Category Archives: Music

Analysis: Bobbie and Billie Joe

“There was a virus goin’ ‘round,
     Papa caught it and he died last spring.
Now momma doesn’t seem to want to
     Do much of anything.”

– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry

Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation.  The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].

Album Cover: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence. 

“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound”
 –
Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.

Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures.  It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story.  It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness.  Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.

… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 
–  Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II. 

Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry.  We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe.  And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette.  She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. 

Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer.  Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?”  Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.

Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.

The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.

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The first Verse:

It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay.

At dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet.”

Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source).  Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country.  Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.”  She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family. 

During those early years, her family reportedly had no electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life.  One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs like “Billie Joe.”

Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South.  I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness.  As in: I’m just here telling a story.

The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story.  What details support that supposition?

— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense.  Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants.  It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.

Chopping Cotton: many weeds are herbicide resistant. Chopping requires a good hoe, sun protection, gloves and a strong back

Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together.  It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness.  If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it. 

“Brother” is baling hay.  The June 3 date again makes sense.  “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa).  It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year.  It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.

Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear.  If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.

Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.

“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.”  Clearly, this is southern-speak.  Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.” 

In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.

In many ways the south is traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called “dinner.”  I worked various factory jobs in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner break.”

[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]

Then she said: “I got some news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Boom.  Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now.  You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?

Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.

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The second verse:

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please.

There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
And mama said: “It’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.


Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Talahatchee Bridge, Mississippi

Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests.  They traded a milk cow for her first piano.

After the divorce, when she and her mother were in California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved. Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing songs.  She taught herself guitar, banjo and bass.

A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer.  She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl.  Now she had all the tools to do something with it.

She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.

Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.

Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved.  He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.

“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas.  “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash.  It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.

Biscuits and black-eyed peas.  Again, this is a true southern experience. The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun ahead. 

Black Eyed Pea stew, southern style

Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets.  They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil.  Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.

And what southern meal would be complete without biscuits?  Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when smothered in gravy. 

Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.

Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”

Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower forty”, meaning forty acres.  That’s a lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or just work it, we don’t know. 

The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground.  The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains.  You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop.  So yes, June 3rd again fits.  And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”

In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the plow.  So, they are not completely destitute. 

Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical.  Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history.
_________________________________________________________

The 3rd verse:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don’t seem right.

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge.
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Bobbie Gentry, on Music Hall TV, 1968

Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement.  The lighting, the sound, the production.  And, she was very successful at it.

She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds.  I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old.  I was blown away:  Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.

Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom.  I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).

The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos.  The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person.  Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend. 

“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago.  This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt.  Wanting to fit in, he complies.  Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider.  He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”

And what is a “picture show”?  It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South.  It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.”  Carroll County is not very populated.  Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats).  So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.

No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.

Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge?  I think this is a possible clue to the story.  “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber.  #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill.  But: why was Billie Joe there?  I suspect he was looking for a job.  And he got turned down. 

Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.

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The 4th verse:

And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way:

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Mmmmm. Southern biscuits and gravy

Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s.  She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows. 

In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976.  It was released again, and it made the charts.

But – she insisted – the title and words to the original song were incorrect.  It should have been Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.

Bobbie Gentry, 1969, Show Promo Pic [citation below, fair use here]

Ode to Billy Joe was the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65 in the US).  That’s probably the only time in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.

“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976.  In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).

Cover to soundtrack album for movie: Ode to Billy Joe

The movie, also called Ode to Billy Joe (like the re-released song), was produced and directed by Max Baer, Jr. He’s better known as Jethro of The Beverly Hillbilliesnot authentic southern – and also the son of Heavyweight champion boxing champion, Max Baer.

Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie.  She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.”  If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.

At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes.  She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation. 

About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages.  One was short.  The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short.  Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child.  I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.

Anyhow, by 1981 she was twice-divorced and had completely vanished.

Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking).  I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.

There is only one verse left.  You can tell the song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would never have made it on the radio in 1967.

What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”

Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon.  Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it.  As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”

We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood.  Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her. 

