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Featuring the songs of Nick Sullivan

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Exit, confounded

Nick Sullivan's picture
17 September 2014 by Nick Sullivan
You've Been On My Mind sheet music (detail)

Today’s song is You’ve Been On My Mind, which lays bare the thoughts of an obsessive, confused, isolated, resentful man. Under the song’s unflinching gaze, his thoughts are revealed to be full of obsession and confusion; tinged with both isolation and resentment. He feels unable to communicate effectively. He carries a chip on his shoulder, rather than the movement he needs. He complains of a malevolent “they” who delight in deceiving him and limiting his scope. But now, as some anonymous bus or angry motorcycle takes him down the road and away from the life you once shared, all he can think about, if thinking you want to call it, is you. His resentments and you. He’s quite a piece of work.

The artistic challenge of presenting a whirl of confused thoughts musically is usually handled with a volley of broken phrases emitted at high speed in Italian by people who can sing. In You’ve Been On My Mind, which is rather on the stately side, I approached the problem differently, by positing that the protagonist was certainly depressed and probably pretty drunk. His thoughts are in a whirl, but it’s a slow whirl, a lazy old ceiling fan of the mind.

The line that struck me most on rereading the song was the one about the “walking blues”, because it’s a term that the protagonist seems to understand better than I do. And, since I take after him somewhat in paranoia, I begin to wonder if maybe everybody else understands it better too. But what is the walking blues? Is it the blues of walking away, or of walking out, or of walking where one shouldn’t, or of walking around muttering to oneself? Could it be the blues of walking when one can’t afford to ride?

I first heard the phrase “walking blues” in the song “New Walking Blues” as recorded some years ago by the late Paul Butterfield, Geoff Muldaur et al. on the album Better Days. That track was a late sprig on a big family tree of songs called “Walking Blues” that descend, Wikipedia alleges, from a single ancestral work by the American slide guitarist and singer Son House in 1930. If you want to know what the “walking blues” is really all about, you only have to check out the lyrics as reprinted in the Wikipedia article. Then it becomes obvious. The “walking blues” is about using “shoes” as a rhyme in a blues song. Which might also have something to do with why it showed up in You’ve Been On My Mind, come to think of it.

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