“We were that free then”:
Ode on Being Asked by the Widow of the Legendary Texas Singer-songwriter
to Suggest Quotations from His Work to Be Inscribed on His Austin Gravestone
In Memoriam Jerry Jeff Walker 1942-2020 & For Susan
“We were that free then, just walking down the road
Never really caring where the highway goes . . .”
(From the song “Stoney,” as first recorded on the album Bein’ Free—
1970 and re-recorded on many subsequent albums.)
It was a thing of grieving gravity
a burden rare and strange, an honor high
to get request from widow of old friend—
suggested words to be carved on gravestone.
It’s hard enough to choose such words for any
old friend, but harder still when the subject’s
a legend who lived by his songs and words
for 60 years, songs the world has loved and heard
and still will sing another 60 years
(and triple that) when pilgrims stand by his grave
and contemplate his words inscribed in stone.
You knew, of course, your favorite lines of his.
And you had known him on an older road
than anybody left to tell the tale:
those golden road days of 1963
before our lives were myths, when we were still free.
The problem was precisely this: you could
not suggest words to be carved from the famous
song he wrote about you, even if many
of his fans prefer “Stoney,” find it more
classic, less cliché, than his celebrated
masterpiece “Bo Jangles.” You decided
to ask around, singers and poets with good
ears and sound-sense, to see what brief lines stood
out for them from the long record of Jerry
Jeff’s works. Some Texas lines were named that you
expected. But what took you by surprise
was this: By far the greatest number of votes
were cast for five simple monosyllabic
words from Jerry Jeff’s “Stoney”—words that shouldn’t
work or sing—that basic We were that free then.
How could so many choose those words to breathe in
the essence of a man’s life and work? A fine
old poet in Tennessee chose those words,
some young poet-singers, and Texas teachers..
(Some did not associate the song with me.)
I doubted at first their choice. After all,
I have always detested the word that.
I have gone to great lengths in my 40 books
and a thousand poems, by hook or by crook
to avoid writing the word that. Perhaps
absurd convolutions of this-and-thatness.
When trusted ears named these favorite words
I had to reconsider—was it that
old great-minds-channel thing, great ears hear
in the same canal? Or is it canaille?
Here I must say that I’ve spent the last year
planning my Covid-travels to keep me near
where I need to be if tragedy should come.
When I last talked on the phone with Jerry Jeff
I worried that the end was near and wanted
to be there for him. And my older brother
was gravely ill, hospitalized in Florida,
bed-ridden all year. And my son, CEO,
Kentucky hospital and nursing home,
pandemic burden-wracked, Plague-droned.
With things perhaps more grave on their minds they both
selected the same line—my brother spoke
the words immediately in half-asleep
groggy midnight daze. And they all spoke the words
that first came to me when I received request,
the words I dreamed should be inscribed on gravestone.
At first, I doubted my unconscious choice
but I have learned to hear and trust the voice
that sings in my dreams. Still, after the dream,
in morning coffee cynicism, I said
That free? How free? But dream-voice insisted
Dummy, see the rest of the song, his work,
his life. It is the ultimate thatness
and rightness of that, the one place where the word
had to be used, the line that lesser poets
would write as “We were so free” and thus blow it
or, even worse, some songwriters would sing
“We were young and free” and miss everything.
The votes are all in, the election final.
And if these words are not engraved on tombstone
at least they are inscribed in this poem
and Jerry Jeff has my In Memoriam
chant and song from roads we walked way back when—
“We were that free then”—and now he’s free again.