The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper.  “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please, would you?”

Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South.  Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].

So, Brother Taylor.  He gets a name, and a title.  He’s young.  He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator?  And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter?  The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.

And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge?  Doesn’t he have pastoral duties?  In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?

Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.

And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?”  — What were they throwing off the bridge?  Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?

Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.

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[5th and final verse]
A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe.
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring.
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

So many flowers to pick

Well, papa died.  Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him?  This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor.  So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance.  It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.

A little more insight into “Papa” is provided by another song on the very same album with “Billie Joe” — this one called “Papa, Won’t you let me go to Town?” [lyrics]. Papa is not a very nice man.

Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.

The story’s narrator.  Where is she?  She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?

She is up on the ridge, picking flowers.  Then she wanders over to the bridge and drops them into the water.  Apparently over and over.

Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped.  What goes around, comes around.  With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.

There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about.  What really happened.  The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery.  Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.

______________________________________________________________________

Bobbie Gentry disappeared.  At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.

Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades.  We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.  Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe it was a ring.”

Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots.  She takes no visitors and takes no calls.  And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.

By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe.  Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him.  Details that fit with the story.

The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]

But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is.  If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out.  It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.

Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work.  He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate.  Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.

No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.

Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age.  Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.

In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.

That’s sad.  It’s a strong message.  It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.

With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020      

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnotes

[1] Some bio links: http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
[2] Photo citation: By Capitol Records – http://rock60-70.ru/albums/bobbie-gentry-%E2%80%8E-patchwork-1971-usa-folkpopsoul.php, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58064389

Afterthoughts & Things not included
Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.

The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters.  Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity.  You can’t jump off that bridge anymore.  It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt.  Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints.  Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses.  It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime.  Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below).  The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.”  Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.

Medley

Nat King Cole had perhaps the sweetest and smoothest voice of all the 20th century American male singers. His voice easily evokes feelings of warm, genuine love.  I’d vote him to the top of that class of crooner. After all, I’ve admitted before that I am a hopeless, sentimental romantic.

Nat King Cole, 1952 — as good looking as his voice

Some people attribute his tone and resonance to a rugged life that spared neither alcohol nor heavy smoking (he died of lung cancer, in 1965, shortly before reaching age 46). That is simply not true.  Cole was truly gifted and worked hard at his craft.  For evidence I submit the sweet and professional voice of his daughter, Natalie Cole.

I have a Pandora station that I like to play at low key get-togethers and quiet evenings that include, among other genres, some harmonica-based blues, ‘70s soft rock, ballads, bossa nova, and love songs. Cole’s voice comes up frequently.  I’m never disappointed.

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The year 1911 stood at the twilight of the Edwardian Era, ‘twixt the death of King Edward and the outbreak of The Great War. That year an amateur musician named Charles Dawes composed a little instrumental tune for violin and piano that he called, simply, “Melody in A Major.” Dawes was a self-taught pianist and flautist who composed merely as a hobby. The tune become somewhat popular in his lifetime.

That Dawes should have success in far-flung fields would not come as a surprise to anyone who knew him.  Born in Ohio in 1865 just after the close of the Civil War, he was the son of a hero and general of that nationally tragic and transforming war. After college and then law school Dawes went off to Nebraska – a frontier land of opportunity. There, in Lincoln, he established himself as a successful lawyer and made friendships with both John “Black Jack” Pershing (who would go on to command all US forces in WW1) and Williams Jennings Bryan (who would go on to promote Free Silver – i.e. liberal monetary policy— and thrice secure the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States, eventually serving as both Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and, later, as prosecuting attorney in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial”).

Dawes also got interested in business.  An opportunist, he moved to Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago) during the 1893 Panic, and began acquiring interest in various companies at bargain prices, beginning with a slew of gas companies. Success gained him attention, and in 1896 he managed the Illinois presidential campaign of William McKinley (against his Nebraska friend, Bryan). From McKinley’s win, he was rewarded by being named Treasury Department’s Officer of the Currency. In this roll he was able to recover many millions of dollars that banks had lost during the ’93 Panic.

