Friday, May 24, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: A Long Chain On

Here’s a song that admittedly is something of an oddball choice for Favorite Song Friday.

I remember hearing it as a kid playing in the house—I think the version I heard back then was by Peter, Paul and Mary. And then a few times during my formative years I would hear it…somewhere. Playing on a car ride. Maybe seen on a public television concert. Somewhere. But after that, for the last 25 or so years, I hadn’t heard it, not even once.

Until I recently found it online and began listening to it. And even learned how to play it on the guitar. Because while I hadn’t heard it in so long, I still thought about it. I still thought about its mournful feel, its strange allegories and its unforgettable and oft-repeated title line.

So sure. With all that in mind, yeah. This song is certainly something I would label as a “favorite.”

Favorite Song Friday – "A Long Chain On"



Haunting is the word that keeps coming back to me when I hear this. There are a number of versions of it available—the author Jimmy Driftwood has one that leans towards country, the Peter, Paul and Mary version I included above runs more the gamut of straight folk. Others are tinged with gospel.

Doesn’t matter. The song comes across as a lonely, muted dirge. Just two chords, both minor (lending to the sense of gloom) carry it all. The words rule the day, but even they aren't entirely clear what's going on, despite the straightforward narrative. There is nothing complex about the melody, although I find it to be lovely and tuneful. But what really tells the story is the feel created by it all—this is what puts a skin on a tale of sadness, burden and, yet, thankfulness.

One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
He had a long chain on.


I heard his chains a clankin',
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
Draggin' along the ground.

He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on

He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
"I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread"

He didn't look like a robber,
he didn't look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
A face full of sorrow and grief.

He had a long chain on

I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
That's what I gave him to eat


Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
He said a beautiful grace.

He had a long chain on

I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
"I guess we had best let it be."

When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it's been years since I've seen him,
Still hear him draggin' his chain.

He had a long chain on

Is it deeply allegorical? Probably. What’s it about exactly? Who knows. Slavery? Bigotry? Oppression? Or mayhap a more general meditation on the long struggle? Again, it doesn’t matter. Because here, while the story moves along, it’s the feel that it creates that really paints the picture. And builds something to which we can all relate; carrying our own weight through our lives, moving along with it, despite how heavy it sometimes feels.

A couple of personal highlights for me.

  • The outright trust the narrator shows the strange, chain-dragging visitor. Isn’t that interesting? He thinks about it briefly, about the danger, but concludes pretty quickly, “He didn’t look like a robber, he didn’t look like a thief.” Instead he sees sadness, grief. And he welcomes the man in. This is where the parable nature of the song is at its strongest, and it lends something timeless and much, much larger to the relatively simple chords and simple words.

  • This verse:
Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
He said a beautiful grace.

More than any, this is the part that just floors me. Through the loneliness and the constant rattling of the chain that has been with the man for who knows how long, he still takes time to give thanks. And when he does he seems to be temporarily transformed, freed even, from every earthly burden he may be bearing. Sometimes a single line or even word can take a song to a different level. “He said a beautiful grace” does exactly that to “A Long Chain On.”

We all have those things we carry with us, some for a short time and some for the long haul. And some of them can feel like chains, no doubt. They stay with us, and as they do, over time we not only get used to them, but we come to rely on them. To count on them being there. Because they are now a part of us. I don’t know exactly what Jimmy Driftwood had in mind when he wrote “A Long Chain On,” but I suspect it had something to do with the nature of personal struggle. And the way he’s written it, it works still, decades and decades later.

The minor chords drive the words, the words tell the story, and the story creates a feel. Presto! That is Music 101, for the most part. All of the parts—none difficult in the least—add up to a whole that presents a fulfilled vision. That’s how it’s done at the most simple level. And when it succeeds, as “A Long Chain On” does, it can stay with us for a long, long time.

That’s why nearly 35+ years later, I still remember this song and still think about it. And likely will keep on thinking about it for years to come. This, again, is the power of music. Something that can remain a part of who we are, as real and present as those chains we drag behind us.

1 comment:

  1. A current artist mining a similar lyrical vein is the Handsome Family.

    ReplyDelete