Tuesday, October 5, 2010

AMERICAN SONGS: "Willin'"

Little Feat--"Willin'(live)" (mp3)

A truly great American song should have a sense of rebelliousness. It should convey a sense of mystery, leaving questions unanswered. It should nail down the details, the names and the places, of this sprawling land.


"Willin’," written by Lowell George of Little Feat, possesses all of these qualities. Written by George around 1970, the song has been recorded by, among a host of others, Seatrain, Linda Rondstadt, and Steve Earle. Beyond that, it has most certainly remained a staple of folksingers and guitarists in performance, with its descending chord G-D-Em-C (starting on the 7th fret) opening signature and the layered harmonies of its chorus, especially on the "Weed, whites, and wine" section.

Though no one would claim that Little Feat was ever a country music band, the song itself is about as country as it gets, or should get.

Perhaps you know the opening lines:

I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
I'm drunk and dirty don't ya know, and I'm still, willin'
Out on the road late at night,
Seen my pretty Alice in every head light
Alice, Dallas Alice

An ironic paean to the life of a truck driver for whom the lure of the road is stronger than any attachments or petty moralities, the song captures the costs of choosing to stay on the move instead of settling down--battling the weather in all its forms, only occasional visits with a lover, drug and alcohol use to get through the long miles and hours.

I've been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I'll be willin', to be movin'

In addition to a complex melody, the lyrical qualities of these classic songs also stand out. In "Willin'," the alliterative use of unusual Native American names for cities and towns not only sets the song in the wilder area of the country, the Southwest, but also, like the best poetry, the use of strange and interesting words adds to the aural pleasure of the song. A listener can't help but sing along with the chorus, waiting for the chance to say try these words on his or her tongue. In doing so, he or she becomes complicit with the narrator, sharing the social taboos and shortcuts that the life requires. Also the powerful verbs associated with the weather--"warped," "driven," "baked," "kicked," and "robbed"--enhance the struggle, even the battle, suggested by the trucker's lifestyle.

Now I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico
Baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico, and I'm still

I've been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I'm still on my feet and I'm still... willin'


It's kind of fun to think of this 40-year-old song in the context of today's crazy America. Would Joe Hit Country Music Maker refuse to record the song because it references drug use, irresponsible driving, support for illegal immigrants, blatant breaking of the laws of interstate commerce? Or would he see that this is the kind of rebel who has always ridden our roads and that, like all other kinds of "don't ask, don't tell" situations, this little song captures the realities of what it takes to transport goods from one end of the country to the other.

If you thought truckdriving was more like B.J. and the Bear, think again.

And I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I'll be willin', to be movin
"

Willin'" walks an interesting tightrope. While it clearly romanticizes the life of a truck driver, it does so using only the potential negatives of this lifestyle, as if to say, not everybody could do what I'm doing, but it has to be done, and I'm willing to do it, and if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it my way, and screw you, if you don't like it. More a testament than an explanation, it does not expect you to understand the why of what he does, but it shows you the what in brief, but powerful, detail.

This live version of "Willin'" comes from Little Feat's Waiting For Columbus, one of the great live albums, available in a deluxe edition for a cheap price at eMusic.com

4 comments:

Thom Anon said...

Sweet jam. Like to play in double feature with OCMS's version of Wagon Wheel.

-T

jed said...

i love the Byrd's version with Clarence White. check it out. great post.

Bob said...

Byrd's also do Lowell's "Truck Stop Girl," which Clarence also sings.

Anonymous said...

That analysis of Willin' is spot-on in my opinion. well done