Dawes resigned from the administration in 1901 to set up a run for Senator. He believed the timing was right, since he had McKinley’s support (who had been recently re-elected and was hugely popular). But McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in September of that year.  The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, would not be supporting Dawes (this was before direct election of Senators). Dawes fell in his attempt to become Illinois’ 16th Senator to fellow Republican Albert Hopkins.

He returned to business, expanding into banking and investment management, forming the Central Trust Company of Illinois.

When Dawes wrote “Melody in A Major” in 1911, he was already a successful lawyer, businessman, banker and government official. 

____________________________________________________

June 1, 2019 – It’s late evening and my wife and I are relaxing in the Colorado mountains. She’s doing a little work on her computer. I’m reading Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (subtitled: A Viet Nam Woman’s Journey from War to Peace). 

We’re listening to the aforementioned Pandora station, when a beautiful and well-arranged father-daughter duet comes on: When I Fall in Love (it will be forever), sung by Nat and Natalie Cole.  That duet, which won a Grammy in 1997, was made possible by the magic of technology, since Nat had passed away some 30 years earlier.

I wondered if it’s true. Does “falling in love” last forever?  It makes a nice tune, but ….

I put the book down.  Le Ly had mostly terrible luck with men.  And more than just a few. Can someone be simultaneously in love with more than one person?  Like Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Berman) in Casablanca?  Or Dr Zhivago (Omar Shariff) in the eponymous movie? What about falling in love multiple times?  Does that count? What does falling in love even mean?  It’s June 1, the birthday of the young lady I fell for in 1978.  I still remember so many details, even her birthday, and I still have many fond memories and a small place for her in my heart.  Does that count?  Probably not.  No matter how far, or hard, you fall, it’s not love if it can’t be returned.

My one forever love is Audrey.

Why do I even ponder these things?  Is it because I’m a hopelessly sentimental romantic?

A half dozen songs later and Nat comes on again, this time with “It’s All in the Game” – with the great lyrics “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game”— as in the “game” of falling in love.  No one said it would be easy.

Cole’s smooth voice and recording is one of many covers – and perhaps the best – of a 1958 hit song by Tommy Edwards; others had recorded it as well, but the Edwards version made it to #1 on the charts in both the United States and England. 

The song (often simply called “Game”) had actually been lying around since 1951. That’s the year that songwriter Carl Sigman put lyrics to a decades old melody with no words.  It was a tune that had been lying around since 1911; a tune called “Melody in A Major.”

__________________________________________________________

Established as a successful banker and businessman with a can-do attitude, Dawes was made chief of Procurement and Supply Management for “Black Jack” Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force during the Great War.  He achieved the rank of Brigadier General by war’s end. 

Charles Dawes

After the war, he returned his attention temporarily to private business, only to be appointed to be the first ever Director of the Budget, in 1921 by President Harding.  This is now called the Office of Budget Management.  Dawes helped grow the bureau into one of the most important serving under the president: producing the president’s budget, tracking expenses against the budget, and monitoring and tracking the efficiency of the many agencies that serve every president’s administration.

By 1923 Germany was in great economic distress:  hyperinflation, vastly diminished industrial capability,  unable to pay reparations. Dawes was assigned to a commission to figure out what to do for Germany.  Excessive war reparations and allied occupation of industrial districts had ruined the economy.  The situation led to social and political – as well as economic – instability; it inspired Hitler to attempt the Beer Hall Putsch.

The commission’s plan, which came to be known as the Dawes Plan, called for complete re-organization of the German national bank (Reichsbank) and a reset on their currency, to be anchored by a loan from the United States. Re-industrialization was begun as was acceleration of France’s de-occupation of the Ruhr district. Concessions from the French also allowed for slower, more gradual, and less painful reparations.

As a result of the Plan’s success, Charles Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. 

Dawes’ star was shining.  At the Republican convention in June, 1924 he was chosen to be the running mate to Calvin Coolidge in that fall’s election.  He then served as Vice President of the United States (and president of the Senate) for the next four years.

