This is from the Songs of the Day archive. My wife suggested I should re-post it.
Rodeo; Saturday Night Waltz.
This isn’t a song, strictly speaking, but it’s a brief piece of music based on a song, adapted for orchestra by my favourite composer, Aaron Copland. Copland’s classical treatment is lavished here on an old, maybe familiar, cowboy ballad called I Ride an Old Paint. A “paint”, of course, was a horse of several mottled colours, and the original song is about something that real cowboys, herding cattle on the Chisholm Trail and elsewhere, used to do: they’d ride amidst the herd at night, singing soft songs to keep the cattle calm. The Hollywood “singing cowboy” had its roots in reality – the cowpokes would literally serenade the livestock, to prevent them from getting restive, so they wouldn’t stampede. Anyone who’s watched enough old Westerns knows that cattle are easily spooked, but it may come as a surprise that a soft song sung by a cowboy would soothe their nerves. I Ride an Old Paint is a tune about doing just that, calming the temperamental animals, which cowboys referred to as “dogies”:
I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan
I’m goin’ to Montana to throw the hoolihan
They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw
Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw
Ride around little dogies, ride around them slow
For the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to go
“Old dan” means a pack animal, and to “throw the hoolihan” means to take a trip into civilization to paint the town red. A “coulee” is a ravine, and a “draw” is a gulley that hosts a stream. Cowboy argot reminds me of all the nautical terms that sailors throw around.
It’s a pretty little song, and Copland, composing for his dance suite Rodeo, renders it gorgeous.
There isn’t necessarily anything sad about this graceful, melodic piece, but it’s bittersweet for me because I associate it with my mother. Everybody’s mom was special, I guess, but mine really was. She was skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible, gentle but not weak, ready to believe you but nobody’s fool, far smarter than most, but never arrogant. Sometimes she cussed like a boson, and she called bullshit when she saw it. She hated bullies, and tried to raise me and my brother to be decent, and she never even made that express, she maybe didn’t even think that much about it herself, it was just what parents did.
She was sad sometimes, just like her son, and I wonder whether some of that came not only from being predisposed to melancholy, but also from knowing so much about what people were prepared to do to each other, push comes to shove. She read a great deal, you see. Our house was full of biographies and history books, tons of books, everything from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. She and my father made sure I had tons of my own books too, adult books, from a very young age. If I wanted to know about something, they’d buy me the book. The book cases in my bedroom were stuffed with volumes, whole collections of volumes, about everything and anything. I grew up reading about relativity and natural selection, the Russian revolution and the battle of Waterloo, what physicists thought about the nature of time, and the techniques naval architects used to ensure ship stability. Mom complained that all this reading was undermining her ability to keep me in line, because “he doesn’t care one whit if you send him to his room”. But she never dreamed of taking my books away. So much of who I am was shaped by my Mom’s example, and her determination that if the boy wanted to read instead of joining little league, he should read.
I guess I was about 19 or 20 when I first heard Saturday Night Waltz. Something about it seemed reflective of Mom’s character, and I wanted to share it with her. I remember standing with her, listening to the expensive stereo I’d bought with my student loans, and giving her a big hug.
There’s a crushing scene at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: Emily Webb, having died in childbirth, asks the stage manager to take her back to the living world to see her parents one last time. She’s warned not to do it. Yes, she can go if she wants, but she’s told that most people find it devastating; and when she goes anyway, returning to a birthday 14 years in the past, it does indeed tear her heart to pieces. It’s the terrible regret from realizing that you never really appreciated the moments you were living. You couldn’t understand how precious the time with your family was, or how much you’d miss them, miss everything, really. All those friends and neighbours, all the sights and sounds, all those beautiful days, the daily rhythm of her home town, gone now forever. Why don’t we pay more attention while we can? She turns to the stage manager:
To the Stage Manager
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?
The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.
Saints, poets, and once for just a little while, a kid in Halifax, playing some music for his mom.