Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ramble On

I re-heard a word this week, a word that I've heard probably hundreds of times, but never once originally uttered live my entire life, at least in the particular context I am referencing.

And if it sounds like I am rambling, that is by design. Taking a break from Bob Dylan's Christmas album, I was listening to a version of his 1965 song "Live Minus Zero/No Limit," which contains the lyric: "The bridge at midnight trembles/The country doctor rambles." I don't think Dylan is implying that the country doctor is spewing verbage...which I believe is the only context I've actually heard the word "ramble" applied to in my lifetime. But just off the top of my head I can think of a number of rock songs of the 60s era which use the word to refer to traveling, likely aimless traveling. The Rolling Stones had a hit with "Midnight Rambler" in 1969. Led Zeppelin released "Ramble On" that very same year. A few years after that the Allman Brothers charted with "Ramblin' Man."

Perhaps the explanation is simple. Perhaps all these references trace back to Robert Johnson's 1936 recording of "Ramblin' on my Mind," a song all of the above artists would likely be familiar with (Eric Clapton certainly was, as he recorded his own version). As the blues lexicon has faded from our popular culture, it would make sense that this particular usage of the word would become obsolete, even as the songs are preserved by classic rock radio.

But if you've ever read this blog before, you know I'm not going to settle for the simple explanation. I've got to think that based upon word usage, for a particular time in the 20th Century, "rambling" was an action valued by large segments of the culture, a value that is no longer widely held. Certainly, it was a part of the beatnik/hippie ethos of the mid-20th Century to take to the road and explore parts unknown--and not just by driving themselves. A recent blog/podcast from the Freakonomics authors explored the decline in the practice of hitchhiking, also offering up the theory that a revival of the practice would be of a net benefit to society.

Their argument is that fear of crime was just one factor in the decline of hitchhiking. The other factor was that there has been a large increase in automobile availability. Some used to hitchhike out of a sense of adventure, but most did so out of necessity. And for most of them, the necessity just isn't there anymore. Even if someone breaks down, roadside assistance is a phone call away---and it is obviously much easier to make that phone call since the invention of the cell phone.

While hitchhikers were forced to "ramble," out of necessity, I've got to think that even motorists were sometimes forced to become ramblers. With no cell phones, no Mapquest or Google maps, no GPS systems, and no websites that allow one to plan destinations ahead of time, there was by necessity more randomness involved in covering territory. And randomness leads to rambling.

There is no way to ever know such a statistic, but I would like to know how many people every year set out in an automobile without a fixed destination in mind. And I would like to see a comparison of this number over the years. My guess is that at the time period when the word "ramble" was finding its way into songs, the number of real life ramblers was at an all-time high.

And now, for most of us, our rambling is much more abstract. Now, perhaps the only way we are free to travel without a map is when we give expression to a stream of consciousness. But the risk we take then is that we get accused of rambling.


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