Jesse Rivest's Blog
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Tuesday, May 05, 2009
I recall a couple years ago an acquaintance introduced me as an "itinerant singer-songwriter". I had to ask what that meant - itinerant - although if I had applied myself a little, I would have figured it out. I mean, I knew what it meant to have an itinerary!
Also a couple years ago, Radio New Zealand referred to me as a drifter on their website (see here). I remember feeling a little defensive about it; I felt that it implied I was an aimless wanderer. Well I admitted then, and I admit now, that I have known myself to enjoy stints of aimless wandering. But what exactly is a drifter?
Today, the word "drifter" on Wikipedia - a voice of a subset of the people of Earth (that subset whose members know how to edit a wiki resource) - redirects to the word "vagabond". According to Wikipedia, a vagabond is an itinerant person, commonly referred to as a drifter, tramp, rogue, or hobo - but not a bum, because bums "are not known for travelling, preferring to stay in one location." It's fairly explicit at Wikipedia that a vagabond was historically a purposeless wanderer, and that in later years there was a shift towards associating the word with bohemian artists such as Tolstoy, or the Hungarian mathematician Erdos. It's all at the Wikipedia page, if you'd like to see.
Let's see what official sources say about drifters. Merriam-Webster tells that a drifter "travels or moves about aimlessly" (click here), while Dictionary.com indicates something similar and adds: "a wanderer who has no established residence or visible means of support" (click here). Interesting - aimlessness seems to be a common theme. I confirmed with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com that "vagabond" has some negative connotations and synonyms, as well, including: unsettled, irresponsible, disreputable, worthless, carefree, and rogue.
So, perhaps Tolstoy and Erdos (and some other historic artists) were vagabonds. I wonder if they got up to mischief, or if they appeared aimless? Did they do a lot of loitering? Were they known to be ambivalent or lost? Townes Van Zandt was a drifter - and a drunkard - and a well-regarded contributor to music history. Who else can we name as a drifter or vagabond that left a legacy of artistic contribution? How were these people perceived during their vagrant times?
I'm just curious, really, about these terms. I have entertained romanticized thoughts of being a drifter; a vagabond. By these definitions, I've not truly been a drifter - I suppose I have been to some extent, at times, but I've also been someone who enjoys having a home and a studio space where one can focus. I've supported myself and I've had aim, purpose, and ambition. The negative aspects of these definitions ruin for me the romance of being a drifter.
I enjoy considering the meaning of words, but sometimes I am too literal. I wonder what others think of words like "drifter" and "vagabond"? What about the term "itinerant/touring singer-songwriter"?