Thursday, August 19, 2010

Burl Ives: did he fake his own death?

Last time my husband and I were driving around Utah (having come to see Bryce Canyon, the holiest place in the world, full of glowing gilded cathedrals of God-carved stone), we were suddenly stopped dead in our tracks.
There was a sign up ahead saying, "Tourist Stop: THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN!"

I looked at Bill.

"There's never a Big Rock Candy Mountain. It's a Burl Ives song."

"No, it was based on this mountain here! Let's stop."

He got out and enthusiastically took a picture of a small, ordinary-looking mountain, the farthest thing from rock candy imagineable. We were hungry, and there was a restaurant. As we walked past a nominal gift shop with cheap t-shirts and cellophane bags of rock candy, Bill blinked in surprise, then whispered in my ear.

"There he is."'


"You know! Look over there."

At a table in the corner, facing a beer and a corned beef sandwich, was a heavyset older man with a grey goatee.

"Hm, well, it does look like him, but the truth is - "

"I know it's him."

"See, that's the thing. He's been dead for ten years."

"Maybe he faked his own death."

"Then he'd be 116 years old."

"Well, he looks it, doesn't he?"

He did. But he didn't look much like Burl Ives to me.

When I think of Burl Ives now, I think of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: his surly, snappy, sour performance was one of the best I've seen in a character actor.

But I also thought of other things. I was raised on Burl Ives. One of my first memories was that mild, burly tenor voice of his singing, "Here's a song about a whale, with a most amazing appetite." There was also Holly Jolly Christmas and Little Bitty Tear and a couple other mainstream hits, but they came second to his songs for children, his "Little White Duck" and "The sow took the measles and she died in the spring" (kind of an awful song for the kiddies, probably an old Appalachian thing.) There were some I did myself when I briefly had a kids' TV show in Alberta: "Old witch, old witch, she lives in a ditch, and she combs her hair with a hick'ry switch."

Having never heard it before, the kids loved it.

Anyway, my husband ordered a corned beef sandwich and a beer and kept shooting glances at this Burl Ives stand-in. It occurred to me later (hell, it just occurred to me this second) that they'd hired this local yahoo to stand in and wow the tourists.

Another thing that happened just this second: I looked up the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and found out that it was really just a song, something invented by hoboes. There were approximately seventeen Big Rock Candy Mountains scattered all over the US, each claiming to be THE Big Rock Candy Mountain, bearing big signs and restaurants serving corned beef sandwiches and beer.
Did they all have a Burl Ives lookalike? I really can't say.

Anyway, the video I've posted is haunting. It reminds me structurally of the Child Ballad, I Gave my Love a Cherry, and also evokes Christ's temptation in the wilderness. It's no doubt deeply Appalachian, thus harking back to somewhere in ancient Britain, preserved as only music preserves ancient things.

I have a hankering for another Burl Ives song which seems to be impossible to find. It was on one of his more contemporary albums (meaning, no Child Ballads), and it had songs like Mr. In-Between and Shanghai'd.

Deeply remeniscent of Long Black Veil, it was called That's All I Can Remember. I didn't recall much about it except that it was an execution song, like something out of The Green Mile. It had a couple of lines in it that stuck in my head like barbed wire: "And the wheels in my head started turnin'. . .and they turned on the juice, and I felt something a-burnin'. " If this man was looking back on his own execution, it surely wasn't from Paradise.

I dug around, and dug around, and couldn't find a recorded version anywhere (though supposedly it was also recorded by Lefty Frizzell. Who the fuck is that?). But I found a fragmentary, scrambled-up lyric, which I'll try to reconstruct here. Since there is more than one version, there's some repetition of lines. I fought and fought and fought to have consistent line-spacing, and my computer just wouldn't let me do it, but since nobody reads this anyway. . .
I've never killed anyone, but I do identify with this fellow's loneliness.

That's All I Can Remember
Come listen while I tell you 'bout a man that's gonna die
Be patient with me won't you please, if I should start to cry
Maybe one of you can understand my story
How a fool lost his soul for a moment of glory
(And that's all, that's all, that's all
That's all that I can remember)

I'm lookin' up from somewhere below
The atmosphere is warm and they've got plenty of coal
Maybe someone above can hear my story
How a fool lost his soul for a moment of glory
(And that's all, that's all, that's all
That's all that I can remember)

Now Bill was my friend, throughout my short-lived life
'Til I caught him out with Mary, my wife
Then the wheels in my head started turnin'
A death plan I made up for both of those concernin'

(And that's all, that's all, that's all
That's all that I can remember)

They took me to prison and they locked me in a cell
They gave me my last big meal then strapped me to a chair
Then my life before my eyes came returnin'
Then they turned on the juice, and I felt something a-burnin'

(And that's all, that's all, that's all
That's all that I can remember)

There's another verse in there, about how he killed Bill and Mary, a very lurid one, but I can't find it anywhere. I can't find the composer and lyricist of the song. In fact, I barely found it at all.

But it stuck in my head, which is how songs are transported or propelled forward. It happened even before anything was written down. Most of the people who sang and remembered them couldn't read or write anyway. People from Appalachia who sang those twangy, multi-versed songs with tunes that all had similar intervals, and even told similar stories. Unlike the kid from Deliverance, most couldn't play very well, and just strummed one chord on the banjo, bom-jigga, bom-jigga, bom.

Everything went around in a circle then, and everyone was everyone's cousin. How many broke away? Some must have. But mostly, the musicologists had to go after them, first with pen and ink, then gramophones, then more sophisticated equipment.

If you want a repository of those songs, go listen to Joan Baez' first album. I can hardly stand it now, her voice is so bleak, so wintry, so devoid of youth or joy. My brother used to sing songs about someone named Geordie, put to death for poaching "the King's royal deer". I used to think they were being cooked, like eggs. My sister sang "Go 'way from window" and other cheery ditties (one of them called Poor Old Horse: "the dogs will eat my rotten flesh, and that's how I'll decay"). But then, my sister was bitter and emotionally deformed, even in her twenties. She was weird, holding the guitar between her legs like a cello, and having a new boy friend every six months.

How did I get on to all this? Burl Ives didn't really have a very good voice, but then, neither did Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan. Charisma, they had, and an understanding of the underpinnings, the deep traditions of music. They were building on something. There wasn't an internet then, but songs were a repository, not necessarily of history, but of things that happened all the time. Not factual, but nevertheless true.

POSTSCRIPT. I just listened to this song again, and I take it back, what I said about Ives' voice. It vibrates like Waterford crystal, sounds like nothing else, and defies all analysis.

And the song! Listen to it one more time. It's clearly Appalachian, probably a Child Ballad from antiquity, with that plainspun tune and spooky medieval intervals. But what grabs me is that he plays just two chords. Two. There used to be a joke that if you could stand up and play three chords, you were a folk singer, but this trumps even that standard for minimalism. Pick-twang, pick-twang, pick-twang: not even full chords, but maybe three strings. And he tells this incredible story, this question and answer. Why nine questions? The Trinity/three wishes, times three, making it three times more powerful? Nine-ty-nine-and-nine-teeeeee. Three nines. But flip those three nines over, and you have. . .
The devil's number.

POST-POST-SCRIPT. I guess I can't count. There are only eight questions. So what is the ninth: whether he's "God's or mine"?