7 Means of Movement: Walking
Edwin Starr, 25 Miles.
Champion Jack Dupree, Walking The Blues.
Benny Carter, A Walkin' Thing.
Isn't it really quite extraordinary to see that, ever since man has walked, no one has asked himself why he walks, how he walks, if he walks, if he could walk better...questions that are tied to all the philosophical, psychological and political systems, which occupy the world?
Honoré de Balzac, Theory of Walking.
It's done easily enough. You stand and then, somewhere in the circuitry, the signal flashes out, the muscles respond--the right knee bends, the right leg extends, carrying the entire weight of the body; weight borne completely, for a moment, by the ball of the right foot, then by the right toes (an anvil upon an ant). The left leg lags behind for a moment, then swings ahead to take its turn. And so on, again and again.
Walking is a conjuring trick which we perform, hardly without considering, for most of our days. Walking, we spend three quarters of the time on one foot or the other, balancing like tightrope acrobats. Like eating, sex or breathing, walking "assembles a miscellany of moments into a whole" (Joseph Amato). Walking is our first major accomplishment as a human being, and a gift we often lose in our last years. It is the primal form of transportation, ambulatory meditation, a way to lose weight, a way to find God, a way to kill time; a weary burden, a complete set of philosophies; it clears the head, ruins the feet; it is the means by which humanity pollinated six continents.
And walking songs? I suppose all songs are walking songs, in their own ways (someone on this planet has hummed "Gesang der Jünglinge" while walking). But songs primarily about walking are often concerned with finding or leaving something, with striving and failing, or, less likely, striving and succeeding. It's not surprising so many blues songs fit the bill. Walking keeps you close to the earth, so there's little extravagance to walking songs. They are populated by the impoverished, the intractable, often lost souls, wandering around in search of something that they can't specify; those who walk simply because they can do nothing else. Sometimes they have a crusader's zeal, sometimes they're just vagrants.
All you got to do is put one foot in front of the other one and just keep on walkin',
Walkin' them blues.
Champion Jack Dupree.
Three opening excursions:
Let's start with a triumph. Edwin Starr's "25 Miles" has Starr walking the long way home--it's unclear where he started from, but he's been walking for three days, and there's no question that he'll get there. While he's walking for pretty coarse reasons--he's going for some good sex--the language and sound of gospel music (most obviously, in the call-and-response section in the song's bridge) have been shanghaied into work here, making his ordinary quest epic. "I've been steppin' since the sun came up," Starr hollers as the track fades.
Centered around one of the fiercest drum performances in Motown history (Benny Benjamin, or some other genius, whose drumming serves as both the lead instrument and the foundation of the track), "25 Miles" is evidence that Motown could serve out pure soul as well as anyone. Released as Gordy 7083 on 2 January 1969; on 2oth Century Masters.
By contrast, "Walking the Blues," by Champion Jack Dupree, is a meditation on walking, walking deliberately. Man, slow down, don't walk so fast, Dupree begins. It's a meandering song, in a way a walk is meandering, the only constant being the 4/4 click of feet on pavement. The piano offers reveries, jaunts, musings, dances, sprints, while the singer notes the weather, worries about his wife, fears his mother-in-law, keeps walking.
"Walking" was Dupree's only major R&B hit: a recording he made for King Records with Teddy McRae (vox, foot tapping), Joe Williams (b) and George DeHeart (d); recorded in Cincinnati on 29 May 1955 and released as King 4812 (as "Jack Dupree and Mr. Bear"); on R&B Hits of 1955.
And Benny Carter's "A Walkin' Thing," from 1957, is walking in quintessence--relieved of obstacles, fatigue or destinations, walking here is first conveyed by Leroy Vinnegar's bass--a downward sloping shuffle that comes to underpin the performance--and after that, Carter on saxophone, Barney Kessel (g), Frank Rosoltino (trombone) and Jimmy Rowles (p) create their own abstractions. Recorded in Los Angeles on 22 July 1957; on Jazz Giant.
Blues Walkin' Like a Man
Robert Johnson, Walking Blues.
Muddy Waters, Walkin' Blues.
The Solitaires, Walking Along.
Little Milton, Walking the Back Streets and Crying.
