I remember knowing in a vague sort of way that this was by Jesse Winchester, but I didn’t know anything more about him and don’t have any memory of hearing him sing it, or indeed of hearing anyone sing it. I obviously must have heard it somewhere — most likely numerous somewheres — performed by various someones at various coffeehouses and on various street corners… but I have no recollection of the experience.
Which said, I clearly remember how I learned it. The Cambridge Public Library had a subscription to Sing Out! magazine, and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book had a great tip about library subscriptions: libraries typically keep only five years of back issues, and if you ask them to give you the old ones when they do their annual cull, they are happy to oblige. As outlined in previous posts, I had become an habitué of the CPL’s music room during high school, and I put in a request for their discarded Sing Out!s each year, along with a guitar magazine whose title I have since forgotten.
That went on for three or four years, and then sometime in the late 1970s I got a call saying, “We’ve discontinued our subscription to Sing Out! — do you want the back issues?” I did, of course, and hurried over to get them, which gave me a complete run through the decade.
That was not as exciting as a full run through the 1960s would have been, because the magazine’s aesthetic and mine had gradually diverged. They were increasingly focused on singer-songwriters, and even their tastes in traditional and international music tended to differ from mine. But they still had occasional blues tablature, and once in a while a current composition separated itself from the pack.
Like, for example, this one. Winchester always said it was the first song he wrote — a daunting thought for anyone who wants to be a songwriter — and he later described it as “cryptic,” saying he stopped writing this way because he wanted to be more clear and direct. I understand what he meant, but by Dylan/ Mitchell/ Cohen standards it never seemed particularly cryptic — I took it as a modern variation on the gallows farewell ballad, sung by an outlaw facing execution, and what particularly caught my attention was the wry perfection of the unpoetic word “literally” in the phrase, “literally waltzing on air.”
So I learned it, and although I don’t ever recall performing it, I continue to sing it now and then for my own pleasure, and here it is. Hell of a good piece of writing.