The midnight train to Georgia

“L.A. grew too much for the man . . . .

Said he’s going back to find

a simpler place and time.”

James Weatherly’s lyrics having been written half a century ago, one can only wonder what “the man” might think of today’s L.A.

It probably doesn’t matter. After all, it was over a century and a half ago that the town of Concord, Massachusetts, with its whopping population of about 2,200, had grown too much for another man, who sought his simpler place and time on the shores of Walden Pond.

Thoreau’s celebrated experiment was little more than a grand and somewhat phony gesture by a self-impressed social misfit with a Harvard education. Nevertheless, he used the occasion to fire off some trenchant commentary about a social and economic system in which “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Embraced by liberal academia, his book would sell like hotcakes in the 20th century.

But back to the song by Gladys Knight and the Pips — with its all-American roots in R&B, Doo-wop, Country, and one other musical genre to be touched upon shortly.

The theme is familiar. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the very creation of America in the European mind was an effort to catch the midnight train to Georgia. Yes, many came in the pursuit of wealth, even empire, but the tired, huddled masses were dreaming more modestly of a plot of earth and the intangibles that came with it. In their most purely idyllic fantasies, they imagined themselves as De Crevecoeur’s “new man,” an innocent new Adam dissociated from the historic past, dwelling in a paradise regained. 

Some, like Brigham Young, claimed to have reached this place. More sober minds have acknowledged that the “new” man brought the old history with him — indeed, his descendants are up to their necks in the continued making of that history, some of it more dreadful than ever — and that it’s become nigh unto impossible to find a nook or cranny of America’s geography in which “Georgia” can be found. The TV series “Yellowstone,” for example, depicts a montane pastoral idyll filled with men and women whose desperation is far from “quiet.”

Back to the song — not that we should necessarily find the wisdom of the ages in a piece of pop music.

The first thing to understand is that it’s not about “the man,” his defeat and retreat, nor is it about Georgia. Rather, its subject and protagonist is the woman whose voice we are hearing, and who also will be boarding that train — not because her life is quietly desperate, but because “I’d rather live in his world, than live without him in mine.” It’s the principal declaration of the song, and presumably it hasn’t come without some internal conflict.

Perhaps she hadn’t been reading Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, but surely their question, which was blowing in the zeitgeist, had entered her mind — Was she going to Georgia only to raise this guy’s barefoot children and braise collard greens on the cook stove? Not well played, girl.

But if she is still conflicted, you’re not hearing it in her voice, which is positive, forward-looking, uplifted. It’s almost like we’re listening to a piece of Gospel music, which in fact happens to be the other major formative influence on this song. (Listen to it HERE and tell me you can’t hear The Pips sounding an “Amen” after almost every musical phrase.) Now capitalize the two male pronouns — “I’d rather live in His world, than live without Him in mine” — and you’re listening to two thousand years’ worth of Christian saints. Convert these words to female pronouns, and you’re thinking like a medieval chivalric knight about the secret lady of his heart, knowing that, socially, he can never live in her world, but will remain committed to living for her world until the day of his death.

Pretty noble stuff. “He who would lose his life for my sake shall find it.” This woman’s happiness does not lie in Georgia, but rather in her commitment to another person who appears to offer her something more than material comfort in Madonna’s material world. 

Fifty years later we find ourselves among ideologues often characterized as utopians — “Great Reset,” New World Order types who feel that, if only we can erase past history and present values, together with the kind of people and thinking that created them, blend Western religion into a more universal spirituality that honors the Earth and no longer subjects it to “dirty,” non-renewable sources of energy, and liberate ourselves from “gender” stereotypes and so on, then behold The New Georgia and truly new men and women!

I don’t think the Gladys Knight persona would be buying it. You want “Georgia”? Just get on the train. It’s nearly midnight, when one day comes to an end, and a new day begins.

— Chad (“Bitter”) Klinger