A week after I came home I started to take walks around the neighborhood. At first they were short walks: once around the block and that was it. Little by little, though, I grew more daring, and my outings, at first tentative, took me further and further afield. The neighborhood had changed. I was mugged two different times. The first time, it was kids with kitchen knives, and the second time, some older guys who beat me up when they didn't find any money in my pockets. But I don't feel pain anymore and I didn't care.
Roberto Bolaño , The Savage Detectives.
If walking is a fundamental human act, it's one that has become, over the past century, increasingly endangered. There are a few reserves for the walker--in the U.S., a handful of cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, some town centers, some planned communities, some biking trails--but in the age of the automobile and the subdivision, the walker seems a vulnerable, slightly ridiculous figure. One of the many humiliations suffered by Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge, in I'm Alan Partridge, is when Partridge has to walk along a motorway to reach a gas station, staggering along the overgrown shoulder while cars and trucks drone past him.
The average American small town--for instance, the Connecticut town where I spent my teenage years--consists of, if you're lucky, a town center with a few sidewalks connecting a grocery store to a green to a school, and then a number of main roads linking the town with civilization; the latter are two-lane 45-mph roads with maybe two feet worth of walking space on the margins. And if you do walk on these roads, and don't get clipped by cars speeding past you, you can experience the joy of watching drivers roaring at you from the other direction, often glaring or looking bewildered--Who the hell is that? Where the hell is he going?--and sometimes hurling a can or worse.
One fine summer morning, Mr. Earnshaw, the old master, came down stairs, dressed for a journey...He said, speaking to his son, 'Now, my bonny man, I'm going to Liverpool to-day...What shall I bring you? You may choose what you like; only let it be little, for I shall walk there and back; sixty miles each way, that is a long spell!'
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights.
Walking is mundane, time-consuming (a walker makes three miles an hour, typically), wearying, dirtying. A person walking is completely exposed--to the weather, to animals, to thugs, to cars or even bicycles--so to walk is to put yourself at risk (which explains why there was such a panic about carjacking in the '80s and '90s, though it was a relatively rare crime--because when driving your car, you're supposed to be insulated from such things).
I's up this mornin'
ah, blues walkin' like a man
I's up this mornin'
ah, blues walkin' like a man
give me your right hand.
Robert Johnson, Preachin’ Blues.
If walking is a burden, it's one that often seems like an obligation: the need to get out and ramble is analogous with the weary duties of living.
Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" begins with the singer waking one morning, restless, feeling around the floor for his shoes. His woman's left him, so he's ready to leave at first light; he walks off with only his memories, including, in one of Johnson's gnomic, brilliant phrases, his recollection of his lover having an "Elgin movement," i.e., the mechanical precision of a watch. Recorded in San Antonio on 27 November 1936; on Complete Recordings.
Muddy Waters' version keeps close to Johnson's recording, as Waters even replicates Johnson's goofy "Well!" before starting a verse. It's one of the last "country" blues tracks that Waters recorded for Chess--a few months later, he went in the studio with a drummer and started making rock & roll. Recorded February 1950 and released as Chess 1426; on Anthology.
Walking as a sister to elation: The Solitaires' "Walking Along." The Solitaires were from Harlem (142nd St and 7th Ave., to be precise), and at the time of the recording of "Walking Along," the group consisted of Milton Love, Bobby Baylor, Buzzy Willis, Monte Owens, and Freddy Barksdale. Love sings lead, Barksdale handles the bottom, and everyone stomps their feet (along with Hy Weiss, who owned the Old Town label).
Recorded 10 October 1956 and released in January 1957 as Old Town 1034, c/w "Please Kiss This Letter"; on Walking Along With the Solitaires. It's one of the happiest songs I know.
Survivors of the Lusitania sinking, walking in Queenstown, Ireland, 1915
And walking as a wife of utter dejection: Little Milton's "Walking the Back Streets and Crying," from 1972. Released as Stax 0124; on Stax Profiles.
Stride Over Stride
Rodin, Striding Man
The Reflections, Tightrope Walker.
The Velvet Underground, Walk and Talk.
And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
One morning, six million or so years ago, a hominid creature who had been living in the trees and crawling about on all fours chose to stand upright and walk solely on her feet. The imagination, let loose to roam, can provide all sorts of inspirations for this strange act--the need to grab a low-hanging pear, a fearful search for a wayward child.
