The song that first captured my feelings of having to leave a beloved place and to leave beloved people behind was Harry Belafonte’s 1957 Jamaica Farewell, a great favorite of my mother’s (see TMA #34, His Master’s Voice). Sung by a sailor, it was well suited to departures by sea. (Here’s a photograph of Harry Belafonte with Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 on the cover of Jet (invoking the other sense of the word, blackness).)
In 1966, less than a decade later and just a couple of years after my family’s first flight, the American singer-songwriter John Denver wrote Leaving on a Jet Plane. No song evokes quite as it does the wrenching sadness of having to blast off with jet-propelled force, perhaps never to return, leaving behind someone whom you love. Although John Denver wrote it, Peter, Paul and Mary were the first to make it a hit in 1969, when it reached #1 in late December. It was still in the air and on the charts in early 1970 when we arrived in the States.
I have always liked the Jamaican reggae deejay Yellowman’s 1982 version, perhaps because it has a little humor which balances out the sentimentality of the song and prevents it from getting too schmaltzy, and because it brings it back to Jamaica. More recently, in 1998, it re-emerged in the soundtrack of the movie Armaggedon (talk about speed!), sung by Chantal Kreviaz.
There seem to be more songs about leaving than about coming home, perhaps because in this life, leaving wrenches our hearts again and again, while coming home, though longed for so deeply, is often attended by disappointment. Time speeds on, and the home to which we return can never be the same one that we remembered with such reverence.
[To counteract the sadness of that thought, you may want to listen to a boisterous rendition of Back in the USA, Chuck Berry’s celebration of homecoming (Well oh well, I feel so good today/We’ve just touched down on an international runway), sung here with Linda Ronstadt.]