If there’s a quality I admire in a song more than any other, it’s wistfulness. On “Early Morning Rain”, Peter, Paul and Mary manage that just perfectly.
Wistfulness is really hard to pull off on a record. Too much sadness and it just becomes depressing. Too “devil may care” and it becomes flippant. Too overly emotional and it becomes overwrought.
The balance is very delicate. You’ve only got to be out by a percentage point or two in any direction and your sweet, wistful song becomes anything but.
So all credit to Gordon Lightfoot, who wrote “Early Morning Rain” back in the mid-1960s. The Canadian singer-songwriter was missing home and used those feelings as his inspiration for “Early Morning Rain”.
Whilst I don’t imagine they get a lot of that in LA, where Gordon Lightfoot was living at the time, I can appreciate how some misty early morning rain might well have reminded him of the greener land and cooler temperatures of Canada, inspiring the lyrics for this lovely song.
In the early morning rain
With a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart
And my pockets full of sand
I’m a long ways from home
And I missed my loved ones so
In the early morning rain
With no place to go
Some commentators have suggested that “Early Morning Rain” could be considered as an archetypal “hobo riding the rails” folk song, updated for the jet age.
Rather than steam trains and railway tracks, we hear about airports and Boeing 707s taking off into the early morning skies.
As one of the artists in the vanguard of the early 1960s folk/pop/rock movement, I’m sure Gordon Lightfoot drew at least some of his inspiration from those songs of times gone by. Although, as Gordon Lightfoot points out himself…
Can’t jump a jet plane
Like you can a freight train
That might be a good thing. Aeroplanes also open up a wider range of metaphorical possibilities than trains.
Although trains were impossibly romantic in the late 1800s, by the time the 1960s came along that allure had largely faded.
Steam had been replaced by diesel. Dr Beeching had destroyed the UK rail network. Freight was more important…and more lucrative…than passengers. People hopped into their cars more often than they hopped onto a train.
In fact, unless you’re a commuter into a major city somewhere, you probably never use a train at all…and it’s pretty unlikely there’s been much of a sense of romance in any rush hour commuter experience since “Brief Encounter” hit the silver screen.
The problem with using the imagery of trains is that trains go to a definite place. You already know the destination before you set off…because if they haven’t laid the rails in that direction, you’re unlikely to get there any time soon.
And train travel is in two dimensions.
With the open skies, you can go anywhere. You’re limited only by your imagination and the fuel tanks on your plane. You’re operating in three dimensions…
You can become a tiny dot in the wide blue yonder where the sky meets the heavens and then disappear completely. You can cross the greatest oceans, the wildest jungles and the largest deserts as easily as you can fly to the next town. There are no limits…
Hear the mighty engines roar
See the sliver wing on high
She’s away and westward bound
For above the clouds she’ll fly
Where the morning rain don’t fall
And the sun always shines
She’ll be flying over my home
In about three hours time
Because Gordon Lightfoot uses the traditional “she” to talk about a 707 taking off into the dawn whenever I hear those lyrics, “Early Morning Rain” always reminds me of a very dear old friend.
She took an early flight one morning and travelled above the clouds to somewhere the sun always shines, never to return. I miss her still.
Every time Mary Travers’ vocal comes in on the line “hear the mighty engines roar”, it brings a tear to my eye.
Partly because her vocals gave Peter, Paul and Mary such a sweet tone, but also because I know the section of the lyrics that follows is going to bring back memories of someone I knew once upon a time.
In fact, I think Mary Travers’ vocal talent, next to the brilliance of the lyrics themselves of course, is why Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Early Morning Rain” is so wistful.
All three vocals are so beautifully balanced, and carry so much emotion within them, but in such an artfully understated way that it doesn’t overwhelm the listener.
At no point do Peter, Paul and Mary try to hit the back of the church with their vocals. It’s an intimate performance…almost like when your mind starts to wander on a long drive down the motorway and you catch yourself half-singing an old song to yourself that had sneaked out from your subconscious while the miles were going past.
It’s because they’re not overdoing it that Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Early Morning Rain” is so wistful. If they were trying harder, it wouldn’t be nearly as good.
Although Peter, Paul and Mary had the first…albeit minor…hit with “Early Morning Rain”, it’s been a popular song down the years. In addition to their version, Gordon Lightfoot released his own version and George Hamilton IV had a Top 10 country hit with it too.
Artists of the calibre of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Eva Cassidy have also featured “Early Morning Rain” on their albums. The biggest UK hit version was by ex-Jam, ex-Style Council front-man Paul Weller, who took his somewhat rawer version, also excellent in its own way, into the UK Top 40 in 2005.
But for all the eminent roster of artists who recorded their takes on Gordon Lightfoot’s beautiful “Early Morning Rain”, my favourite version…and the most wistful version of all by far…is Peter, Paul and Mary’s.
Even today, decades after I saw my old friend for the very last time at an airport in the early dawn, there’s something about Peter, Paul and Mary’s treatment that still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.
And it pops, unprompted, into my mind every time I find myself on an early morning flight somewhere. As I look out from the departure lounge over the tarmac to where the blinking lights of the jets are lifting off into the early morning mist, I say a silent prayer for my old friend and hope nobody notices the little tear in the corner of my eye.
Here’s Peter, Paul and Mary with the most wistful version you’ll ever hear of Gordon Lightfoot’s beautiful song, “Early Morning Rain”…
(This article was inspired by reading one of Bonnie Barton’s excellent articles with even more great versions of “Early Morning Rain”. You can find that article here…when I saw Peter, Paul and Mary’s version on the roster, I knew I had to write this article of my own.)
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5EkZvyzdBMiH0FSPuT9Ik8
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.