Watching a child, like my toddler niece, grasp a table's edge and haul herself upright to stand, for a few seconds, wobbling but gleeful before sagging down, is to see, darkly, a reenactment of that first, critical walk, the choice to get off our knees and hands and stand in the sun. Of all achievements in human history, this is the greatest--this is the colossal divide between man and beast, this is the great key change. Everything from religion to poetry to war begins with that first step.
The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud, unsteady tower.
Human beings walk on what were once our hind legs. As Solnit notes in her excellent walking study Wanderlust, the only other two-legged animals--birds, kangaroos--have other means of support, whether wings or tails. We are the odd race who chooses to perform an elaborate balancing act each time we move somewhere.
Human walking is a unique activity during which the body, step by step, teeters on the edge of catastrophe...only the rhythmic forward movement of first one leg and then the other keeps [man] from falling flat on his face.
("Tightrope Walker," from 1981, is by the Reflections, a punk "supergroup" composed of Mark Perry and Dennis Burns (ATV), Paul Platypus (Doof), and Karl Blake (Lemon Kittens). Originally on 4 Countries; on Action, Time, Vision (and eMusic).)
Walking on two feet frees up the hands to do all sorts of things--make tools, throw rocks--and altered the human body radically. Generations of walkers led to narrower pelvises and thicker legs, and the former changed the nature of human childbirth: infants were now born far smaller and earlier, and required years of nurturing and care until they could function on their own. And so childhood, and so families.
Rhythm is originally the rhythm of the feet...Animals too have their familiar gait, their rhythms are often richer and more audible than those of men, hoofed animals flee in herds, like regiments of drummers. The knowledge of the animals by which he was surrounded, which threatened him and which he hunted, was man's oldest knowledge...the large numbers of the herd which they hunted blended into [man's] feelings with their own numbers, which they wished to be large, and they expressed this in a specific state of communal excitement which I shall call the rhythmic or throbbing crowd. The means of achieving this state was first of all the rhythm of their feet, repeating and multiplied.
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.
Walking upright let our ancestors greatly increase the amount of protein they ate, while at the same time using up to 35% less calories. So our brains grew bigger on the surplus, and we grew curious. One can imagine a Neanderthal scrabbling up a slope, staring at the moon and wondering where it went during the day. We began to speak. There is even the delightful theory that music began during some of our distant relatives' walks--a slurring of sounds, a hum offered by one walker and caught by another, at last hummed together. Our first musicians: a pack of wandering men searching for gazelles, somewhere near the foothills that would one day become Addis Ababa.
The Velvet Underground's "Walk and Talk" is an outtake from 1970. On Peel Slowly and See.
Walking Builds a World
All creatures live...
On a see-saw up and down, or an infinite relay,
Each generation, like a runner, handing
The torch on to another.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura.
The English word "walk" has its origins in the Anglo-Saxon word wealcan, which meant to roll about and toss, like the sea. And like the sea, walking has conveyed human beings to essentially every point on the globe.
You could say that nothing human beings will ever do for the rest of their days will match the great walking migrations--journeys out of Africa up to the Jordan, the Tigris and the Euphrates, northwest into Europe, across the great plains of China and down along the Ganges, along the ice-choked Bering Strait and down the spine of the Americas to Patagonia. It's likely these walks were not organized in any real sense, nor were they undertaken by great numbers: it was simply a matter of a tribe running after deer and winding up on a plain where they had never been before, or a family wildly fleeing an invasion, or hunters simply getting lost.
When people stopped walking, towns and farms began, then churches, roads, walls, and so forth. Civilization is just the result of a long walk ending.
A Catholic priest walks as if Heaven belongs to him; a Protestant clergyman, on the contrary, goes about as if he had leased it.
Heinrich Heine, Journey to Italy.
The Soul Stirrers, Walk Around.
Fats Domino, Walking to New Orleans.
On a certain day in June, 19--, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn't ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.
John Crowley, Little, Big.
