Performing Arts

Music Is More Than Sound: A Look at ‘He’s Gone Away’

TIMENovember 29, 2021

Music, we are told by academics, consists of sounds that we have decided to call “music.” Tufts University professor Aniruddh Patel has declared that “there are no sonic universals in music, other than the trivial one that it must involve sound in some way.”

This view is easily defended, as long as the concept of “meaning” is kept out of the way. Once the mere “presence” of sound is replaced by “meaningful presence” of sound, that definition falls to pieces.

The sound of a flute and that of an engine racing have meanings beyond our decision to label one as music and the other noise. This distinction—mere presence versus meaningful presence—is the line that divides the warring sides of current Western thought. It’s sometimes hard to see where the line is drawn, but with music the picture is clear.

Examples are as diverse as the repertoire itself, and it might be stacking the deck to use a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue. Let’s take a single, simple example from Appalachian folk music: the song “He’s Gone Away.”

There are many versions of lyric to this 19th-century ballad, but they all evoke loneliness. Here’s the most common:

He’s gone away, for to stay a little while.
But he’s coming back, though he goes ten thousand miles.
O who will tie my shoe?
And who will glove my hand?
And who will kiss my ruby lips when he is gone?
Look away, look away over Yandro.

This is followed by a second verse that starts the same, and then takes an optimistic turn after “ten thousand miles”: “O it’s papa will tie my shoe, and it’s mama will glove my hand. But it’s you will kiss my ruby lips when you return. Look away,” and so on.

The Musical Shape of a Feeling

“Yandro” may be a place, or it may be an older term for “yonder.” The person gone away seems to be a love interest, off to war or to journey west. The verbal meaning is swathed in obscurity, but the musical meaning is undeniable. Listen to a recording of the song. (Look for solo performances, as choral versions sometimes cloud the melody.) Then listen a second time while considering the description below.

The melody consists of three musical groupings. The first starts by climbing up so far that it takes the ear by surprise. The four syllables of the title rise, sit briefly on a note, then rise again much higher. From its already-high perch, the melody then plaintively reaches a single note higher to begin the heartbreaking phrase “for to stay a little while,” before settling into the middle of its range. The words “but he’s coming back” surge upward once more, but not as far. And with the words “though he goes ten thousand miles,” the line plunges down to a flattened note that drags the emotions unmistakably in the direction of sorrow.

The second grouping (beginning “O who will tie my shoe?”) rises like the previous one, but more tentatively at first, until the third item in the list, “who will kiss,” bursts upward like a skyrocket. On “kiss,” the melody reaches its highest peak, both in the first verse as an expression of sorrow at the loved one’s absence, and in the second as plaintive hope. The concluding musical grouping levels the melody into a melancholy optimism on “Look away.”

The Treasures of Folk Music

The origin of the music for “He’s Gone Away” lies buried in unrecorded history. The melody may be a “floater”—a tune from another, earlier song to which the writer attached new words. In any case, the writer, whoever she was (context suggests a young woman), matched the verbal meaning of the words perfectly to the musical meaning of the melody.

“He’s Gone Away” is only one gem in the treasure chest of songs from the Appalachians, which in turn is but one treasure chest in the house of American folk music. Others include gospel, bluegrass, and Cajun. As of late, they’ve been largely ignored in a world where commercial music reigns supreme.

And yet, because music exhibits meaningful presence, long ago someone I will never know left a trace of herself so profound in its emotion that it touches me and others at the remove of centuries. This was no sophisticated composer, but someone equipped only with the natural ability to attach meaning to her world through music.

That ability is at ebb today, and it would be a shame beyond description to lose it. When we stop listening to academics and start to acknowledge the meaning that surrounds us, like the lover ten thousand miles away, it will return.

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He's the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).