Home Feature Bound for Glory – What’s in a Word

Bound for Glory – What’s in a Word

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Photo by Leonard Poole.

This article is about one word: bound. I believe that this word is central to our understanding of the origins and foundations of what contemporary folk and roots music is and the community that surrounds it. I believe this word emerged again in the era of the folk boom. And yet, I think we are still bound to this word and to the ideas behind it. They bind us together. 

 According to my somewhat dated Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word “bound” has four distinct meanings.

  1. A springy movement upward, or outwards, by leaps and bounds.
  2. A limitation, a restriction, a border of a territory. To be out of bounds, beyond what is acceptable, forbidden.
  3. Moving in a specified direction, outward bound, northbound, inbound. ready to start, as in bound for stardom.
  4. As from bind, he is bound to come, certain to come.

There is also “bound” as in the past and past participle of the word “bind.” “I’ll be bound” is a statement of assurance or guaranteeing the truth of something.

I hope to be able to discuss some of the meanings of the word in relation to the community we are


In the political world, one can hear catch phrases and obnoxious sound bites that come and go with the seasons and political hemlines. “Moving forward,” “at the end of the day,” “when the rubber hits the road,” “the buck stops here,” “the bottom line,” – blah blah – are just a few of the many distillations of non-thought that one might hear frothing from the mouths of our political leaders. Though the speechwriters may mean well, after listening to politicians of every stripe drop these same pearls, they become irritating and meaningless.  

Apart from these inanities, each age and tribe has key words that define its times. The easiest to identify would be the lingo of sub-groups like the beats or hippies – in fact each of these two examples informed the other; “hip” from the beats later defined in part a hippie. Words like “cool daddy,” “flipped,” “wigged out,” “hip to the scene,” “a gas,” etc.  helped define the beats as a sub group and an era. The wondrous “way gone” recitations of Lord Buckley give a great insight into the phraseology and thinking of this era. The same is true of the hippie. “Far out, man,” “cool,” “it’s a trip,” “right on” and “tune in, turn on, drop out” indicated words of a tribe, time and place. Again, this can be heard in the early work of comedian and philosopher George Carlin with his hippy dippy weatherman skits. In recent times, the language of hip hop and rap have given us immortal phrases like “Yo,” “whaddup,” “chillin,” or “the hood.”  As well as these tribal keys, various words come and go in the society and in some cases, you can tell where people still live in time by the phrases they continue to incorporate into their own speech patterns. Words or phrases like “excellent,” “perfect,” and “dude” all came and went through the society but some people stubbornly hang on to these terms long after their social due date has lapsed.

 When I was first hearing of the folk world in the early 60s, the key word seemed to be “bound.” Like the words and phrases mentioned above, the word “bound” was a key to the door. Whether this word has any meaning now may be up for debate but at the time, “bound” was everywhere.   Everyone and everything seemed “bound” for somewhere. Woody Guthrie was bound for glory, Gordon Lightfoot was Alberta bound, Tom Paxton couldn’t help but wonder where he was bound. Bob Dylan didn’t know where he was bound, but goodbye was too good a word. Tom Dooley was a poor boy bound to die. The Seekers were all bound for Morningtown. Patrick Sky, among others, was heaving and hauling away—bound away for Australia. Sailors were often bound for “Ameriky” by various routes across the bounding main and, once they got there, were bound across the wide Missouri. Even a Johnny-come-lately to the folk threat, Paul Simon, wanted everyone to know they were homeward bound. There is a further list of “bound” songs at the end of this article provided in part through the generous assistance of Shelley Posen and Greg Tuck as well as the Sacred Harp.

It seemed to me that there was a lot packed into that one word. With everyone singing about being bound for somewhere, the word seemed to have an explosive and expansive feel to it. Everyone was heading out, seeking adventure, not by accident, but in a Kerouac sense, with intention, with purpose. Even the sailors bound to wherever were reaching towards a far horizon. The word then had an outward-bound enthusiasm, embracing an attraction to getting on with it, reaching for the stars or even the unattainable. And because of the performer’s association with various social movements, the word also became associated with social change, not simply travelling. This boundless enthusiasm was perceived as immediate, and even destined. There would be no stopping someone who was bound to be moving on. At this time, it would seem as well that there was a certain innocence involved in this sense of destiny. However, to be bound for something was inviting and contagious.

