Friday, March 4, 2011

Our big rock candy mountain’s in a minor key

My friend, Tommy Donoho, with the band Dollar Fox, sings a rendition, an interpretation of the old song, Big Rock Candy Mountain. I remember the Burl Ives version and more recently we heard Harry McClintock's scratchy voice for the soundtrack of the film, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”. Those older versions are bouncy major key hopeful sounding lyrical longings for a dream world.

But Tommy’s taken the song to a minor key, with a slower, more articulate pace that allows me to hear the words clearer and sense the dark spots. It fits this time and he's made this old song an authentic narrative of today in these tough times. I keep picturing that famous Obama campaign poster, his face over the word "Hope".

Harry McClintock recorded the song in 1928. Claims he wrote it. But we know now there were other versions, cynical ditties with a very similar theme before his recorded phrasings. Even some inappropriate verses, stanzas darker than the subliminal dark which I won’t mention here. Harry cleaned those up and used his eraser. Maybe he shouldn’t have. The revisionist historical troubadour knew his audience and knew the limitations of the market. Ironical that this unsavory song made its way into the catalogue of children’s songs. Ironical too that he sang about big rock candy mountains, as if it where a mountain range. Today you’ll hear most singers sing it as one mountain, one Big Rock.

Art experiences re-invention, for sure…like the re-invented Obama poster, the subject of a notable lawsuit now settled.

But, Tommy changed the key to McClintock’s cleaned-up recording. We have a key change in America too and that’s what’s so cool about his interpretation. Unknowingly, and artists to great things having know idea what they’re doing, the soon-to-be-released recording of this song may just find its way into the hearts and lungs, out of the mouths of protesters that seem to be forming across the world. I know that’s a big leap but songs have great power as we know.

Songs, art, make their way into the national conversation, get co-opted when their sound resonates and connects, suggests, encapsulates, and subtly remind of who we are or who we wish to be. In this case our big rock candy mountain seems to be melting. Or maybe we found it a while ago and didn’t realize how sweet it was. Or maybe it never existed. Perhaps we took it for granted. Maybe this dream was a mountain of something else.

With a minor key comes pathos, regret, and wanting. With a minor key comes a feeling of missing out on things. It’s a complex musical technique, not a trick to change key. Musicians do it for a reason. The reason is to make us feel something else.

So, if you’re feeling something that you cannot describe, or trying to put words to your big rock candy mountain personal meltdown, tax form, or frustrated with the fact that none of the Wall Street smelters have received a subpoena, listen to the Dollar Fox minor keyed Big Rock Candy Mountain when it arrives. You may find it one of the best columns of words you’ve read and heard recently that captures the mood of the nation, even the world, all done with a change of key.

Art can be powerful. Art makes you feel. Enjoy this first Friday in the Crossroads and across town, across this great and wondrous land we call home.

Originally titled “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”, here’s what Harry related:

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning
I'm headed for a land that's far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we'll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers' trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I'm bound to go
Where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall
The winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I'll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains...

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