The immensity of this achievement--the wonders our ancestors performed simply by walking--is reflected in the endless human desire to make pilgrimages, whether it's someone going to every major and minor league baseball park to Samantha Larson, who just became the youngest person to climb Mt. Everest. (The Chinese phrase for going on a pilgrimage is ch'ao-shan chin-hsiang, which means to pay one respects to the mountain "as if a mountain was an ancestor before whom one must kneel" (Gretel Ehrlich, via Solnit).
Walking and climbing have been considered spiritual acts, whether of penance or meditation, for thousands of years. In the late 4th Century AD, the Christian pilgrim Egeria walked from Gaul to Judea, and then out to the Egyptian desert, where she climbed the 9,000-ft peak of Mount Sinai. Stairs were eventually built up the face of Sinai, and for centuries, mystics and pilgrims would ascend and descend them as a sort of spiritual calisthenics.
With the rise of Christianity and Islam came the idea of the long, grueling walking pilgrimage to some holy site. For Christians, there were the major pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem, and minor ones to various churches and reliquaries, sites often populated by con artists claiming that a thigh bone on display had belonged to Christ or St. Peter. (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a depiction of the pilgrimage in its later stages, when it had become an excuse to go on holiday). For Islam, there is of course the hajj, the journey to Mecca that each Muslim must make once in a lifetime, where the pilgrim walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba (as seen below), and walks seven times back and forth between the small hills of Safa and Marwah.
The Man began to run; Now he had not far run from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his Ears, and ran on crying Life, Life, Eternal Life: so he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the Plain.
Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress.
And consider all the great spirtual journeys taken on foot, whether it is St. Francis, walking barefoot through the Umbrian hill towns, singing in the streets and talking to the birds, or John Bunyan's pilgrim, or Dante, walking down the bridges and through the ditches to the depths of hell, and then ascending, slowly, up the mountain of purgatory.
Pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela
I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those days to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.
Primo Levi, 25 February 1944.
Levi, who partially walked home to Torino after being liberated from Auschwitz (the poem above's title is a reference to when the Germans took over Levi's detention camp in Fossoli, and deported all the Jews to Auschwitz), conveys how walking can still retain, late in the day, a spiritual power.
The only true pilgrimage I've made was an unwilling one. On Sept. 11, 2001, after the second plane hit 2 World Trade, I left my office on Broadway and began walking north. The first tower fell while I was on Greene St., in Soho, just after I had heard an old man tell his friend the towers were going to be burning for days; the second fell when I was on Fifth Avenue, just above Washington Square. I saw a man actually jogging, shirtless, oblivious, somewhere near Grand Central. By the time I made it to the Queensboro Bridge, it was noon, and as I got on the walkway ramp, I heard a man yell "We're representin' Queens--this is the real Million Man March!" to cheers. Finally, I made it home.
Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral.
For all the popularity of pilgrimages (and the Crusades were essentially pilgrimages + looting and conquest), few had the time or resources to attempt them, and so medieval churches began to feature labyrinths, offering a sort of lunchtime pilgrimage for those too poor, weak or sensible to head off to the Holy Land.
There are, as Solnit says, labyrinths scattered around the world. Testaments to lost time, they are carved into Sardinian rocks, laid out in stone upon Scandinavian beaches (where fishermen used to walk them before setting out to sea, in the hopes of improving their catches), in English hedge mazes.
And in the last two centuries, walking as spiritual pilgrimage often has been replaced by walking as a physical endurance test, whether it is mountain climbing, or walking across great lengths of land simply to do so.
In the Appalachians of West Virginia, the sun was going down and I was stuck for a place to stay. I knocked on the door of a private farm house. Three college-age girls were in the middle of an LSD trip. They recognized me as Art Garfunkel.
Art Garfunkel, self-interview, 1999.
One odd devolution of the walking pilgrimage lies in Art Garfunkel's walk across America, in which a wealthy pop singer flies to wherever he last left off walking (sometimes a year earlier), walks for a day or so, then flies back home again. In this desultory fashion, Garfunkel "walked across America" from 1983 to 1997 (it took AG three years to get out of West Virginia), and he is now apparently in the midst of a cross-European walk. I think he's still in France.
Dr. Barbara Moore, walking from John O'Groats to Land's End, 1960.
Pilgrimages of a sort:
"Walk Around," by the Soul Stirrers, from 1939, is a recording dominated by the Stirrers' lead singer, R.H. Harris, who dodges ahead of his partners, then falls behind, soars beyond them, then comes back to bolster them. Sam Cooke was listening, and learning. On Swing Time Gospel Vol. 1.