I think the second meaning of the word – a restriction or border – reflected the restrictions and borders of the folk tradition. I don’t mean a restriction in the literal sense, but more that we were bound to honour the tradition of folk music. There were boundaries. By that I mean there was a tacit sense of the importance of the past, a reverence for traditional songs and folk traditions that were conserved by the likes of Cecil Sharpe, Francis James Childs, Edith Fowkes, Helen Creighton and Marius Barbeau. These folk songs and traditions were carried on by singers and folklorists like Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, and the Cooper Family. Similarly, the tradition of Afro-American field hollers, early gospel songs and country blues artists was upheld, cherished and championed by the recordings of Alan Lomax and Sam Charters. The rediscovery and promotion of some of these artists was part of this conservation and gave artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Skip James a celebrated twilight to their careers. Artists like Odetta, Dave van Ronk, John Hammond Jr. and the Staple Singers honoured this tradition. This tradition also had a strong expression of social commitment embedded in the songs and was often associated with the working class, the suffragette movement, labour movement, peace and civil rights movements. This association with the past continued through the late 50s and 60s with the anti- nuclear movement, civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movement.

And yet the contrasting definition, to be “out of bounds,” outside the limits, was also an attraction of the folk boom and lined up well with the emerging rebellious spirit of the age. These two contrasting aspects of this definition would tangle at times.

 This boundary around what folk music was or what it was thought to be seemed to clash with the notion that the practitioners were headed toward an endless horizon without borders. This created some considerable friction and controversy. As a singer-songwriter, I occasionally got caught up in this debate, not really knowing or understanding the tug of war that was being played out. The emergence of the singer-songwriter in the early 60s became the centre of this controversy. I think at first, these new songs were tied to a cause. In the same way as Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportees” or “Doe Ray Me” specific to the conditions in the dust bowl and California in the 1930s, these songs like “Universal Soldier,” or much of the early songs of Phil Ochs, were connected to a tradition dating back and reflecting labour and social conditions in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. I think this was all innocent enough and found little exception with the “trads.” I think the rift widened when it was observed by managers of various artists that more money could be accrued to them and their artists if they sang and published their own songs. I think this new capitalist wrinkle caused “trads” to rightfully think that the waters were getting muddied and spoiled by young upstarts who increasingly had little or no association with the folk movement. It appeared as if they had more in common with Tin Pan Alley and adventure capitalism than to any community or cause. An example: when Dave van Ronk brought forth his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” in the late 50s, it was seen as honouring the tradition and a great story set in the American south. As well, the song had resonance in modern times. However, when Bob Dylan took that same arrangement and claimed it as his own, things got a bit more complicated. When, a few years later, Eric Burden and the Animals made the song a rock hit of the summer of 1964, the relation to the tradition seemed further obscured. It was, in part, about money. It was a confusing and exciting time because artists like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Patrick Sky honoured the tradition as well as incorporating the emerging work of singer-songwriters. Dylan of course, was the chameleon. He wrote anthems like “Blowin’in the Wind,” “Oxford Town,” “Hard Rain,” “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “Times they are a Changin’.” All spoke to and for the movement. If you listen to Tim O’Brien’s brilliant album Red on Blonde, you can hear in Dylan’s songs, melodies and chords that draw heavily from traditional artists and realize his knowledge of the same was encyclopedic. Maybe this was part of the beef; Bob wasn’t owning up. Some felt that with this period of Dylan’s work, he was turning his back on the movement and people who had supported him. Others felt this was the beginning of a type of self-indulgent writing that came to characterize many “folky” songwriters in the mid-70s who didn’t seem bound to anything but themselves. And yet, the times were changin’ and Bob and others were not about to be defined by an adherence to a tradition. I think this aspect of “bound” deserves a whole separate look but nevertheless, the argument symbolically peaked when Pete Seeger attempted to cut the audio feed to Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. In Pete’s defence, he claims he was doing so only because the sound was so bad, but amidst the boos and jeers that followed Dylan’s performances for the next year, clearly many thought he was “out of bounds.”

