What hath Nashville to do with Francia? Before this week, I might have answered “not much,” but that was before I discovered what may be the only country song that mentions the Emperor Charlemagne.
Near the end of the song, McMurtry lets his surroundings evoke the melancholy of the solo traveler:
Like the bones of some saint beneath a church floor
Who must have died for lack of light,
The color snapshots that I sent you
All came out in black and white.
Won’t you fly across that ocean,
Take a train on down?
Because the night’s growing lonesome
In Charlemagne’s home town.
At Aachen, homesickness is a time-honored tradition. Countless ambassadors, dignitaries, messengers, and merchants went there during Charlemagne’s reign. More than a few must have pined for their homelands.
Although he didn’t travel to Aachen, Paul the Deacon nursed a similar sadness when he was forced to linger at Charlemagne’s court. In the 780s, the Lombard monk journeyed north across the Alps to one of Charlemagne’s palaces on the Moselle, where he petitioned the king to release his brother, a hostage. In a letter to Theudemar, abbot of Monte Cassino, Paul claims that the Frankish courtiers are friendly enough, but his mind and his heart are both elsewhere:
Even though the world’s vast distances physically keep me from you, a tenacious love for your companionship affects me; it cannot be severed. I am tormented nearly every moment by love for our brothers and superiors, to such an extent that it cannot be related in a letter or briefly explained in a few short pages.
For when I think of the times we devoted to such holy works; the most pleasant station of my quarters; your pious and religious goodwill; the troop of so many soldiers of Christ laboring to do holy works; the shining examples of diverse virtues in each brother; and sweet conversations about the Father’s highest kingdom, then I sit stunned, I am amazed, I grow weary, and I am unable to hold back my tears.
I dwell here among Catholics and dedicated Christians. They receive me well, and they show me sufficient kindness for your sake and for the sake of our father Benedict—but compared to your monastery, the palace is a prison to me, and compared to the great peacefulness of your community, life here is a hurricane.
This land holds only my worn-out body; in all my thoughts, where I remain strong, I am with you.
James McMurtry and Paul the Deacon wouldn’t have had much to talk about; the politically charged musician and the history-minded monk were born at the far ends of different and distant worlds. But by touching on the same essential emotion, the two men are commiserating across cultures, as lonely travelers have always done. Together they give voice to a fellowship of forgotten wanderers whose business brought them to Charlemagne but who dearly longed to be home.
This letter and song are a shared round of beer, even across 1,200 years. They’re also a reminder: sometimes the common ground is nothing more than the place where you happen to be stuck.