Dawes also served in the Hoover administration that followed, first as ambassador to England and, later, as head of the newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation to help fight the depression.

After leaving the Hoover administration he served on many industrial and bank boards and continued running his own banking businesses from his home in Evanston, until his death, in 1951. 

Not coincidentally, Sigman was inspired by Dawes’ lifetime of accomplishment and wrote the lyrics to complete Dawes’ “Melody in A Major” shortly after he learned of Dawes’ passing.

Charles Dawes had a remarkable life. And if you remember him for one thing, well, here’s something that might help you in a trivia contest: Dawes is the only person in history to have co-written a song that made it to #1 on the charts, served as Vice-President of the United States, and been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.   

This sentimental romantic wishes you all a lifetime of fulfillment and fully requited love.

Peace,

Joe Girard © 2019

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Another Love Story

Another Love Story

“There’s no tick-tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down”
— Harry Chapin (song: Halfway to Heaven)

The Long Island Expressway is often called by its acronym LIE, and seldom  by its assigned number ID: I-495.  It is also often called the Long Island Distress-way, a tribute to its notorious snarly traffic jams that can go on for miles and miles and several hours each weekday.

Monday through Friday the expressway turns into a slothful snake, slithering on the cold concrete as it stretches from the Queens Midtown Bridge out east to Suffolk County.  Late in the morning and early in the afternoon, the LIE wakes up.  The traffic drops below a volume threshold, and — voila! — cars can often zip along at 65mph (105 kmh), sometimes even with a few car lengths between them.

________________________________________________________________________________

I have a confession to make.  During my high school and college years, I didn’t like the contemporary popular music as much as I let on.  Sure, I learned the words to many of the more popular songs and was, thereby, able to fit in.  I faked it.

The songs that attracted me were more earthy.  Songs with words that could be understood; songs with words that told stories; songs where the words were more important than the music.  The music was simply the walls upon which murals were painted; murals that told stories of a vast range of “ordinary” people, trying to do their best, survive the world’s vagaries, and just – somehow – get along.

Thirty or forty-five years ago a guy would rather die before admitting that Barry Manilow’s songs about a washed up show girl (Copacabana) or a man who mourns that he is no longer in love (Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again) were his preference.  Include Gordon Lightfoot’s saga of a doomed freight ship (Edmund Fitzgerald).  Or maybe worse, “chick” songs: Judy Collins singing a ballad about someone who did all the right things in life, except the important things (Send in the Clowns), or acknowledging that everything important we think we know about life might be wrong (Both Sides Now).

____________________________________________________

At lunch hour the LIE offers an enticing route for mid-day errands.  Clients to meet.  Lunch with friends.  Errands to run.  Doctor appointments.  In the summer, pick up or drop off kids at camp, make an early get away to – or late return from – the outer beaches.  Trucks are out making deliveries and pickups.  Noon hour traffic usually zips, but it’s a crap-shoot: sometime it’s a bit tight for 65mph, and – with just one accident, or breakdown, or a little precipitation – it can return to “the Distress-way”, slowing to a sudden and unwelcome complete stop.

_____________________________________________________

Shoot, I even liked some ballads, like Marty Robbins’ cowboy ditty “West Texas town of El Paso” and Simon & Garfunkle’s “The Boxer.”  Among the “story teller” singers and songwriters, by far I liked Harry Chapin the most.  He wrote and arranged his own songs.   His voice was just bad enough that anyone could convince themselves they could sing them.  But the stories — the lyrics — captivated me.

Harry Chapin, Album cover: Heads & Tales

By Chapin’s own admission, he was a delusional dreamer.  His first songs (he often joked) went something along the lines of “If only everyone could hold hands and hum along to the wonderful songs I am singing, the world would be a wonderful place and we’d have peace and friendship and boundless goodwill.”

