Appalachia Music

The Highwayman

Highway Man

Lots of great stories were heard this weekend at the Georgia Mountain Storytelling Festival. The Pressley Girls were the only musicians featured in the event-a real honor for the girls.

Most of the songs the girls, and the rest of us, perform could be considered stories. As they often do, the girls gave background information about some of their songs, more than a few have a real story behind the lyrics.

I was pleased to hear Chatter tell the audience that the traditional hymns they sing were story songs to her because she knew her Pap grew up singing them, she and her sister grew up hearing them, and now they sing the songs themselves. She said it tied all the generations together in the same manner stories passed down by storytelling do.

As I pondered her remarks I was reminded of the song The Highwayman. The website shares the following story by the writer of the song, Jimmy Webb.

“I was in London, finishing an album, El Mirage, with [Beatles producer] George Martin. My friend Harry Nilsson was there, and we were doing some professional drinking. He left my apartment one night, and I went to sleep and had an incredibly vivid dream. I had an old brace of pistols in my belt and I was riding, hell-bent for leather, down these country roads, with sweat pouring off of my body. I was terrified because I was being pursued by police, who were on the verge of shooting me. It was very real. I sat up in bed, sweating through my pajamas. Without even thinking about it, I stumbled out of bed to the piano and started playing “Highwayman.” Within a couple of hours, I had the first verse.

Nilsson hated that line, “Along the coach roads I did ride.” He said, “You mean, ‘Along the coach roads you rode?’” (Laughs) In that particular case, I felt it was justified because it was kind of an antique way of speaking.

I didn’t know where the song was going. Then I realized that this guy doesn’t really die in the first verse. He’s reincarnated. I thought, “Where does this soul go?” The verses started to evolve. He becomes a sailor, then a dambuilder. Then the best idea for me was switching the tense into the future and say, “I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide until I reach the other side.”

After I recorded it, the song languished for years. This is encouragement for young writers with great songs and nothing happens to them. You can’t sit around and brood about it. You move on and write more. Eventually, Glen Campbell did “The Highwayman.” He actually left Capitol Records, because they wouldn’t put the song out. So the song not only didn’t get recorded—the only guy who recorded it couldn’t even get his label to release it (laughs).

Eight years later, Glen played it for Johnny Cash. He was making a quartet album with Willie, Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. There were four verses to “The Highwayman.” Talk about predestination. I don’t know how they decided who would take which verse, but having Johnny last was like having God singing your song (laughs).”

Give Paul’s version of the song a listen.

Singers of songs and tellers of stories ensure the songs and the stories keep coming back again and again. Hope you enjoyed the song!


*Source: Performing Songwriter: Jimmy Webb’s Story Behind “The Highwayman” Lydia Hutchinson.


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  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    April 12, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Tipper: WONDERFUL POST for many reasons! We just spend our weekend traveling by bus to Eufola, ALA for an informative tour (group from Knoxville) of the magnificent homes dating back many MANY years. The folks in our group were delightful and I SOLD FOUR COPIES OF “Fiddler of the Mountains!” In our group was a lovely lady whose mother is a Matheson FROM THE MATHESON COVE! Small World! Stay well! Eva Nell

  • Reply
    April 12, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Paul does a good job singing that
    song and his playing is something
    else. I think the only other group that sung that song to my liking was Johnny Cash and the other 3 guys.
    I would have enjoyed hearing
    Chatter telling the “why” she
    and her sister sang the old songs…Ken

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    April 12, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Loved Paul’s version of Highwaymen! A very interesting history of the song. I had never heard the history of the song.
    Every time I would hear it after Johnny, Willie, Waylon and Kris popularized the song, I always thought of another group of Highwaymen…
    They were a group of artists from the 50’s and later. Living in Florida their livelihood was made selling their art. Renditions painted in bold tropical colors. Most selling at $25 and under and painted on Upson board. They were sold as a memory/souvenir of ones visit to tropical Florida.
    (I suppose a ‘liken to the mountain scenes done by artists around here.) Palm trees, Spanish moss covered trees, shanties, sandy beaches, ocean, moons and sunset scenes. Many times you would see them selling their work on the side of the road in Florida. Many of the artists are dead now…but they figured out a way to make a living with their art, selling cheap but large quantity…The paintings have now become collectors items, as has a lot of outsider art…Most all were signed by the artists, Highwaymen…know the artists names when buying!
    I am sure a lot of families today have an old painting sitting in the attic along with a seashell or two…Today it is worth more than they paid for it when they visited Florida those many years ago. Yes, I hunt for them every estate sale I go to…Not for the money but for the outsider art and pure gumption of the artists!
    Thanks Tipper, great post…
    PS….I suppose there are “highwaymen” in every genre…

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 12, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Ballads and storytelling simply belong together! Songs are only stories put to music. You and your gang’s endeavors accomplish just that, in an abundantly pleasing way!

  • Reply
    April 12, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for sharing the song, music, and its history.

  • Reply
    Ken Ryan
    April 12, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Goodness, that song has lots of quick changing chords in it! Paul did an absolutely fantastic job playing and singing it. The Highway Man is one of my all-time favorites, and Paul certainly did justice to it. Great job, Paul.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    April 12, 2015 at 10:10 am

    That song is an all time favorite. Paul did a great job too. He sure can play the dickens out of that flat top!!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 12, 2015 at 7:32 am

    I love this song, Tipper, since I first heard it on the car radio. I like things that hint to more of life that we think about on a daily basis.
    Appreciate the history!

  • Reply
    Roy Pipes
    April 12, 2015 at 7:27 am

    I love hearing The Highwayman. I never knew it was so hard to get on the market. A great post. Perhaps there is hope for my novels. (Smile)

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