Emmylou Harris recently appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert with her band The Red Dirt Boys and gave a moving performance of Steve Earle’s “The Pilgrim.” The song is my favorite from Earle’s bluegrass album The Mountain (1999), so it was great to hear Harris’s wonderful voice giving it a new interpretation and a new meaning.
In introducing the song, Harris touched upon today’s political culture and the plight of refugees. She noted, “This song is for the over 65 million displaced persons around the world.”
And then she began the song.
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys; This ain’t never been my home. Sometimes the road was rocky long the way, boys; But I was never travelin’ alone.
On September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse (Tashunca-uitco) was killed while resisting his captivity in a guardhouse at Fort Robinson in Nebraska. During a struggle, a U.S. soldier stabbed Crazy Horse with a bayonet. Many things are still debated about that day, including the name of the soldier and how Crazy Horse resisted, but it was the end of the great military leader of the Oglala Lakota.
Crazy Horse was one of the Sioux leaders who defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory in 1876. After the infamous battle, U.S. soldiers had pursued Crazy Horse and his followers until the Native Americans, suffering cold and starvation, surrendered in May 1877.
In 2005, singer-songwriter Marty Stuart released Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, a concept album about Native American history and struggle. Stuart brought his outstanding musical and storytelling skills to the music, as he had done for other concept albums, including his excellent The Pilgrim (1999).
On the epic song “Three Chiefs” on Badlands, Stuart sings from the point of view of Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. He recounts what they might have said after their deaths when they went to another world.
In the segment in the song about Crazy Horse, the song recounts his death: “In a jailhouse in Nebraska, it was on September 5,/ Crazy Horse was fighting hard to keep himself alive.” After his death, he meets God, who asks what Crazy Horse has to say. Crazy Horse responds:
“Upon suffering. Beyond suffering. The Red Nation shall rise again. And it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises. Selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again.”
Crazy Horse foretells that the Native Americans will bring healing to the land of suffering.
“I see a time of seven generations when all of the colors of mankind Will gather under the sacred tree of life. And the whole earth will become one circle again. And that day, there will be those among The Lakota, Who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things. And the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.”
After Crazy Horse’s death, his body was placed on a burial scaffold, and later his parents took his remains to an undisclosed location. Experts suspect the remains are in an area around Wounded Knee, South Dakota, but no one is sure of the exact location.
As Stuart sings, “Touch the Clouds took his body, back home to his family,/ Nobody knows where they laid him down, to set his spirit free.” Below is a Bio documentary’s excerpt about Crazy Horse’s death.
Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.
With Thanksgiving approaching in the U.S., it seems appropriate to discuss one of my all-time favorite CDs, Marty Stuart’s The Pilgrim (1999). In another post, we discuss another Marty Stuart CD that covers the other side of the original Thanksgiving table.
Although we often associate the word “pilgrim” with the English colonists who sailed on the Mayflower ship, settled in Plymouth, and dined on the first Thanksgiving meal, the word in its broader meaning applies to any traveler or more specifically, “one who embarks on a quest for something . . .sacred.”
It is in this sense that Marty Stuart’s concept album uses the word “pilgrim.” On the album, we first hear the word in Emmylou Harris’s voice on one of the first songs on the CD (above): “I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home/ . . . I might be tired and weary, but I’m strong / ‘Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone.”
The True Story Inspiration
The Pilgrim is based on a true story about people Stuart knew in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Over the years, Stuart continued to think about the tale, and after attending Bill Monroe’s funeral, he began putting the story into an album.
The Pilgrim begins with the words of a man — the Pilgrim — who is in love with a friend, Rita. But unknown to the Pilgrim, Rita was married to Norman, who was jealous of his former beauty queen wife.
In the song “Harlan County,” bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, reveals Norman killed himself because he believed he had been betrayed. In “Reasons,” Marty Stuart recounts Norman’s suicide note, where Norman explained, “I keep looking for reasons.”
Norman’s suicide sends the Pilgrim on the road as he struggles with how his love for Rita led to Norman’s death. He drowns his troubles in alcohol (“Red, Red Wine and Cheating Songs“) and travels as a hobo, heading west for the Pacific Ocean and “trading sorrows for tomorrows,” while “Goin’ Nowhere Fast.”
During the Pilgrim’s travels, an observant crow sees the Pilgrim passing by in “Observations of a Crow”: Take a look at that pilgrim, passing by; He’s looking for love, I can see it in his eyes; He’s running ’round in circles, you can take it from me; His shadow begs for mercy of every lost and found, In city after city, town after town, Tortured by the memory of a love he thought was supposed to be.
