A man, a horse and a girl: Rode offers a new take on an old classic

Robert Johnson is Averill's hero, a man just barely out of boyhood who runs afoul of Jo Benson's father and her outlaw brother. A cardinal sin for reviewers is to reveal the ending of a story, but it stays true to the song in that sense, so there is no need to beg forgiveness. It’s the events that occur in between leaving and returning home where Averill deviates from the song, and infuses Johnson with human characteristics in the process.

The journey in the story is essentially the same as in the song, but Johnson fails at many things, unlike the character in the song; he’s as much lucky as he is capable. The character in the song seems to revel in his adventures until he grows bored with them and realizes he misses his girl. Johnson pines constantly for Jo, so much that you almost forget his predicament and wonder why he ever left. They’re just not the same fellows, but nobody’s perfect, especially Johnson. His imperfections inject some doubt about his ultimate success, even though you know he’ll succeed.

Some of Averill’s deviations from the song are curious, others predictable, almost to the point of cliche′, but the tale is so well known that the deviations create some uniqueness for the story. Movie makers do it all the time with novels, so there’s no shame for Averill doing the same thing with a song. The book is usually better than the movie though, and Averill would be hard pressed to top the song in a head-to-head match up. The real tale in Rode is Johnson’s trip across the frontier of 1825 America. The Tennessee-Arkansas border was the beginning of the frontier, Texas was not a state, and slavery was still legal. All of these figure prominently in Averill’s tale, and it’s through those that he sets the story apart from the song.

Averill’s descriptions are vivid, capturing both the landscape and its character. Johnson spends time in “what some people called Texas and others called No Man’s Land. . .” It was a place where the “western landscape . . . always lied about distance . . .,” and “even the rocks were worn, as though resting with their bottoms buried deep in the landscape to escape the sun.” It was a desolate place, and Averill’s construction of the landscape and the environment is reminiscent of the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, not bad company when creating hostile surroundings.

Comparisons are inevitable; Averill invites that by citing the song as the basis for his story. His character bumbles his way across a hostile country, surviving as much by luck as skill. He’s not the same person as in the song, but that’s not a bad thing. A bounty hunter who catches up with Johnson on his return trip claims that “you learn about a man, tracking him . . . You are the despoiler of my niece . . . a horse thief. A gambler. A drinker. A carouser.” Most of those are true in some sense, but Johnson did what he had to do to survive, and survival always makes for a good story, even if it is just by luck.

Music has long provided inspiration, and the Jimmy Driftwood song, "The Tennessee Stud," has inspired the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Doc Watson, who each offered their own version. The song provides a different sort of inspiration for Thomas Fox Averill, who uses it as the basis of his recently published novel, Rode (University of New Mexico Press, $24.95).

"The Tennessee Stud" is a classic Americana, folk, country, or whatever hole you want to stick it in, and it's a bold step to appropriate a classic for other purposes. It better be good if you're going to do it. Francis Ford Coppola succeeded with the movie Apocalypse Now, which was loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness. Coppola used sweeping, lush cinematography to create his own, unique version of the tale. Averill uses similar literary devices to create a landscape and historical era in establishing his unique version of this musical standard.

The lyrics of "The Tennessee Stud" tell the story of a man who has to leave in a hurry after crossing his girlfriend's father. He meets all manner of trouble, from Indians to cheating gamblers, but vanquishes all, and ends up back in Tennessee to "whup" his girlfriend's Pa and claim his girl. That's a lot of action packed into a little over three minutes, but one of the peculiarities, and one of the attractions, of a song is not what is revealed, but what is left to the listener’s imagination.

All we really know of the hero is that he loves his horse and he loves his girl; the man with no name becomes almost mythical as he rides across the frontier in omnipotent anonymity. The listener gets to fill in the blanks in an affair that results in the development of a relationship between listener and song, if the song is any good that is. Fiction takes care of a good deal of that for us. Averill provides a name, face, and a breadth of emotion that both exceeds and deviates from the character in the song.

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