My own private Idaho

Tell me you don’t do it too. You’ve got this favorite album and you’ve come to know it like the face of a friend. You play it when you want to listen and when you don’t. It holds up. It holds you up when you need it. Pretty soon you’ve got some habits, maybe bad ones, like reaching across the table to pull a broccoli stalk off someone’s plate and eat it like a piece of licorice. But hey—he wasn’t going to touch it. He doesn’t care about broccoli. (Or table manners.) It’s kinda nice to reach that point with people. But you can miss out on stuff when you get comfortable.

So that album: is there a song whose opening bars make you reach for the Forward>> button? Do you instinctively head for the stereo as one track is ending so as to skip that one you never seem to want to hear?

All that love all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make?
I gave up a life of crime
I gave it to a friend of mine
Something else was on my mind
The only ghost I’m haunted by
I hear her howling down below
Idaho, Idaho

Wolves oh wolvesoh can’t you see?
Ain’t no wolf can sing like me
And if it could then I suppose
He belongs in Idaho
Packs of dogs and cigarettes
For those who ain’t done packing yet
My clothes are packed and I want to go
Idaho, Idaho

Out at sea for seven years
I got your letter in Tangier
Thought that I’d been on a boat
‘Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads
Idaho, Idaho

I used to skip over the song “Idaho” off the (beloved) album The Animal Years. Because I used to listen to it in cafes while I wrote, and the song was too quiet, I reasoned, for the surroundings. But I think truthfully it broke my concentration, even during those times I was listening to not really have to listen. The drawn-out phrases (howls, really) taking flight above barely-there guitar drew my thoughts away from clinking glasses and toward unblinking melancholy, and I was already about as sad as I could stand. The other sad songs were okay, somehow. “Idaho” I didn’t do very often.

My last post chronicled a recent road trip to my native Michigan, and I decided then I’d tackle Idaho. Because it’s a song about home, I figured. (Josh is from Idaho.) But when I looked back at the words I was surprised to find it never mentions home. It’s a unquiet ghost (verse 1), a longed-for destination (verse 2), a place whose very name is escape hatch to transform ocean to land (verse 3). It sure feels like home, and we’re pretty loathe to presume around here (eh hem), but it seems fair in this case.

But what else about this speaker. He reminds me of the poor chap from “Best from the Best,” another wind-blown, wayworn adventurer who winds up on a boat for a spell. But I think “Idaho” puts us on a boat for a spell. How does it do this? By playing with the meter:

I gave UP a LIFE of CRIME
SOMEthing ELSE was ON my MIND

Lapping, rolling waves, a rocking boat; a Michigan kid needs no more. Note the pattern breaks with “I’m,” which I like. There’s a lot of “I” in this song. It plays with meter in the opening lines, and word meaning too. The result is simple and elegant.

All that love, all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make
I gave up a life a crime
I gave it to a friend of mine

Love and mistakes issue from the same source—the same verb—the same impulse?—and who ever thought you might actually give to another the thing you gave up. I always think [insert *grin*] after that fourth line. Despite the desperation, the emptiness, the despondency, there’s a gentle shrug of a shoulders. And it almost all rolls off.

I confess: I don’t know who he is. Well, actually I think he’s made up, like the composite sketch in “Best for the Best.” But perhaps you know of a pirate Idahoan minstrel who once descended into hallucination upon receiving a letter in Tangier? Or a Seven Year War vet. I’ve been looking, but nothing so far.

But . . . there is the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, a once-amorous, then-wounded soul pressed into piracy after ticking off his sweetheart:

Since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences—why shouldn’t they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 108, emphasis mine)

He grabs his soul’s sworn comrades and the adventure is jolly—”It’s nuts!”—at first:

The Black Avenger stood still with folded arms, ‘looking his last’ upon the scene of his former joys and his later sufferings, and wishing ‘she’ could see him, now abroad on the wild sea, facing peril and death with dauntless heart, going to his doom with a grim smile on his lips. (ATS, 113)

Homesickness comes to haunt, however, and the pirates’ lust begins to flag. They try to pawn the life they’ve chose off on one another, and the Black Avenger does defect, for a night, and then goes back with a plan to bring them all home to glory.