Eventually, across the miles, in “The Greatest Love of All Time” and “Draggin’ Round These Chains of Love,” the Pilgrim thinks back on Rita. He considers his love for her despite everything that has happened.
The Pilgrim visits a small graveyard where his mother is buried. At his mother’s grave, in “Redemption,” he says, “I keep hearing her and Jesus say ‘Surrender son and rest.'” The Pilgrim finally is able to forgive himself and accept his love for Rita. He returns home to marry her and raise a family.
The Music: “A Fabulous Journey”
Of course, an album would not be great with just a good story. The music on the album is wonderful too, covering a number of styles of country music, including rockabilly, a drinking song, and some excellent short bluegrass instrumentals. While the songs together tell a story, they each may stand on their own outside the story too.
Marty Stuart’s voice tells most of the tale, but a few friends show up to help out, including Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Pam Tillis, and George Jones. The music fits the Pilgrim’s tale perfectly throughout.
Unfortunately, the album did not do well in sales when it was first released, even though critics gave it good reviews. Because of the poor sales, MCA Nashville dropped Stuart from his record deal at the time.
In retrospect, Stuart has accepted the loss well, realizing he created something worth more than a sales number. Stuart recognizes, “But when all of those plastic things that came out around that time are gone, The Pilgrim will still be around.”
The Pilgrim is one of the great overlooked country CDs of recent decades. Johnny Cash called it “a fabulous journey.” You might discount Johnny’s statement because he was friends with Stuart. Also, he helped with the album, as his deep booming voice provides the final words on the album, quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad.”
But if you do not trust Johnny’s assessment, you can trust me.
I am a lonesome Pilgrim, far from home, And what a journey I have known. I might be tired and weary, but I’m strong; ‘Cause pilgrims walk, but not alone.
May your journeys this Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season all be safe and happy ones.
What do you think of The Pilgrim? Leave your two cents in the comments.
In a recent post, we discussed the link between Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and the movie Taxi Driver (1976). In this post, we consider a musical connection between the movie and another song: Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”
In Taxi Driver, perhaps the one moment a viewer might think that there is a slight bit of hope for Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is when he first courts Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After he charms her into going to a diner for a bite to eat, she quotes, “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher… partly truth and partly fiction… a walking contradiction.” Bickle focuses on the “pusher part,” saying he has never been a pusher, but she explains she brought it up for the “walking contradiction” part. Bickle is amused, and a later scene shows him at a record store, apparently buying the album, which he later gives to her on their next date, which he blows by taking her to see a porno.
Although we do not hear the song or the name of the song in those scenes, the quote is from Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was off of his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971). The album’s biggest hit was “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” and the album also included Kristofferson’s version of “Jody and the Kid.”
“The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was not a hit for Kristofferson, has held up well through the years. A number of artists have covered the song, including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Lee Lewis (with Kristofferson). When a tribute CD was put together for Kristofferson, they took the song for the title of the CD, The Pilgrim: A Celebration Of Kris Kristofferson. On that album, in the introduction to the title track, Kristofferson explains that he wrote that song “for a good friend of mine, Donny Fritts [Kristofferson’s long-time keyboard player], and Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash. . .” and then he goes on to list a number of people ranging from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Mickey Newbury to “maybe me and I guess my father.” As Kristofferson has aged and seeped into musical legend as one of our classic country elders, the song seems to be more and more about him.
It is a beautiful song, and while like Astral Weeks it is not completely in sync with the story of Travis Bickle, you can see where Martin Scorsese got a little inspiration from the song. Like “Madame George,” the song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” also contains some of the themes of isolation and loneliness that Martin Scorsese tried to capture in Taxi Driver.
He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars, And he’s traded in tomorrow for today; Runnin’ from his devils, Lord, and reachin’ for the stars, And losin’ all he’s loved along the way; But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse, And all he ever gets is older and around, From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse, The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.
Like many of Kristofferson’s songs, it works as pure poetry. His lyrics in “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” describe a man of contradictions, leaving much room for interpretation. I have never read an explanation for the “Chapter 33” in the title, but I suspect it is a reference to a man being near the end of his life, just as Chapter 33 will fall near the end of a book. Perhaps that is why the song seems to describe so many of the brilliant artists mentioned by Kristofferson in the introduction mentioned above. May we all be so lucky that the going up is worth the coming down.