Nestled in the eclectic works of Pat Metheny (circa 1997) is a collaborative effort between him and the late Charlie Haden (Rest in Peace) entitled "Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)". The album is a mix of original compositions and covers, and one of the most beautiful covers that they put down is "He's Gone Away".
He's Gone Away probably ranks up there with great American folk classics. I can't think of this classic without my mind gravitating towards "Shenandoah", probably the next best classic. Seeing as it's quite the old song, its history is mired in some confusion. It is probable that multiple versions exist, with new lyrics added as the song traded hands or traversed generations; be that as it may, it still retains its beautiful ballad quality.
This is one of those quiet ballad pieces where Pat excels. It is also really suited to the "plain" playing style typified by Haden. I'm not trying to Christianize Metheny's version of the tune, but this version feels like it pays homage to "Amazing Grace"; at least, my ears pick an Amazing Grace motif just after the preamble. In much the same manner, the beginning of Lyle Mays solo on San Lorenzo is also capped by an Amazing Grace motif. I don't know whose decision this was (Metheny or Haden), but it makes the rendition that much more soulful.
There is so much meditative "space" in this song. It's as if the silence (and the unsaid) in the song evokes as much passion as that which is actually played. Pat's guitar is most prominent throughout the performance. When they're evenly matching it up, it seems like Pat plays at least 2 notes for every deep note churned by Haden's bass; then they eventually segue into all-Pat. The middle portion of the song actually surprised me today. I've listened to it countless times, and only today did I realize that Pat is overdubbing himself - using the same guitar - to give that impression of a guitar duet. I always assumed the accompaniment was from Charlie Haden, but there is nary a bass note to be heard.
Towards the end of the song, with Haden again on bass, the song is more sonically filled as a result of the overdubs of Metheny's guitar (I have no idea which other one he was playing in this case) that seem to carry the same weight/gravitas that a violin and horn would. It all builds up to this beautiful crescendo conveying the full emotional force of the song, and then magically ends with what you first heard as the preamble.
Some people responded negatively to the overdubbing and feel that perhaps it made the performance less pure. It's sad that we will never get to see a live version of this piece performed. Their tour for this was strictly a duet, and I feel like getting this performance down perfectly would probably have required a second guitar player in tow. Sad! In case you do find any live Metheny/Haden versions that are labelled as "He's Gone Away", they are merely mislabelled versions of Farmer's Trust.
I'm not a purist by any stretch, and I offer this as a definitive 'keeper' from the Metheny songbook. This should appeal to anyone, any age, any leaning. A ballad it may be, but it also captivates the soul like a simple lullaby. The beauty is in the music.