coverWhen I was in high school, I became a big fan of the band Procol Harum. That British rock band formed in 1967 and is still best known for their first single, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” They have been labeled as art rock, progressive rock and symphonic rock.

They were one of my entry points for “serious” lyrics. The Procol Harum lyricist is Keith Reid and he has admitted to a number of literary influences and allusions such as Canterbury Tales for “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Wreck of the Hesperus” obviously points to the Longfellow poem, while Shelley’s “Ozymandias” inspired the song “Conquistador.”

One of my favorite songs is their “Pilgrims Progress” It is on their third studio album, A Salty Dog, which I bought the summer of 1969.

That was not a good summer of my life. It was the summer that my father died after six years of illness. I was in a depression.

Maybe part of the attraction to the album was its nautical themes. (My father had been in the Navy.) I loved the album cover. A few years later, in college, I would discover the Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes that formed the basis for that cover art and start smoking them. (A very harsh, unfiltered cigarette which I found Romantically to be a good match for bourbon.) The album had rock and blues and the title song was the first Procol Harum track to use an orchestra.

I liked the lyrics and read more into them than may have been intended. (I was in training to be an English major.)

Pilgrim’s Progress

I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song
In trying to find the words which might begin it
I found these were the thoughts I brought along

At first I took my weight to be an anchor
and gathered up my fears to guide me round
but then I clearly saw my own delusion
and found my struggles further bogged me down

In starting out I thought to go exploring
and set my foot upon the nearest road
In vain I looked to find the promised turning
but only saw how far I was from home

In searching I forsook the paths of learning
and sought instead to find some pirate’s gold
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me
and still no hidden truths could I unfold

I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song
The words have all been writ by one before me
We’re taking turns in trying to pass them on
Oh, we’re taking turns in trying to pass them on

by Keith Reid   (listen to the song)

The song sent me looking for allusions and I discovered that it referred to the 1678 book The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It is a book that today no one reads unless it is assigned to read, but I picked up a copy before it was assigned to me because of the song.

It turns out that Bunyan’s book was actually what we would call a “mass-market best-seller” during the author’s lifetime.

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Bunyan was a 50 year-old Baptist preacher who had been thrown in jail for preaching without a license. In his autobiography, Bunyan wrote about his wild, sinful youth – though he listed the sins as profanity, dancing, and bell-ringing.

He did some time in the army, married, worked as a tinker (an itinerant tinsmith who mended household utensils). He claims to have had a religious conversion and started practicing with a sect that didn’t conform to the teachings of the Church of England. He was eventually thrown in jail for his preaching. He stayed in jail for 12 years.

While jailed, he began to write The Pilgrim’s Progress which begins: “As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn [jail]; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”

What follows is an allegory that follows the main character, Christian, on a journey from the City of Destruction (earth) to the Celestial City (heaven). He travels through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, and Doubting Castle. Those he meets along the way include Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, Old Honest, and Talkative.

It sounds pretty obvious to us today, but it was a best-seller and went through numerous reprints and it has a number of pirated copies and unauthorized sequels. A real literary phenom in that time.

Plenty of writers since, besides Keith Reid, have alluded to the book. Thackeray’s book title Vanity Fair is a reference to a fair in the town of Vanity where Christian finds people who indulge in mindless amusements and worldly possessions. Dickens’ Oliver Twist is subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress. Mark Twain subtitled his The Innocents Abroad as The New Pilgrims’ Progress. And Huckleberry Finn mentions that he knew the book and gave it a pretty good quick review: “a book about a man who left his family, though it didn’t say why. I read it every now and then, and got through quite a bit of it. The sentences were interesting, but difficult to get through.”

The book is Christian literature but that’s not what I got from the book back in the day. It’s not his journey that makes Christian a pilgrim. The pilgrim must move forward spiritually as he moves geographically. Christian learns . He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He doesn’t meet the same foe or obstacle twice, because he learns from his experiences.

Some are travelers. Some are pilgrims. The pilgrims learned truths and are taking turns in trying to pass them on.

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