Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Father Sings

Our last night visiting, Dad got out his guitar, strummed a chord, sang -
Dark as a dungeon,
damp as the dew -
Where the dangers are double,
and the pleasures are few . . .
Dad came of age to the tunes of Elvis and the folk revival - the Kingston Trio, Sons of the Pioneers, Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary. Dad and his brother - they harmonize still like twin angels - used to play and sing at local dances. Fans (and Dad's aunt) would call in to the local radio station and request their favorite songs. If Dad wasn't listening, friends would call, "Hey, a request's gone out. They want you on the radio!" Dad would grab guitar and jump in Grandpa's car, vroom over to the door of the little radio station where he'd play his song over the air.

As kids we grew up on these coal mining songs, sailor songs, songs of the open range, early rock and roll. As then, so now, we kids wail out the last verse in all its delicious morbidity, drowning out Dad with a wicked glee -

I hope when I'm gone
and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken
and turn into coal.

Then I'll stand at the gate
of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner
a-diggin' my bones

Well, it's dark as a dungeon . . .

More Sunday nights than not, after a supper of novels, popcorn and tuna fish sandwiches, or while we kids finished up the dishes after a more elaborate dinner, Dad would get out his guitar and begin singing from the other room -
There was a ship that sailed once
All on the Lowland Sea
And the name of the ship was . . .

"The Merry Golden Tree," Mom would jump in, as she does tonight, with a good backup of her children following.

"The Golden Argosy," insists Dad, with a chorus of offspring following him.

"A Fam'ly Controversy," more of us each year sing laughingly.

These songs were the book where I read my father - even through the years where whenever Dad and I exchanged words it ended in tears and yelling, me shaking with rage, he shaking his head in bewilderment.

But in the bright safe place made by his guitar and the singing, I could read my father as someone standing in his own light: his delight in the sheer gorgeosity of the right word - tears gathering in his throat a little at the aptness of lyric and tune together - the way he'd stop sometimes to enunciate each syllable, or pause to make sure we understood exactly what the words were saying - the movement of the story as the cabin boy offers to leap overboard, swim through the water, drill holes in the side of the Spanish ship bearing down on them and sink her in the Lowland Sea - I loved the definite exactness of the right words.
The boy swam back
'mid the cheering of the crew
But the captain would not hear him,
His promise he did rue.
He scorned his bold entreaty
Though full loudly he did sue.

And he left him in the Lowland . . .

Once, very young, I said, "That captain is so wicked."

"Mm-hm," said Dad. "Foolish promises - promised payments too high -
Oh, I will give you rubies,
and I will give you gold,
And my own fair daughter
your bonny bride to hold

"- didn't think it through and then didn't want to pay when the time came. But the cabin boy, too. He was greedy - insisting on his reward beforehand. He would have been better off, keeping his eye on the good that needed to be done, acting on simple courage, rather than twisting the captain's arm in the first place. Then he wouldn't have been left to drown - "
sinkin' in the Lowland (Lowland)
He sank into the Lowland Sea
Which gave me pause, and I would wonder even years later at what I saw from this other window Dad had opened on the wild world - courage, greed, broken promises, piteousness, regretful foolishness all intermixed - nothing so black and white as what I saw on my own.

Tonight, Dad delights in the too-true-to-life characterization of an out-of-work bronco-rider -

I was hangin' 'round town, just spendin' my time
Out of a job, not earnin' a dime
A feller steps up and he said, "I suppose
You're a bronc fighter from looks of your clothes."

"You figures me right, I'm a good one." I claim
"Do you happen to have any bad ones to tame?"

"So human," Dad stops us mid-song, strumming, "how he changes his tune."

I gets all het up and I ask what he pays
To ride this old nag for a couple of days


I stayed 'til mornin' and right after chuck
I stepped out to see if this outlaw can buck.


He sure is a frog-walker, he heaves a big sigh
He only lacks wings, for to be on the fly
He turns his old belly right up to the sun
He sure is a sun-fishin', son-of-a-gun.

to a final

He's about the worst bucker I've seen on the range
He'll turn on a nickel and give you some change
He hits on all fours and goes up on high
Leaves me a spinnin' up there in the sky

I turns over twice and I comes back to earth
I lights in a cussin' the day of his birth
I know there are ponies that I cannot ride
There's some of them left, they haven't all died.
"I love it," Dad chuckles at last, "how that horse goes from being a nag to a pony!"

Dad takes our requests:
. . . When all at once a mighty herd
of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky
and up the cloudy draw . . .
("That's just how a storm looks, blowing in over the desert," said Dad once. His eyes twinkle as he changes keys . . . )

As the riders loped on by him
he heard one call his name -
(which they do tonight, as they have always done here in our home, in a high piping voice, "Hey, Robby!")
'If you want to save your soul from Hell
a-riding on our range,
Then, cowboy, change your ways today
or with us you will ride -
Tryin' to catch the Devil's herd,
across these endless skies.'

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi Yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

We all sigh with satisfaction and the strum modulates from mournful wail to

Well, I was born one mornin'
when the sun didn't shine.
Picked up my shovel
and I walked to the mine -

One fist of iron,
(and our voices all strain up, up)
the other of steel-
If the right don't getcha,
then the left one will.

You load sixteen tons -
whaddaya get?
Another day older
and you're deeper in debt.

St. Peter dontcha call me -
'Cause I can't go!
I owe my soul
to the company store.

While the guitar mrow-mrowrs a boogie-woogie echo.

"Sing the one your aunt always wanted!" and Dad gives us Rock and Roll Ruby -
Hold on, Daddy, now don't get sore
All I want to do is rock a
little bit more

"And you have to do the one you sang when Mom fell in love with you!"

"Which one is that?" my brother wants to know.

But we three sisters know. Sweeping a triangular glance, we begin, "Today . . . "

Dad finds the chord and our parents begin again to sing to each other, as they have sung through all our growing up, eyes locked, tears glinting but unshed -

. . . while the blossom
still clings to the vine,
I'll taste your strawberries,
I'll drink your sweet wine.

A million tomorrows
will all pass away
'Ere I forget
all the joys that are mine


Lisa B. said...

Is there a greatest hits album? If not, there should be. Available in wide release. Or narrow. I love hearing about this and I want to hear all those songs.

Neighbor Jane Payne said...

I love this line, "These songs were the book where I read my father -". And a man's music and what he does with it does say so much about him.

Anonymous said...

Okay, we are sitting here bawling. You really know how to capture the moment! Mom and Dad

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