"Walking to New Orleans," from 1960, finds Fats Domino at the end of a long affair, with his dreams left in the dust. All that remains is a long penitential walk back to New Orleans, which, like the ocean, accepts everything that comes to it. Released as Imperial 5676; on Fats Domino Jukebox.
The Years of the Great Walkers
We must walk as other countries have done before we can run.
George Washington, letter, 20 July 1794.
Sometime in the 18th Century, walking in the wild, which was generally considered to be dangerous, disgusting and fit only for the peasants, began being taken up by intellectuals and poets as a restorative for the soul, as a way to provide the mind with a rhythm to generate higher thoughts. Out of this belief came everything from the Sierra Club to the Boy Scouts, from Wordsworth's poetry to the Wandervogel, the German hiking clubs whose philosophy and symbols were co-opted by the Nazis.
Perhaps it started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who credited his walks around France with inspiring the Confessions and his other writings, and even toward the end of his life, when Rousseau was decrepit and paranoid, he kept walking.
For example, on 24 October 1776, Rousseau walked from the boulevards of Paris to Ménilmontant to Charonne (through what is now the Père Lachaise cemetery), stopping to look at plants, noting “the impression of solitude and impending winter.” The parallel between nature and his own life proves irresistible, and Rousseau is soon wandering in a funk, asking “What have I done in this world?” and then retracing the history of his soul, from youth to maturity to its current withered state, and “the ideas which had nourished my mind for the past few years.” It’s a pleasing recollection, until Rousseau, walking down the hill from Ménilmontant, is run over by a Great Dane and knocked unconscious. (Recounted in Reveries of the Solitary Walker.)
It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms.
Henry David Thoreau.
Americans, who had a great deal more space in which to walk around, naturally expanded on the idea of walking as curative. Thoreau's Walking, which he worked on from 1851 until his death, is a defense of walking, its many benefits and varieties, and its superiority to the workday world, with its offices and endless sitting at desks. (Maybe I'm just aging, but every time I read Thoreau these days, he comes across as a bit of an ass, always ragging on his neighbors for the crime of having jobs.)
Som time walking not unseen
By Hedge-row Elms, on Hillocks green,
Right against the Eastern gate,
Wher the great Sun begins his state...
John Milton, L'Allegro.
At the same time Thoreau was wandering around Concord, Mass., Friedrich Engels, who, having co-written the Communist Manifesto in early 1848, was living in Paris during the various failed revolutions of that year, and decided to walk to Switzerland, taking a roundabout way to get there, for "nobody is glad to leave France." He walked through the Loire Valley, staying at farms and drawing little caricatures of Louis Napoleon and General Cavaignac for village children, and made it to Burgundian towns like Auxerre, where the streets were flooded with wine (the townspeople were dumping out the previous year's vintage to make room for the new).
Throughout his walk, Engels observed the people and towns he encountered, trying to discern why they had failed to support the revolution. His insights, credible or no, wound up forming the basis of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Walking in Style, Walking in Place
Jimmy McCracklin, The Walk.
T. Rex, Beltane Walk.
The Clague, The Stride.
Walking has its unwritten rules, its sects and castes, from the darting, swift stride of a professional New York walker, to the four-abreast trudge of people lumbering through shopping malls, to the slow swagger of teenagers in packs, often walking in the middle of the road as if to dare cars to hit them.
In the 18th Century, the aristocratic classes of France and England turned walking into an art form, played out in manicured gardens and promenades and in court. A sprightly gait, good posture, elegant dance moves all came to be treasured assets, and the shoe, once a negligible part of the wardrobe, became a signifier of wealth and class.
(One of my college roommates was a Japanese kid who came from a frighteningly successful Tokyo merchant family. He had two bits of advice for me: always wear a suit and tie when you board an airplane, as that will increase your chances of getting bumped up to business class, and to make dress shoes the most expensive item in your wardrobe. "When you meet someone for the first time, always look at the shoes," he said.)
"Well he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance," begins the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," a line that, while simple, immediately conjures a specific image. "You can not only feel the size of the event, but exactly how he moved, slinking his way across the floor, stopping, turning, proposing as elegantly as any cadet," wrote Dave Marsh in his essay on the song.
