#MM Music Challenge — Mistakes — Taneytown by Steve Earle

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I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
To see what I could see
My mama told me never go
I’m damn near twenty two years old
Sometimes I fear this holler swallow me
She ran off to Gettysburg
Went off with that new beau of hers
I snuck off after dark
It’s a long way down the county road
The stars were bright and the moon was low
Down to where the black top highway starts
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to see what I could see
Now everybody stared at me
You’d think that they ain’t never seen
A colored boy before
Well they chunked at me and called me names
They’d have whopped me sure but the sheriff came
I slipped off ran through the dry goods store
I ran down Division Street
Some of them boys followed me
Down to the railroad track
There’s four of them and I can’t fight
But I had my old Randall knife
I cut that boy and I never did look back
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to see what I could see
Cross the fields and woods I run
Like a bullet from a rabbit gun
Back home to my bed
Now Ma came in from Gettysburg
Her and that new beau of hers
“Boy you look like hell”; alls she said
A month went by without a word
Somebody down in the holler heard
About that boy they hung
He begged those men to spare his life
But I dropped my bloody Randall knife
He picked it up so they thought he was the one, yeah
I went down to Taneytown
I went down to Taneytown
I ain’t goin’ back there anymore
Songwriters: Steve Earle

I chose another song about a mistake that was made. The big question to ask is, what is the mistake? The song starts out with a young man making a decision to go to “Taneytown, “to see what I could see.” His mother has warned him “never go” to Taneytown. She doesn’t say why. The young man is 21 years old and has never been to town. His mother has gone out with “that new beau of hers” so he makes a choice to go to town, despite her warning. He feels his life in the holler has grown too limiting and confining. The way this begins reminds me of the way many hero’s adventures begin. There is a challenge and a warning, and the hero decides to be brave and meet the challenge.

He has probably traveled the route “down the long country road … to where the black top highway starts” a million times in his mind. The “bright stars” and the “low moon” guided the young man on his journey, as you often see helpers along the way on mythic journeys.

He makes it to Taneytown and is noticed by the townsfolk as different and so begins the young hero’s enlightenment of what he is “seeing” there, which is rejection and hostility because he’s a “colored boy” when they “stared at me” and “chunked at me and called me names” where chunking I believe is throwing objects. The “sheriff came” and stops the attack from going any farther, while the hero runs to get away from the ugly situation.

Unfortunately “[four] of them boys followed me down to the railroad track” and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out their intent is not good. The hero pulls out his equalizer of his “Old Randall knife,” “cuts that boy” and runs for home.

The hero’s mother comes home and notices right away that something isn’t right when she says, “Boy you look like hell.” A month later word comes to the holler that someone picked up the knife the hero dropped at the scene, got blamed for murder, then hung, for the death of the boy that was cut.

The conclusion of the hero is never go back to Taneytown.

Back to my question: what mistake was made? Was it disobeying his mother and going to Taneytown? Should he have just lived out his life in the small container of the holler? Was it deciding to pull out his knife and defend himself from being beaten by four others who he knew hated him because his skin was a different shade? Was it his dropping the Randall knife afterwards, to be found by an innocent person who ended up getting hanged because of it? Was it his decision to never go back to Taneytown?

I can’t answer these questions for you. I’m not sure there are any answers.

If we look at the hero’s journey, we have to ask if this challenge that was met had lasting effects on the life of the hero. The answer is a resounding yes. How it will play out for him in life is unknown, but we do know he has been forever changed.

Steve Earle has written a song, Taneytown, as powerful, maybe even more powerful, than some of Bob Dylan’s best social commentary, cry-for-activism songs.

Thank you, Jim, for the prompt that allowed this song to be used for it.

Jim Adams is the committed host of Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Music Challenge.  Jim says:
The challenge today is to focus on [Cutting Crew’s, I Just Died in Your Arms”] and use it for inspiration in any form of creative expression (including but not limited to short stories, a piece of flash fiction, poems, lyrics, artwork, photography, (etc.) that you can share with the writing community. There is no need to stick with this song, as if you like to write about another Cutting Crew song, or another song about making a mistake, or something that didn’t work put as planned, that would work.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. I love your song Li and the way you described the mistake that was made. The only Steve Earle song that I am familiar with is Copperhead Road and this was is great, so I guess I should listen to more of him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      Well you heard Mystery Train II at SLS last week also. Yes you should listen to more of him! I’m sure you’ve seen Hans say how many times he’s seen Steve in concert… Thank you on the compliment on the essay.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. hanspostcard says:

    Taneytown is near my favorite place in the world- Gettysburg [ going there tomorrow morning! Gettysburg} While I have been near Taneytown over a hundred times I’ve taken the warning from his mother and haven’t gone down to Taneytown. Great Steve song.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      What in the world, there is a real Taneytown? Gettysburg, cool. I wonder what gems you will find there this time. I watched the Muscle Shoals doc last night. That is one place I NEED to visit.


      1. hanspostcard says:

        Steve wrote a couple Civil War songs about 20 years back -including one about Gettysburg- called Dixieland- which he did on The Mountain- the album with the Del McCourey Band… I remember him talking about going to Gettysburg and how on all the Gettysburg maps he saw Taneytown- – maybe I should go to Taneytown if we have the time it’s 13 miles away- over the border in Maryland.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. msjadeli says:

          I love these little tidbits. I will have to listen to Dixieland again. Maybe you should!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. memadtwo says:

    So much of what we do and the results of our actions are not clear cut. Steve Earle is great at highlighting life’s ambiguities. I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. msjadeli says:

      🙂 I’m glad you appreciate his greatness.

      Liked by 1 person

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