Ain’t no wolf can sing like me

In the late nineties Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk icon Woody, asked English protest singer Billy Bragg to come over and look through a heap of silent lyrics and poems left behind by her father. Never recorded, they’d lost any melody for good upon Guthrie’s death in 1967. The words were filed away at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York—typed or scribbled on scraps of paper. Bragg came to America “searching for the spirit of Woody Guthrie,” as he puts it in the 1999 documentary Man in the Sand. The film opens with footage of him—presumably early on in the project—driving through the streets of Woody’s hometown. Stark black letters adorn the nearby water tower: “HOME OF WOODY GUTHRIE.” Bragg gets out of the car to look. He wants a picture that frames him and water tower, but he’ll have to trespass onto someone’s front lawn to get it. He’s visibly reluctant.

“They might get loads of people doing it,” he says, glancing at the front door and hurrying across the grass.

His concern left me feeling a little sad. A few scenes later one can reasonably conclude that Bragg has realized his mistake.

Playing over those opening scenes are the lyrics to a song Guthrie wrote, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” in 1946. Actually I’ve been wondering if Woody sang it in a minor key. Bragg chose a major one, and he wrote a jaunty, boastful melody reminiscent of summer childhood days to enliven the words. I’ve been playing the hell out of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” a triumphant tale of prepubescent seduction-against-the-odds set in Woody’s home county of Okfuskee, Oklahoma. There’s a dauntless speaker with a plucky refrain: Ain’t nobody who can sing like me, he says.

Bragg’s passion for Guthrie’s music is inspiring and insightful—

Woody was great at falling in love—obsessive love—with people who weren’t really there.

I like him already.

And it’s not that far of a leap—I swear—to Mark Twain, it turns out. I’ve barely read any books yet and twice already Woody’s been compared to Huck Finn: once by daughter Nora and once in the forward of a biography. As you now know I have recently read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And maybe it’s the weather and the longing for the freedom and friends of a summer vacation circa 1987, but I could not help thinking that Guthrie’s words and Bragg’s tune together go rather beautifully with Twain’s tale from his own boyhood . . .

Oh just give it a go. Push the play button to hear “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (words by Woody Guthrie, 1946 & music by Billy Bragg, 1997) and see below for a little mash-up.

Woody Guthrie
Mark Twain, printer’s apprentice
Samuel Clemens

I lived in a place called Okfuskee
And I had a little girl in a holler tree
I said, little girl, its plain to see
Aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face, and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom, and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 11)

She said its hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

When she cautiously faced around again, a peach lay before her. She thrust it away; Tom gently put it back; she thrust it away again, but with less animosity. Tom patiently returned it to its place; then she let it remain. (ATS, 59)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

“Put on your bonnet and let on you’re going home; and when you get to the corner, give the rest of ’em the slip, and turn down through the lane and come back. I’ll go the other way, and come it over ’em the same way.” (ATS, 64)

We walked down by the buckeye creek
To see the frog eat the goggle eye bee
To hear that west wind whistle to the east
There aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Do you love rats?”
“No, I hate them!”
“Well, I do too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing around your head with a string.” (ATS, 65)

Oh my little girly will you let me see
Way over yonder where the wind blows free
Nobody can see in our holler tree
And there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Now, Becky, it’s all over—all over but the kiss. Don’t you be afraid of that—it ain’t anything at all. Please, Becky.” (ATS, 67)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it on to she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“I reckon it’s wrong—but—”
“But—shucks! Your mother won’t know, and so what’s the harm? All she wants is that you’ll be safe; and I bet you she’d a said go there if she’d a thought of it. I know she would!” (ATS, 223)

Now I have walked a long long ways
I still look back to my tanglewood days,
Ive led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying, aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual; he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture. . . . .
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
(Mark Twain, Preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

. . . I’m curious what is meant by being master of the minor key. Is it simply a testament to resilience in courtship, in hard times? Or is there a little . . . manipulation going on here? Is he saying he sings the blues to spark concern and then affection? Hmmph. That works, in my experience. Moving on.

Packs of dogs and cigarettes
De Stijl by The White Stripes“Idaho” may also pay homage to the album at left, De Stijl by The White Stripes. The speaker in “A Dog’s Best Friend” is going in the opposite direction of our man in “Idaho:” away from home, away from love and community. Human community, anyway. But check out the final verse of track nine: Mere coincidence?

That single word

My money’s on Idaho.


2 thoughts on “My own private Idaho

  1. In contrast, “Idaho” is the song I’d always hit the back button on once it had finished playing, so that I could listen to it again. I love love love that song. (But then, I lived in Idaho, in Josh’s hometown, and am dying to move back there.)

  2. I think “Good Man” was my Back-Button song when I first discovered The Animal Years. But I love “Idaho” too these days, particularly performed live. It gets me pondering destinations, current and future, and the (healthy) tension in my life over where home fits in.

Your thoughts most welcome.

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