For all those who accused Phil of being little more than a singing journalist this song must have been a little problematic. The only journalism at play here is Phil’s editing of Alfred Noyes’ poem. The beautifully fitting and evocative melody is all Phil’s. As apolitical as any of Phil’s recorded songs to date it certainly doesn’t fit into the Ochs archetype. That it is a total triumph shouldn’t be a surprise, but that a ‘topical’ songwriter should succeed so wonderfully in giving life to a nearly 60 year old poem and make it work amidst so much politicking and haranguing…well, it certainly blows away any suggestion of Phil as a one trick pony. It is also my favourite of the songs on Phil’s first two albums. After struggling to write positively about a fair few of these early Phil songs, writing this comes as something of a relief. It really is a beautiful song.
Phil trims Noyes’ seventeen verses down to a more manageable nine (it wouldn’t be long however until Phil would be writing songs that would make Noyes’ poem seem thrifty by comparison). Noyes poem is split into two halves; the first tells of our dapper hero (replete with a “French-cocked hat on his forehead”, a “coat of claret velvet” riding with a “jewelled twinkle”) and his love for Bess, the landlord’s “black-eyed” and “red-lipped” daughter. Their coupling is watched by a third character, the poor, lovesick Tim the Ostler, who’s eyes are “hollows of madness” so besotted is he with Bess. The dapper Highwayman however rides off (presumably on the rob) promising to return “though hell should bar the way”.
The second part finds Bess awaiting the return of her love, only to be captured (to be honest, I’m not sure shy. I assume the jealous Ostler dobbed her in, but Noyes neglects to tell us about that) by King George’s men who “bound her to the foot of her narrow bed”. Somehow freeing herself of their shackles, and believing that her lover would not return she shoots herself “and the blood of her veins throbbed to her loves refrain”. The Highwayman does return however and upon finding Bess dead he rides off “like a madman” only to himself be gunned down by the King’s men, shot “down like a dog on the highway”.
It’s all rather overwrought really, not exactly helped by a two verse coda that tells of our Highwayman’s ghost haunting the purple moor. It is rather fun though, and exciting even. Phil’s handling of it, with his careful phrasing and gentle tenor adds something extra, a sadness perhaps where a dry reading could evoke a more sentimental horror, a horror that could be considered tacky is these more cynical times.
Phil does away with some of Noyes’ more descriptive passages (and some of the grim details too) and ignores the poor Ostler completely. This though only amps up the drama, building up to the final few verses, which Phil quotes almost verbatim (the one major change comes in Verse Seven of Part Two of Noyes’ poem, or Verse Six of Phil’s songs where “Her eyes grew wide for a moment” becomes “For he rode on the gypsy highway” showing that Phil wasn’t at all scared to tamper with Noyes’ narrative). It all works rather beautifully.
The Highwayman first appeared in 1907, in a volume entitled “Forty Singing Seaman and other poems”. Indeed, The Highwayman aside, Noyes was better known as a poet inspired by the sea. An image of the sea appears early on in The Highwayman – “The moon was a ghostly galleon/ Tossed upon cloudy seas” – much in the same way that Phil would later incorporate sea images into his songs; think of The Hills Of West Virginia where “The fog hugged the road like a cloudy, cloudy sea”.
Noyes spent much of his childhood in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth – which is where I grew up too. Cut into the Vale of Rheidol, the town is dominated by steep hills to the north and south with Cardigan Bay to the West giving the town a sometimes eerie, claustrophobic feel. In the dead of night the sounds of the waves echo through the streets, rebounding off the still Victorian buildings of the promenade and side streets, virtually unchanged since Noyes’ day. Of course on a sunny day it is quite different, the sea lapping peacefully on the sea creating a rather quaint, chilled out atmosphere. Whatever the weather, the sea dominates. My father once gave a talk on literature to a local Sion and Sian group (a social club for senior citizens) and upon mentioning that Alfred Noyes had lived in our town a few of the older ladies began reciting The Highwayman word for word. A far more fitting tribute to Noyes and his poem than the easily ignored plaque in the town.
Seems odd then that such a poem should resonate so strongly with Phil. Then again, there remains something rather American about the notion of a Highwayman, especially one so hell bent on opposing the troops of a British king. In Woody Guthrie’s “The Unwelcome Guest” (as recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco) the Highwayman protagonist is portrayed as something of a Socialist Robin Hood figure, coming to “take the bright silver and gold you have taken from somebody else”. There are echoes of this spirit (if not the left-wing politics) throughout American culture from Jesse James and Butch Cassidy to Omar from The Wire.
Noyes’ The Highwayman, as Phil presents it, it totally apolitical. All Phil does is take Noyes’ already affecting words and add a melody that fits perfectly, allied to a picking pattern that ebbs and flows with the dram, all sung in that certain Ochs tenor.
It’s a hell of a way to end side A.