Born to a musical and theatrical family, Chapin even made a brief yet successful foray into movie making, writing and directing a documentary for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legendary_Champions]

Harry found his stride in music in his own form of ballad, telling stories of life.  His breakthrough song, in 1972, was Taxi, a story about a taxi driver who has lost his life’s dream and purpose — and then, without warning one night, he picks up a fare who turns out to be a former lover needing a ride home.  Her life has also not turned out so well.  They briefly reminisce.  Among his many studies:

  • Sniper – a confused and frustrated young man seeks notoriety ·
  • Better Place to Be – a midnight watchman fills his empty life for one night, and then, maybe, for the rest of his life. ·
  • WOLD – a washed up DJ is still trying to make something of his life and career
  • Mr Tanner – A dry-clean shop owner with a talent for singing ·
  • Corey’s Coming – an aged railroad worker still hangs out at the rail yard
  • What Made America Famous – Hippies living in a communal hovel survive the scare of a life [which he also wrote into a full length musical play,The Night that Made America Famous; it ran a full season at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhatten]
  • Dance Band on the Titanic – title tells it all
  • 30,000 Pounds of Bananas – a young truck driver negotiates the hills of eastern Pennsylvania
  • Dogtown – Life in the old whaling town of Gloucester, MA ·
  • Mail Order Annie – Life on the North Dakota Plains
  • Vacancy – A Motel Keeper’s Life
  • Six String Orchestra — Harry makes fun of his guitar abilities
  • Tangled up Puppet — A father’s love for his daughter is clouded by the mystery of transition from young girl to young woman

It was in telling the stories of simple salt-of-the-earth people’s lives that Harry made his mark, but it took a while before he made it really big.  Most of his good songs were quite long, six to ten minutes.  That makes good concert material, but doesn’t get you on the radio. After a few years, with the help of his wife, Sandy, he finally made it really big.

Sandy had already been in an unhappy marriage and divorced with three children – and nine year Harry’s elder – when they met.  [Of course, Chapin adapted their meeting and falling in love to a song: I Want to Learn a Love Song]. When they married, Chapin adopted her children and became the loving father that they never had.

The Chapins’ marriage and coming together as a family began a happy story just as it ended a sad story for Sandy — a sad story she wrote into a poem … and Harry turned into a song.  All at once the story describes both the relationship between her first husband and his father, as well as the relationship between her first husband and her children.  The song was poignant, touching and of the right length, under four minutes.  Harry had his only #1 hit with Cat’s in the Cradle.  Now he wasn’t just famous and well off, he had a substantial cash flow.

______________________________________

There is a lot to do to set up a benefit concert.  Especially when you have to — okay, maybe when you insist on — doing most of it yourself.  Better leave plenty of time, just in case the LIE gets all jugged up.  After a few hasty phone calls and a quick check to make sure that the contracts, music and guitars are all packed – oh, and a fast food lunch – it’s time to hit the road.  The LIE is remarkably smooth.  To heck with that silly 55mph speed limit, 65 is plenty safe.  And besides, the oil crises are long over.

___________________________________________

Born exactly one year after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, perhaps Harry Foster Chapin was destined to great things. He surely had great visions. Great aspirations. Harry was out to change the world. He received a commission to the Air Force Academy. But he dropped out: the military was certainly not his style. He transferred to Colgate in his home state of New York to study music and theater, through which he — of course — intended to change the world. He soon learned it wasn’t so easy. When his music couldn’t change the world, he figured out another way: he would use the money and notoriety that his musical success provided to change the world.

Among Harry’s many concerns were the inanity and the evil of Hunger.  And not just hunger, but hunger on a global scale.  Harry founded and funded the WHY (World Hunger Year, which is now called Why Hunger … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Hunger_Year).

The foundational beliefs of WHY are: 1) that the world produces every year more food than we can all possibly eat and, yet, people suffer in hunger around the world, and 2) that most causes for hunger are local, and therefore can be solved locally.  But he didn’t just think globally; he also founded the Long Island Food Bank.

Harry was in love with the human race; and wanted to make a huge positive impact.