Three songs about dancing, which is at its heart illustrative walking:
Jimmy McCracklin recalled paying about six dollars to record "The Walk," in a primitive studio somewhere in the outskirts of Chicago. McCracklin, a blues and jazz singer, was broke in 1957 and decided, essentially, to write records for white kids. "I had watched those kids dance and I saw an opportunity," he recalled later. The inspiration for "The Walk," though, came when McCracklin saw a black couple dancing in a Southside beer joint called Rita's Lounge, dancing so slowly that they seemed to be walking back and forth.
McCracklin's instincts were right--"The Walk" eventually hit the pop charts and, one day, McCracklin turned on American Bandstand to watch the audience dance to his song. "It was nice to see white kids dance to my music," he said. Released as Checker 885 in 1958; on Golden Age of American Rock & Roll Vol. 5.
Speaking of white kids, T. Rex's "Beltane Walk" shamelessly pilfers the chorus of McCracklin's song. Instead of a Southside beer hall, you've got a bunch of grubby hippies stomping and writhing around something like The Devil's Fingers, but I suppose the core sentiment remains. You know also that Marc Bolan used the line "girl, wouldn't you like to rock?", and it worked. Released on 18 December 1970 as Hifly 2, c/w "Jewel." On 20th Century Boy.
Finally there's the Clague's "The Stride," from 1969, introduced and concluded by the late John Peel. The Clague was also known as Siren, and as Coyne-Clague (they had as many names as they did records). On Life Too Has Surface Noise.
Second class citizens
Missing Persons, Walking in L.A.
Freddy [opening the door for her]: Are you walking across the Park, Miss Doolittle? If so--
Liza: Walk! Not bloody likely.
G.B. Shaw, Pygmalion.
A small number of people throughout history have, if at all possible, avoided walking in any form. In the days when setting out on the road meant trudging through mud, getting rained on and possibly killed in all sorts of ways, walking was considered common and vile (after all, the word "peon" comes from the Latin pedo, walker or foot soldier). The habits and history of the upper classes who managed to escape walking will be addressed in depth in the next post.
Those firmly settled on the land have always disliked wanderers, and century after century, walkers would get shuffled off. In London in 1359, the city ordered all vagrants to leave the city, not for the last time. The Dutch would routinely round up anyone hanging around on the streets, push them onto boats and send them out to sea. Before the 1984 Olympics began in Los Angeles, the homeless were herded off the streets, and who only knows what's going to happen in Beijing before next year's games start.
The idea of the Wandering Jew, a figure cursed to forever roam the earth because he taunted Christ on the way to the crucifixion, emerged out of this. There's a medieval ballad about the Jew in which a weirdly vindictive Christ tells the "cursed shoemaker" that "I sure will rest, but thou shalt walke."
And wandred up and downe the worlde,
A runnagate most base.
No resting could he finde at all,
No ease, nor hearts content;
No house, nor home, nor biding place;
But wandring forth he went.
Missing Persons' "Walking in L.A.," from 1982, depicts walking in perhaps the least hospitable place on earth for it--Los Angeles, where if you're walking, you're already half-dead. "One thing's for sure--he isn't starring in the movies," the singer says about some poor walking loser she spies while cruising around. On Best Of.
Walking After Midnight
Nuns walking, Biarritz
Patsy Cline, Walking After Midnight.
Van McCoy, Night Walk.
Sleepy John Estes, Runnin' Around.
Louis Armstrong, Walkin' My Baby Back Home.
The Ronettes, Walking in the Rain.
I like walking through the dark; it's mysterious.
Susan Foreman, "An Unearthly Child."
One of the hard facts of our allegedly modern, civilized society is that a woman walking alone is a target. It ranges from the petty harassment that every woman likely has experienced to pursuit and assault. One afternoon in Murray Hill, in NYC, while I was waiting for a friend on a street corner, I watched as a thug sitting in the passenger seat of a truck, slowly nudging through traffic, would mutter something at each woman walking past him, ranging from "Hey baby, why don't you smile" to various blunt propositions.
The 19-year-old Sylvia Plath, in her journal, vented: "My consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars--to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording--all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl...My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstructed as a desire to seduce them...Yes, God I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night."
