Journeys: Midnight Plane to Houston by Casey Fleming10/06/2010
On a Midnight Plane to Houston
By Casey Fleming
Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1973 hit single, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” is one of the songs in the soundtrack to my life. I love that song for many reasons, not the least of which is that my roommate and I often stagger into our Houston Heights home after a night on the town and sing that song at the top of our lungs before falling headfirst into our beds. Generally, I’m Gladys and she’s my lone Pip, but we take turns, as friends should. I also love this song because:
1. In the classical Athenian plays a group of minor characters comprised a chorus, as in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” where the chorus sings and dances to usher in and close the dramatic events. The chorus’ purpose was to provide background and commentary about the plot and characters, to echo the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, or to model for the audience how it should respond. The call-and-response tradition so integral to blues, soul, and jazz music acts in a similar manner. A lead singer or musician emits a note or two, and someone responds with voice or instrument, creating an interaction between speaker and listener that ups the emotional ante of the song. In my opinion, there is no greater use of the choral tradition in all of Greek literature or American music than this moment:
Gladys: He kept dreamin’
Gladys: That someday he’d be a star.
Pips: A superstar, but he didn’t get far.
A chorus is the mediator between audience and artist, although in ancient Greece the chorus also mediated between man and the Gods. I’ll admit it. I have on occasion wished for a personal chorus to translate my feelings and clarify for others my purpose in the world. Deep down, we all need a little response, a little back up now and then.
2. The lyrics to “Midnight Train to Georgia” reaffirm our hope that love can bridge all distances. This hope is particularly poignant for many of the twenty and thirty-something generation to which I belong, whose professional obligations, economic circumstances, educational needs, and exposure to the opportunities and realities of globalization and war carry us away from home and loved ones. Sometimes we return, sometimes we do not. We often dream that our partners will be able and willing to follow us or wait for us, that they will feel as Gladys felt: “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine.” Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.
3. American Soul is one of those rich forms of music that allows its listeners to groove and grieve at the same time. “Midnight Train to Georgia” exemplifies the beautiful contradiction inherent in soul music—that a listener will feel joy in her body compelled by a horn, piano, or hook, only to simultaneously feel ache in her heart compelled by the singer’s voice and sad story. The great masters of soul understand that bodily celebration is one way to express, contain, and survive spiritual hurt.
4. This reason trumps all the others. I recently discovered that Jim Weatherly’s original lyrics to the song were “Midnight Plane to Houston,” supposedly inspired by a conversation he had with Texas-native Farah Fawcett about her relationship to Lee Majors. Be still my Lone Star heart. And how typical of Houston, to be almost-cool. In Gladys Knight’s epic version of the song, the love interest buys a “one way ticket back to the life he once knew.” I left Houston when I was 18 and never planned to return, but after more than a decade away, here I am again. When a chorus voices those things a character cannot say aloud, her deepest secrets and fears, it paints a landscape for the audience of her internal life. How many times have I boarded a late plane to Houston, leaving a lover behind on some lonely tarmac in some faraway place with too many words left unsung? How many times have the touchstones of a native city—in my case, the miscellaneous string of strip malls, the metallic downtown skyline luminous at dusk, the slow slur of kind hellos and how-are-yous, the heavy blanket of hot air, the generous waft of chorizo from a local taco shack, the colossal highways that dead end into an endless sky—acted as chorus, as the pitch-perfect Pips for our private dramas?
Casey Fleming was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but has lived in 13 cities and 6 countries. She holds a BA in Latin American Studies from Smith College, an MA in Spanish from American University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Her stories or essays appear in Fourth Genre, the anthology “A Book for Daniel Stern,” and Gulf Coast. In 2006 she was runner-up for Fourth Genre’s Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction/Memoir, and in 2003 she was a finalist for the Willis Barnstone Translating Poetry Award. She is the co-founder and organizer of the Poison Pen Reading Series in Houston, Texas.
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