_______________________________________________

I saw Chapin in concert only once — at Arkansas State University.  I think it was April, 1977.  He was alone.  Perhaps one of his brothers Tom or Steve came out to do a few songs with him.  He had a rather large band and following at that time, and I wondered why he was mostly alone.  Well, it turns out that by this time most of the concerts Harry did were benefits, usually supporting a combination of local charities (philharmonics, theaters and food banks were often favorites) as well as his world causes.  He was WAY ahead of his time; before FARM-AID and LIVE-AID he was putting together concerts with other save-the-world types like John Denver and Elton John. Turns out he often had a falling out with his band, and they wouldn’t perform with him – sure his causes were great, but they wanted to be paid.  Harry didn’t care about the money and couldn’t figure out why they did.

At least two of his songs were views of his own life.  One an overview: the appropriately named Shooting Star, in which a man lost in his own visions is given meaning to life by his wife.  And another song was a portent: 30,000 lbs of Bananas, in which a young distracted driver must negotiate a potentially deadly situation while driving a truck.

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Harry lived fast and hard, always on a mission.  He wrote and performed constantly.  Even with a large income, he gave so much money away that he had no idea how much money he had.  He lived simply, driving a 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, eating quickly and horribly.  Nonetheless, he had the ear of President Jimmy Carter, and lobbied congress on the president’s behalf to get support and funding for the Commission on World Hunger.

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The LIE is really moving now.  Not much farther now.  The concert will be just past the next exit; from there to East Meadow, near Levittown, the humble first post-war planned community — the one that set the model for suburban sprawl.

The 1975 Rabbit has moved to the center lane, preparing to exit soon, as it shoots down the expressway, when — suddenly — it slows from 65 mph to 50, then to 40, then to 30.  The emergency flashers come on.  Cars are whizzing by on both sides.

The driver is trying to make it to the right shoulder.  Something is terribly, terribly wrong.  Its slows to 20, then 15 mph.  Is there a chance to slide into the right lane?  No, a car is there and the Rabbit nearly collides with it; the Rabbit’s driver over-reacts, veering to the left.  It hits the car to its left. Careening and over-correcting again, it turns to the right, entering the right lane ahead of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer semi-truck, en route to a delivery at a Long Island supermarket.

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<updated> Thirty-six years ago this summer, on a glorious, sunny and beautiful Thursday noon hour, July 16, 1981, Harry Chapin made his way down the LIE, as he had so many times before.  Heck, New York City was his hometown.  Along the way he passed signs and exits (“that he should have seen“) for parks, buildings and humanitarian institutions that would one day bear his name.

He was a man with a big heart and big dreams.  He had spent his adult life giving from his heart, sharing his dreams.  Now, his big heart had little left in it; on that sunny afternoon Harry Chapin had a massive heart attack right there on the LIE, and at that moment it became, truly, a Distress-way.

His car came to a nearly complete stop, directly in front of a grocery store delivery truck.  The truck was unable to stop.  In a cataclysmic collision, the truck not only rammed the tiny Rabbit, it ended up on top of Chapin’s VW Rabbit.  Ironically, he was under a truck carrying 30,000 pounds of groceries. Miraculously, brave passersby, together with the truck driver, were able to extract him from the car, through the window, just before it erupted into an inferno.  To no avail.  Harry left his heart and dreams behind and moved on, aged only 38.

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When I heard the news that night, where I lived with two friends in a rented house in West Seattle, I got physically sick.  This was a punch to the gut.  My intestines roiled and their contents emptied out.  As was our custom, when someone famous died, we would have an Irish wake – which meant drinking.  For me it was a drowning of sorrow.  And at that time, I didn’t know the half of it.  I just liked Chapin’s music.  I had no idea of what a big dreamer and doer he was.

_____________________________________

I don’t think I would have liked his politics much.  As a dreamer he had the opinion that every problem should be fixed with a big societal toolbox.  He was hanging out with Michael Moore before he was famous, helping keep his little protest-print-shop in Flint, Michigan alive.  I’m sure Harry would be touring the “Occupy” protests, going from city to city, country to country, putting on free concerts and offering encouragement.

But Harry was way better than that.  He didn’t just demand that somebody else, or government, fix problems.  He set out to do it himself.  He poured himself into his beliefs and humanitarian causes.  And THAT I admire.

