Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What makes you sleep so sound

Wake up, wake up darlin' Corey 
What makes you sleep so sound 
The revenue officers are coming 
Gonna tear your still house down. 

Go 'way, go 'way darlin' Corey 
Stop hanging around my bed 
Bad liquor's ruined my body 
Pretty women’s gone to my head.

I’m going across the deep ocean 
I’m going across the deep sea 
I’m a-going across the deep ocean 
Just to bring darlin' Corey to me. 

Go dig me a hole in the meadow
Go dig me a hole in the ground 
Go dig me a hole in the meadow 
Just to lay darlin' Corey down. 

Don’t you hear them blue birds a-singing 
Don’t you hear that mournful sound 
They're a-preaching Corey’s funeral 
In some lonesome graveyard ground.

Wake up, wake up darlin' Corey 
What makes you sleep so sound 
The revenue officers are coming 
They’re going to tear your still house down.

Burl Ives 1941

It took me a while to figure out why this song is such a work of genius - that is, as Burl Ives sings it, with one endlessly-sustained, finger-picked chord. It's the minimalism of it, the stripped-down quality, like a pine board silver-greyed and punched full of knotholes. He uses only the barest minimum of his incredible voice, just the edge of a single vocal cord, and whispers the ending in a way that chills the blood. 

I was only familiar with that other version, the one all the folkies sang in the '60s after Harry Belafonte made it famous. I don't remember stills being torn down and "Darlin' Cor-ray" being buried in a "medd-a" in that one. Belafonte homogenized it somewhat, tamed the lyric, took the coldness, the whiskery scarecrow quality out of it. 

Ives was a strange one, walking out of a schoolhouse one day saying he had had enough of education, then walking just as confidently into a totally unique lifelong career as an actor and a folksinger. He had a sort of effortless, artless tenor that could wrap itself around any kind of song - remember Little Bitty Tear? But then there was that chiller That's all I Can Remember (which see):

It took me a few decades to catch up with this amazing jailhouse ballad again, sung in his usual downplayed, straightforward way. But ah, the way he sings, "Then they turned on the juice, and I felt something a-burnin'. . . " Like Johnny Cash, who was never in the service and never spent a single day in jail, Ives somehow presented himself as a man who had been everywhere, done everything, and lived to sing the tale. 

Then there was the acting. His Big Daddy was downright frightening, malignant, cold-eyed, the polar opposite of his grandfatherly self, chuckling away on that wretched Christmas show he was in. I am sure I watched it, listened to Holly Jolly Christmas, Little White Duck, and that incredibly stupid song about The Whale, which my smart-ass/pain-in-the-ass family endlessly, pretentiously quoted:

I have to admit to being both drawn and somewhat repulsed by Ives, by his bulk, his scary tremorous voice, his heartiness backed by a surly rage that scares the hell out of me. He was too many things at once, but there is no beating or repeating that voice. It's one of those but-he's-not-doing-anything voices. He does not seem to be putting any effort into it at all, and chances are he wasn't. It was just a genius voice. Not a mountain voice at all, not a holler or a howl. It was actually kind of refined. Some of his oeuvre was not to my tastes - he did a lot of bland, country-ish stuff that I remember listening to a lot as a kid, the same way I listened to Andy Williams.

But then he starts whispering to us about Darlin' Cor-ray, and a chill works its way up, or tingles on my scalp so my hair seems to stand on end. This is one of those minimalist things, a few brush-strokes expressing a world. Van Gogh could dab his brush on a canvas a couple of times and paint a recognizable human figure, a person with an attitude, a mission and a soul. Minimalism has died out; cacophony is king. We have to go back to the records, because they're all we've got left.