They all pretend they’re orphans
And their memory is like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
— Tom Waits, “Time”
She made up someone to be
She made up somewhere to be from
— Tom Waits, “Dead and Lovely”
In Orphan Songs, Part 2, I speculated about why I've found so many songs about orphans and being parentless. Here's one last possibility.
When we're young, parents are sometimes an embarrassment — a reminder of who we used to be, or that we're not yet who we hope to become. You often see this embarrassment in memoirs of the experiences of immigrants. Here you are in your American clothes with your American attitude, accompanied by your father in his black suit and yarmulka, or your mother with her sari and her bindi on her forehead.
To fantasize about being an orphan, of sorts, is to play with the idea of escaping your class, your status, and your cultural (sometimes even fanancial) inheritance.
Memory is an act of imagining, and to be an orphan is to “remember" (i.e., imagine) your parents, which is also to idealize yourself as someone able to advance your artistic, political, financial and other goals. It's the old story of leaving home, going to the big anonymous city, and becoming somebody else.
In a post — which is no longer online — to the unofficial Martin Guitar forum, journalist Don Hurley once wrote about an encounter with Bob Dylan in England, during the filming of Don’t Look Back:
“I took a photographer to his suite to do a profile for the next day's paper. I questioned him on his background and about supposedly running away from home at the age of eleven. He confirmed it all and said he could not remember when he last saw his parents, that he was “just an orphan of the road.” We finished the interview and made for the elevator which my photographer and I shared with an older couple and their son, who turned out to be Dylan's parents and his brother David. They were literally in the suite next to his!”
I'll write more about such "orphans" — in the context of the Folk Revival — in a future installment of this Orphan Song series.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8