Inspiration: The Head and the Heart – Down in the Valley

A few weeks ago I create a new page which I’ve called Inspiration. I wanted to create a list of media from which I find inspiration. When you’re a weekend dirtbag you need to pull from a lot of sources in order to get through the week. For now, the page is a list broken down by media type, but I will be writing posts like this one to fill out the list with more information and explaining why I find inspiration in each item.


Down in the Valley

This particular song triggers wanderlust in me because of its tone and lyrics. It starts out somber and builds up instrumentally, in cadence, and intensity. It seems that the song was written while the singer was working a job he didn’t like and is about the repetition of days when stuck is such a position. To me, as the song builds, it also represents the realization that something needs to be done to release yourself from such a situation. The mention of places that the singer has never been to hints to traveling as an escape from work, something I often do.

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade
Like ridin’ around in rail cars and workin’ long days

These lyrics hearken to simpler days when a job had more meaning because it required physical exertion and produced something material; something of which you could be proud. Today, much of our work is very abstract and service-related. It’s hard to find meaning in something you can’t hold in your hand. Even though the usage of the word “slave” has negative connotations, to me it is used in this line because the alternative is being slave to a modern trade, such as busing tables or being a cashier.

I know there’s California, Oklahoma
And all of the places I ain’t ever been to
But down in the valley
With whiskey rivers
These are the places you will find me hidin’
These are the places I will always go

Initially I viewed this part of the song as positive. I pictured a back country mountain valley with a river running through it. A place known for good fly fishing and for getting away to hear your own thoughts. I pictured whiskey rivers as ones that run hard with foam caught in eddies and silt dirtying the water brown. In conjunction with the rest of the song and especially the previous lines I think it must have a different meaning. I think the singer is acknowledging that there are so many places other than the one where he is stuck, yet at the end of the day he finds his way to a bar in the valley and drinks away his sorrow and motivation to make a change.

Also, there is a traditional song called “Down in the Valley to Pray.” It was featured with a different title, “Down in the River to Pray,” in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou where there was a line of people singing the song and waiting to be baptized in the river. Willie Nelson has a song called Whiskey River that is about drowning all of your sorrows in a river of whiskey in order to forget them. It is unlikely that these were in the writer’s mind when the song was written, but they eventually made their way into mine and reinforced a darker meaning. For me, they conjure an image of lining up at a bar in order to get a baptismal drink of whiskey.

I am on my way
I am on my way
I am on my way back to where I started

These lines are sung during a lull in the song and to me represent a realization that a change must be made and the repetitive pattern broken. The chorus follows but after the song resumes the somber tone from the beginning and the first lyrics are repeated again. These two lulls, one talking about going “back to where I started” and the other about being a “slave to an age-old trade,” bring about the resolution of the song. To me, the take away is not that he is going back to the place of his childhood, but back to where he as a human started. Back to when things were simpler and work had meaning.

For me, hiking is my way to get back to a simpler way of life that may be difficult but fills the day with meaningful moments. And, that is why this song inspires me.

The Head and the Heart – Down in the Valley [OFFICIAL VIDEO] (YouTube)

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