Or take Lizzie Schauer, a New Yorker walking after dark in 1895 who asked two men for directions, as she was looking for her aunt's house on the Lower East Side. For this, Schauer was arrested as a prostitute, given a medical examination, which proved she was a "good girl" (i.e., a virgin), and finally released.
"Walking After Midnight," Patsy Cline's dream-haunted classic, was recorded on 8 November 1956; on Gold.
Van McCoy's "Night Walk," from 1976, makes a walk along a city street at night seem like a ridiculously entertaining adventure. On The Hustle and Best Of.
And Sleepy John Estes' "Runnin' Around" is an unreleased track that he made for Sun Records on 24 April 1952, in which Estes plays the role of the man bitterly watching a woman walk the streets, "tearing [her] reputation down."
Two walking songs with, thankfully, a bit more romance in them:
Louis Armstrong's "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," was recorded in Chicago on 20 April 1931. On You're Driving Me Crazy.
And the Ronettes' "Walking in the Rain," recorded in Hollywood in September 1964, released as Philles 123; on Best Of.
Keeping Fit For the Fire
Freddie McGregor, Joggin'.
The Fall, Bournemouth Runner.
There are only two socially accepted reasons to walk in the U.S. today--to take your dog out, and to exercise. Those practicing the latter have become a fairly common sight, often wearing a workout uniform of some sort and huffing along briskly in a slightly ridiculous fashion, as though in dress rehearsal for jogging; such walkers offer a reassurance that they're walking for a purpose, to accomplish something, and are not just idling around the neighborhood.
Freddie McGregor, sitting on the Kingston beach, wonders why his countrymen are working so hard at keeping their bodies fit, running on the sand in their new trainers, as no matter how hard they run, death will still sweep them away. From 1980; on Anthology.
And "Bournemouth Runner," whose intentions are obscure and a bit ominous, is from the Fall's Bend Sinister, 1986.
Signals, Calls and Marches
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Walking to Do.
Robert Cray, March On.
Cannonball Adderley Quintet with Jesse Jackson, Walk Tall.
If one man or woman walking is an oddity, hundreds or thousands walking together is a public disturbance.
Governments of all stripes have long attempted to stop too many people from walking together at once, as that typically leads to things like riots and democracy. So they have tried, as Haussmann did in Paris in the 1860s, to physically reshape a city, making broad avenues that, while a joy for promenaders, were also too wide for rebel barricades, but wide enough for battalions ("The more systematic these rings and cartwheels of boulevards, the easier it became to turn such assemblies into ritual marches rather than preliminaries to riot," Eric Hobsbawm).
Or, if that doesn't work, insist upon your opponents conducting a pre-approved officially-stamped march, with a route mapped out and everyone staying within the lines and dispersing when they're supposed to. While this worked for the civil rights movement in the U.S. (in part because the police couldn't resist cracking the heads of marchers on live television), I'm not sure it's done much for the protest movements of the past thirty years.
The government is telling us that the street is not the place for things to be solved, but I say the street was and is the place. The voice of the street must be heard.
Alexander Dubček, 1989.
Still, there are recent happy examples: the fall of the Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 was in part the doing of walkers. In June 1989, for example, 200,000 Hungarians marched through Budapest, marches that continued until October, when the new Hungarian Republic was declared. That same month, each afternoon some hundreds of thousands of then-Czechoslovakians walked into Wenceslas Square in Prague; the government didn't last long after that. And in East Germany, in the days before the Wall fell, it is estimated a million Germans gathered in Alexanderplatz.
So, to finish things up, here are three calls to get off your seat, get out and walk:
Walking as a means to action: Ted Leo's "Walking to Do" is from 2004's Shake the Streets.
Walking as physical (if not emotional) therapy: Robert Cray's "March On" is from 1983's Bad Influence, his leanest, finest record.
Finally, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet's "Walk Tall" begins with an exhortation by Jesse Jackson, and then the band just kicks in the groove. Recorded in Chicago in October 1969; on Live at Operation Breadbasket.
Further walking to do: Pedestrian nostalgia; the travel blog of Nick Barlow (who walked the length of England and Scotland in 2006); Solnit's Wanderlust, Amato's On Foot.