Monday, October 26, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Marty Robbins doing "The Strawberry Roan"

Today's pic for Best Line in Any Song Ever: He's about the worst bucker I've seen on the range; he'll turn on a nickel and give you some change.

Most of the songs we listen to, we know what they mean. (Unless they're by Pavement.) They employ words and phrases from our experience, sentences we might have actually said at some point. "You must not know about me--I could have another you in a minute." "I've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night." "You belong with me-ee-ee!" Smokey Robinson became America's greatest poet--in Simon Frith's explication of Bob Dylan's apocryphal(?) comment--by turning everyday phrases into resonant art. You, the listener, see yourself in the song first, and then (if it's a good song) you see your experience elevated to something universal because of its song treatment.

But some of the songs we listen to--and sorry for heedlessly roping you in here with me, but I bet it's true--we don't know what they mean at all. Or even if we do, there's NO WAY that these songs' specific lyrics resonate with their entire listening audience. I mean, how many cars do you see driving around with 28-inch rims? Not many, right? I see one out of several thousand, if that. But R Kelly's "I'm a Flirt" was a huge hit, and there's T-Pain opening his verse with the line, "When I pull up to the club all the shawties be like 'Daaaaaamn, 28s!'" (I don't make it to "clubs" or "VIPs" much, either, but those might be a little more prevalent.) Or, at a completely opposite end of the musical spectrum, take these cryptic lines scrawled into stone tablets by the Beach Boys:

"Just a little deuce coupe with a flat head mill
But she'll walk a thunderbird like she's standin' still
Shes ported and relieved and shes stroked and bored.
Shell do a hundred and forty with the top end floored"

I don't even know what a "Little Deuce Coupe" is, outside the fact that it's a Fast Car (Tracy Chapman! Now there's a universalist!), but that's all I need to know. And I'd guess that if you took all the people that love that song, you'd find more people who couldn't accurately describe a "flat head mill" than people who could. And of course, the Beach Boys also excelled at impenetrable surfing jargon.

We've got the same principle in play with today's featured song, "The Strawberry Roan," off Marty Robbins's iconic Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs:

While the idea of the song is pretty clear--Marty meets a horse he can't ride--some of the lingo is mysterious: "His legs are all spavined, he's got pigeon toes." Um...poor horse? "He sure is a frog-walker." Yeah, I remember when I came across a...frog-walker. That was a trip. Even when I understand something, it sounds enough like bronc fighter jargon that I sort of congratulate myself for being able to decipher it (much like T-Pain's "28s" line): "I gets the blinds on 'im and it sure is a fright / Next comes the saddle and I screws it down tight." I can picture it in my head, though that's not the verbiage I myself would've used, being scared of horses and all.

The appeal of these "jargon" songs seems to lie in that blend of self-congratulation ("I'm more a surfer than you are, because I know where Australia's Narabine is!") and authoritative mystery ("I'm sure Usher frequents the VIP, because he knows exactly what they drink there!"). In the case of Mr. Robbins and me, I have no doubt that this experience really happened, and that he is all the more badass as a result. (That's why he doesn't even have to play his guitar in the above clip!) (Note: the author of this song--"Traditional"--may be the true badass.) I also have no doubt that some of this badassness has transferred to me, since I was able to understand about 75% of what he was singing. In however small a way, I'm now part of Bronc Fighting World, and I can recognize the sublime mixture of relief and humiliation near song's end:

"I know there are ponies that I cannot ride;
There's some of them left, they haven't all died."

That's probably the true takeaway line. Actually, it's how I feel when I listen to music and I come across a song like this, that I don't fully understand (it happens more often with rap, or contemporary classical): Embarrassed by my ignorance, sure, but relieved that there are still unexplored vistas.

"There still are strange songs you unwrap like a gift;
There's some of them left, it's not all Taylor Swift."

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