On a modern ballad of man and deed

Reading Tolkien to the children the past few months, I can’t help but notice how much the characters in The Lord of the Rings speak of songs of heroic deeds. Many of them wonder at the writing of verse and whether anyone will be around to hear it sung. In fact, they do this more frequently than they actually sing themselves. The works exist in Tolkien’s vast appendices of course, but in the novel proper, it is mostly contemplation and analysis. I think perhaps this is Tolkien’s own voice speaking here rather than Sam’s or Merry’s.

Today we still honor soldiers in various ways, but songs and ballads have fallen into disuse. It’s too bad really – not because we so desperately need to preserve the memory of war in art, but because it gave us something to sing about besides love and death.

There are exceptions though. What might a modern song of man and deed look like? It could look like this wonderful song, ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’, written by Mark Knoffler and featuring James Taylor. It draws on the 1997 historical novel Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon about the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomers and surveyors in the mid-1700s. What a curious topic for a song today, but gosh is it fabulous on many levels. It may be about scientists on the American frontier, but it feels closer to a lay about Helm Hammerhand than anything else you might stumble upon on pop radio.

Sailing to Philadelphia

I am Jeremiah Dixon
I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir
And the ladies I’ll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland
Is measured up by my own hand
It was my fate from birth
To make my mark upon the earth

He calls me Charlie Mason
A stargazer am I
It seems that I was born
To chart the evening sky
They’d cut me out for baking bread
But I had other dreams instead
This baker’s boy from the west country
Would join the Royal Society

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line

Now you’re a good surveyor, Dixon
But I swear you’ll make me mad
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad
You talk of liberty
How can America be free
A Geordie and a baker’s boy
In the forests of the Iroquois

Now hold your head up, Mason
See America lies there
The morning tide has raised
The capes of Delaware
Come up and feel the sun
A new morning has begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line