicly pointed the finger at the gravel environment, just as professional women cyclists were generally muted in their response to Lefevere’s outspoken misogyny. Yes, there were a few sad-faced memorials, but none of the women tried to hold Unbound et al. accountable for the unmistakable fraternity-boy aspect of gravel events. This is in direct contrast to what some women were saying in private: that Strickland was a player, a douchebag, and that many people were aware of the terrible emotional triangle he was playing with Wilson and Armstrong.
Women can’t speak up as professionals because they are bit players getting scraps from an already marginalized, niche “sport.” It says everything about the structural misogyny of gravel that an alleged player like Strickland conveniently played the role of mentor to up-and-coming women, helping them get sponsorships, showing them the ropes, and at least with Wilson, showing her some night moves as well. So however obvious it is to the women involved, the rules are the same as they have long been in corporate America: once you hit the glass ceiling, be thankful you got that high and STFU.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and history matters. A cultural license for men to take to the open road by car, train, or bicycle while women have to keep the home fires burning or be on highest alert for rape and murder, plays itself out throughout society, and gravel is nothing more than a microscopic slice of the songs, stories, events, legends, myths, and people that make up that society. Never forget that the song is Ramblin’ Man.
But you can’t change things until you can imagine a different outcome. Try rewording all these travelin’ man songs as if they’re sung by a woman. Doesn’t quite sound the same, does it? Especially John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”: I’ve cheated on you tons of times with other guys and am leaving, don’t know when I’ll return but when I do I’ll have a wedding ring for you, future hubby! You can count on me!
I can even help you out with my new version of “Brandy,” rebranded as “Randy.” Hope you like it.
There’s a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
Women sailors pass the time away
And talk about their homes
And there’s a boy in this harbor town
And he works layin’ whiskey down
They say “Randy, fetch another round”
He serves them whiskey and wine
The women say, “Randy, you’re a fine boy
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
Yeah, your eyes could steal a lady from the sea”
Randy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the north of Spain
A locket that bears the name
Of a girl that Randy loved
She came on a summer’s day
Bringing gifts from far away
But she made it clear she couldn’t stay
No harbor was her home
The woman said, “Randy, you’re a fine boy
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
But my life, my love and my baby is the sea”
Yeah, Randy used to watch her eyes
When she told her sailor’s story
He could feel the ocean fall and rise
He saw its raging glory
But she had always told the truth
She was a truthful sailing hand,
And Randy does his best to understand
At night when the bars close down
Randy walks through a silent town
And loves a gal who’s not around
He still can hear her say
He hears her say, “Randy, you’re a fine boyWanky Songbot, 2023.
(You’re a fine boy)
What a good husband you would be
(Such a fine boy)
But my life, my love and my baby is the sea
It is, yes, it is.