The Ways of the World Words & Music by Rex Benson & Steve Gillette
I think this is a charming country song. The poor guy was so smitten all those long years ago that he hasn’t been able to move on. He’ll hold fast to his dreams ‘like a rock in the stream’ and declare that the world is not to be understood by a simple man with ‘no ambition to be wise in the ways of the world.’
From the first I was drawn to the phrase ‘the ways of the world.’ It has a satisfying alliteration, a consonance as the poets say, that is pleasant to sing. And ‘wise in the ways of the world’ even more so. Also, it says much in one short phrase about how the important things have so little to do with the price of tea in China, or the trade deficit for that matter.
I feel for this guy. I am this guy in so many ways, even if I do try to understand what it is that makes the world go around. I identify with his plain, modest and straightforward lament. And like all of us, I cherish those memories of youth and young love, you know, way back in our forties.
There are people who are working on the greater problems of managing the world. With robots replacing so many jobs, even driving trucks, these people are concerned about what to do with all of us. As the economic system starts to sputter and the petrodollar is in need of a ring job, they are trying out various approaches to provide for us in a benign and orderly way.
We are led to believe that the real ways of the world are not the concern of normal, working man types, and this view is especially central to country music. This song does not in any way take on the wealth gap, or the endless wars, it’s more about how it feels to remember that which can make all those other considerations seem insignificant. I know that’s silly, but it’s just a song.
Ian Tyson wrote a terrific song about a guy who falls in love with a beautiful woman and takes her home to his farm. She misses the excitement of the city, and can’t settle in to the drab life of the frontier. He captures the drama masterfully with the lines:
“Four months ago in April, on a day coach she came down And now the dusty autumn winds begin to blow I should've known I couldn't hold her living out so far from town Where the nights to come are long and slow to go . . . If I had only known before we kissed You can't keep red velvet on a poor dirt farm like this.”
Rex and I were working on what we believed could be an elegant country song, and I think we accomplished that. Three/four time gives the singer lots of room for language and insight and interpretation. I think the lyrics help with that exploration.
And of course, the melody and harmony, the musical language that supports the reminiscences called for in a song like this are all choices that require a sense of proportionality.
We gravitated to the sweet, sentimental melodic territory of the great waltzes, ‘I remember the night and the Tennessee waltz, and I know just how much I have lost.’ Don Williams or Waylon Jennings could have made a great record with this song. Not sure who would be a good fit today, but we still send it around.
When I listen to the song now, I hear a double tragedy. It may be that the young woman had the chance to go away to college and just couldn’t fail to do that. It meant not only that our hero was left behind, but that he was truly, tragically – left behind in that other sense.
Nothing will ever quite take the place of that first thrill of connection. Cathexis, what Janey Starling described as ‘this loss of self in devotion.’ To a psychoanalyst it may seem to be something that needs to be treated as a disorder. Romeo and Juliet didn’t see it that way. It’s not just the love that is poignant in young love, but it’s the joy of being young and in love; uncertain, hopeful, and vulnerable. Good sex is not about plumbing, it’s about electricity.
I asked Rex if he had any recollections about working on the song and how it has turned out, and he wrote the following:
“I was proud that my longtime friend and collaborator had chosen our song "The Ways Of The World" to be the title track of his 1992 album, produced by Jim Rooney. Rooney of course of renowned folk/country fame, having produced Nanci Griffith and John Prine among others, would go on to produce Hal Ketchum, with his partner, the legendary Allen Reynolds.
“Steve’s album, and virtually all projects cut at Allen’s Jack’s Tracks studio, was engineered by Mark Miller. Mark worked with Allen on Don Williams, Crystal Gayle, Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Hal Ketchum, in 1992 he was working with Rooney on Steve’s album.
“We had written the song a year or two prior, at a time when it seemed like every country album had a waltz on it, so we thought it a good idea to come up with one. In subsequent years, that trend no longer is a regular thing, and the pitch opportunities for this piece have diminished as a result.
“However, this song has always felt like a sleeper to me; a song that was so beautifully performed by Steve and the musicians, that surely at some point it will find a home. After all, there is no expiration on art. And to this day, I’m very pleased with the second verse in particular.
“Steve mentions the Stuart Duncan fiddle part as outstanding. I agree, and Stuart of course has gone on to be featured on many major Nashville recordings, and as I recall that’s the Great Kenny Malone on brushes.
“I remember at some point long after Steve’s recording, realizing that with just a word or two changed, this song might also work for a female artist.”
Until Rex mentioned it, I hadn’t considered the idea of a female version, but it seems to work very well. In an earlier article for "She’s Not You" I wrote about how the change of gender was not just about pronouns, but that there might be some reasons why one gender interpretation would be favorable, or more meaningful.
Here I’ll share just the chorus of a female version of "The Ways of the World" so you can see how changing ‘memories of a young man’ in the male version to ‘the memory of a young man’ in the female version has its own wisdom. Rex also changed ‘love of a small town girl’ to ‘dreams of a small town girl.
So pardon me if I seem old fashioned, in a world that’s changing so fast. Who would have ever imagined I’d be holding so tight to the past? Pardon me if I cling to tradition, and the dreams of a small-town girl. And the memory of a young man who was in no position to be wise in the ways of the world.
The track for the video is from my CD, The Ways of the World. You’ll hear Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Roy Husky Jr. plays bass, Mark Harmon plays guitar and mandolin and Kenny Malone plays drums. We hope you enjoy it. The music is also in the Steve Gillette Songbook. Please pass along the link to anyone you think would find it interesting.
"The Ways of the World" - Audio from The Ways of the World.
Video by Steve
Here are the lyrics and chords:
Since I was
© 1990, Songs of Universal, Inc. / Rex Benson Music, BMI