I would like to say that for many of us as audience members these distinctions and gnawing points, while they were known, were not as central as they were to some of the main actors. Perhaps this was because we had no vested interest in one side of an argument or another; perhaps we were also naive.  I tend to think many of us simply embraced all the music as boundless. I suspect many of us were simply too far from the epicentre where no lines were drawn. I listened to the Carter Family or the Stanley Brothers with the same enthusiasm as I listened to the Fugs or Thirteenth Floor Elevator – perhaps the latter two with some enhancement. Dylan’s movement to a more personal and at times absurdist world was not seen nor heard by us as schism or departure; it was him digging for more, or another facet. He was the times. It was all fascinating.

The last meaning of this word that I would like to address is about how we were bound to each other – the ties that bind. In this way I would like to tie all meanings of this word together. As we were bound for glory, bound for limitless horizons during the period of the early 60s, we were most definitely tied to each other and the social movements that surround the folk community. As much as anything, we were bound to do something, we were bound to make a change. In the late 50s, this music and community was attached to the anti-nuclear movement, and to some extent the labour movement. At the same time, these movements were being attacked at this time by the actions of the McCarthy and post McCarthy period. The music, songs and performers then embraced and were embraced by the civil rights movement that culminated in the activities surrounding the anti- segregation laws that were enacted in 1964. The murder of Martin Luther King and several southern black activists and the march across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, Alabama came to symbolize this struggle. (As a side note to history: the Edmund Pettis bridge was named after the first imperial wizard of the KKK and continues to bear his name.) Songs were sung and written for all these events and though they, in themselves, may not have changed anything, the songs definitely supported and inspired those that did suffer and those that fought to make a change. Whether it was Mavis Staples or Joan Baez on the march, Pete Seeger or even Sam Cooke, they were writing about a change that was going to come. Many of those who were on those marches and sang those songs still fervently believe a change is going to come but as Mavis Staples recently questioned, “Where are those changes Lord? We have waited so long for those changes “.

The sense of community expressed through song and voice was palpable, and some of the binding was in the very tradition of the music that we were bound to uphold. We were singing with nineteenth century mill workers, the suffragettes. We were singing with the coal miners, the unions. We were singing with the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. We were singing with Woody Guthrie, Sleepy John Estes. We were singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” songs by anonymous writers. We were singing about Arthur McBride. We had a body of history behind us to support the centre of the folk community. We had these songs, these movements behind us and before us. That binding between folk music and the social activist community was central to its existence and to its strength. We were bound for glory, we were bound to each other and we were bound to make a change. I believe that offering is still out there, bound to happen. Will we be there in this great period of flux to respond to, activate and support the change that must surely come?

Post Script

You don’t hear too much about “bound” any more, and I think that is why I wrote the article. I realize in doing so, I may fall victim to the old joke about how many folk singers it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is one – but nine to say how good the old one was. So be it. I don’t think the word fell out of use because it became a cliché like the political phrases I mentioned at the outset of this article.  I don’t think it did because I think the word was insulated by the great body of work in the folk canon that contained the word. The word had passed the test of tradition. In some sense then, the tradition protected the word. Perhaps the word disappeared because it was so attached to a time. Perhaps what we were bound to, or for, got lost or faded from sight.   

Bound for Songs Abound

“Alabamy Bound” – Leadbelly

“Alberta Bound” – Gord Lightfoot

“All You Fascists Bound to Lose” – Woody Guthrie

“I’m bound for movin’ on” from “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson

“Bound for Shady Grove” – Shady Grove

“Bound for South Australia” (shanty)

“Bound for Australia” from “Cape Cod Girls” – Patrick Sky

“Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound” – Tom Paxton

“Hoorah Boys, we’re Homeward Bound” (shanty)

“Homeward Bound” – Paul Simon

“Bound for the Kingdom” – Webb Pierce

“Bound for Old Mexico” – Marty Robbins

“Chicago Bound” – Jimmy Rodgers

“I guess the sound of the outward bound made him a slave to his wanderin’ ways” from “Wayward Wind”

“I’m bound away/Cross the wide Missouri” from “Shenandoah”

“Poor boy you’re bound to die” from “Tom Dooley”

“This Train is bound for glory” from “This Train”

“Where I’m bound I can’t tell” from “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”

“Paul and Silas bound in jail” from “Do Lord Deliver Me”

Sea Shanties abound with abound, sailing on the bounding main.

Please reference the Sacred Harp Concordance – bound.

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