I know this is going to sound like bragging, but I consider a piece of work particularly good when I can’t make it any better. I’ve tried with this one. But every time I think of something, I look at what’s already there, and I decide that my “improvements” are the opposite. What’s the opposite of an improvement? A deprovement? That’s not a word. My computer just put red under it.
Yikes! A word just escaped from my brain and ran away. If you happen to catch sight of it, possibly in the word “Witness Protection Program”, please notify me immediately. I am illiterate enough. I cannot afford to leak words.
Okay. I take piano lessons. I bring in songs, and my wonderful teacher, Gary, works up a rudimentary arrangement (“rudimentary” I can remember, but not “the opposite of improvement”), which I can play and sing along to.
I like to sing. Anywhere. I’d sing at a car accident.
“I’m sorry I totaled your car
My eyes stink, I can’t see too far…”
I bring in different kinds of songs, the unifying element being that they’re all songs I know and like – Randy Newman (“Cowboy”, among various others), Bob Seger (“We’ve Got Tonight”), Willy Nelson (“You Were Always On My Mind”), Hank Williams (“You’re Cheatin’ Heart”), songs from musicals (“Inchworm” from “Hans Christian Anderson”), classic standards (“My Funny Valentine”, “Am I Blue?”).
Having to memorize every arrangement (since I don’t really read music, and we change the keys anyway to accommodate my singing range), with my brain being the porous putty it’s become, most of these songs, I forget, unless I continue playing them every day. But it’s still fun knowing them, if only for short time. Like connecting with a fellow customer at the Whole Foods checkout counter.
“Those brown rice tapioca hotdog buns? Any good?”
The encounter may be fleeting. But it was fun while it lasted.
My latest project – the one I can’t improve – is an old-time cowboy song called, “Ghost Riders In The Sky”, (1948), music and lyrics by Stan Jones, and, by far, his most famous composition. It’s really a guitar song, but Gary showed me how to make it sound guitar-y on the piano. I have to move my fingers really fast, which means, since my fingers don’t like moving fast, I’ll be practicing it for quite some time. (Which gives me some hope of remembering it.)
“Ghost Riders In The Sky” offers an alchemical blending of music and lyrics. I have no wisdom to shed on the music component. Melodies that can move you come from a magical place. When they’re right, they go straight to your heart. Musically, “Ghost Riders”, as the subject matter requires it to be, is, literally, haunting.
The lyrics are sensational. That’s the part I can’t improve. And, believe me, I’ve tried. I come up with alterations. “What about this word?” “What about that word?” But I have never beaten what is already there. Stan Jones’ choices are always better.
The lyrics could stand alone as cowboy poetry at its finest – the evocative imagery, the economy of the storytelling, the reverberating adjectives, a whole that is miraculously greater than the sum of its parts, though the parts themselves are pretty spectacular.
Check this out. (To the rhythm of galloping horses.)
An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day,
Up on a ridge he rested as he went along his way,
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
A-plougin’ thru the ragged skies,
And up a cloudy draw.
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves wuz made of steel,
Their horns wuz black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel,
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered thru the sky
For he saw the riders comin’ hard,
And he heard their mournful cry.
The Ghost Riders In the Sky.
Their faces gaunt their eyes were blurred and shirts all soaked with sweat,
They’re ridin’ hard to catch that herd but they ain’t caught them yet,
‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snortin’ fire
As they ride on, hear their cry.
As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name,
“If you want to save your soul from hell a ridin’ on our range,
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
A tryin’ to catch the devil’s herd,
Across these endless skies.”
Ghost Riders In
Put it all together, and add the authenticating baritone of the late, great Johnny Cash and you’ve got yourself a cowboy classic.
The words are right there for you. So sing along with a legend.