There is a video of a group of children performing the song “Gentle on My Mind” in this cheerful, anodyne style that makes you sit back and think, oh, how wonderful that he (the songwriter) has such warm thoughts about his girl. She must be so pleased that he’s thinking about her after he stayed a few nights and then ran off.
Have you ever hummed along to it?
Have you ever taken note of the lyrics:
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
There are many strange paradoxes in popular culture: our contempt for men who “love ’em and leave ’em” for their cruelty and selfishness, and our worship of songs like “Baby the Rain Must Fall” and “Gentle on my Mind”. Our cancel culture, about men who cheat. Our public disapproval of philanderers. But most people still hum along, as they do with a song about killing an unfaithful wife (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”).
“Gentle on my Mind” is pretty poetic about it:
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a rustling, cold towel, and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face
This gets kind of weird. Not only is he dumping her– like Gordon Lightfoot in “For Lovin’ Me”, but he’s wandering around like a hobo, not working, evidently, and surviving on soup with his fellow derelicts in “some train yard”. Quite a picture for his beloved, while she’s warming to the idea of being “gentle on his mind”.
So the gentle part means she isn’t going to put up a fuss about him dropping in for sex now and then, leaving his sleeping bag behind her couch, and then taking off whenever he feels like it.
Elvis Presley recorded it. So did Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. But, Aretha Franklin?! Yes, she did. Well, that’s liberating!
John Hartford wrote the song, he says, after watching “Dr. Zhivago”. And from personal experience.
Maybe I misunderstand the lyrics. Maybe the poor guy had no choice but to move on and eat soup in the train yard. But it doesn’t sound like it:
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone
Who’s right? Well, let’s expand it a little. Let’s consider Hartford’s wife.
The story of the song narrates the reminiscences of a drifter of his lost love, while moving through backroads and hobo encampments. Betty Hartford, who later divorced her husband, noted to him the similarity between herself and the song’s female character. She questioned John Hartford about the man’s negative feelings toward his marriage. Hartford said he likened her to Lara and attributed the man’s feelings about being trapped in a relationship to his “artistic license”.
There you go.
It was, at one time, one of the most played songs (in all versions) on radio in North America.