My lessons from Harry:

  • Life is short, sometimes tragically short.  Get over it.
  • Get a dream and just do it.
  • Tell your stories.  Share your dreams.
  • Be in a bit of a hurry.
  • Enjoy the Music of Life, whatever it sounds like to you.
  • Make no excuses for whatever inspires you, no matter what others may think.
  • Pick causes greater than yourself
  • Listen to your wife

 

Don’t let this be you:

Oh, I’ve got something inside me —
Not what my life’s about.
I’ve been letting my outside tide me
Over ’til my time runs out

— Harry Chapin (song bridge lyrics: Taxi)

Joe Girard ©November, 2011 (republished, slightly edited ©2017)

Notes:

(1) this essay’s title “Another Love Story” is derived from the title of Chapin’s Album: Sniper and Other Love Stories.
(2) Long Island Expressway: I don’t know why it is I-495.  The rule is that the first digit (“4”) is supposed to indicate a loop or bypass to the nominal route (I-95).  Not only is it not a loop, it is a spur and doesn’t even formally connect to the I-95.  Those crazy New Yorkers.
(3) Disclosure: “Even though Chapin was driving without a license, his driver’s license having previously been revoked for a long string of traffic violations, his widow Sandy won a $12 million decision in a negligence lawsuit against Super Markets General, the owners of the truck.” — Wikipedia
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Joe Girard’s other older essays at essays

 

Final thoughts: Some choice songs:

 

Wish I knew, oh baby

At the end of your life you will groan,
    when your flesh and body are spent.
You will say, “How I hated discipline!
    How my heart spurned correction!
I would not obey my teachers
    or turn my ear to my instructors.
And I was soon in serious trouble …”
—Proverbs 5: 11-14

The 1973 song “Ooh, La, La” by the British rock group Faces has been covered many times, and gets

Folder of Folderol

resurrected from time to time in pop culture by inclusion in movies, TV shows and commercials. [1] No surprise, I suppose, since — in short select snippets — it has a pretty upbeat melody and palatable message:

“I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.”
— Faces, 1973 (Lyrics by Ronnie Lane & Ronnie Wood)

In reality the song is bitter-sweet at best, its balance consisting of regret, remorse and wistfulness.  It’s actually part of a big club; there’s a pretty substantial list of songs that sound pleasant yet can pain one’s heart when you listen carefully — or read the lyrics.

Consider Abba’s “Mama Mia”, the Spinners’ “I’ll be Around”, The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and Elvis Costello’s “Allison.” Or even previously mentioned “Happy Anniversary, Baby.” These all come off OK as elevator music and even party music; but they all have a bittersweet and even dark side.[2]

I suppose Rod Stewart might want to have known in 1973 what he learned a few years later.  When Faces cut their last album “Ooh, La, La” with the eponymously named single, well, Sir Stewart already had a very large and growing personal music career outside of Faces, even though he was also simultaneously lead singer for Faces for most songs.

Stewart and Faces were already falling out when he decided that “Ooh, La, La” was a crappy song and beneath his dignity.  It would never go anywhere.  Or so he thought. The producer insisted it stay on the album, and convinced co-writer Ronnie Wood to do the lead vocals.

The song was a winner, and has been ever since. It reached #1 in the UK, and #21 in the US.  Stewart finally covered the song himself in 1998, and his raspy voice is often associated with it, although “Woody” did the original and classic version.

Simply read the lyrics and the song’s meaning is fairly clear, although open to some interpretation, as all good works of art are.  My interpretation: a man is reflecting back on a chat session with his grandfather from very long ago.  Grandpa seems bitter and gives him only a few hints about women, perhaps as a metaphor for life.  Then gramps sort of stops and says something like: “oh, you won’t really listen anyhow. You’ll just have to go out and learn by yourself.  I was the same way.  Good luck with that. Be prepared.  It will probably hurt.”

And then the man reflects: … wish I knew then what I know now … now that I’m older.

It is an old message. An old story. See Proverbs.

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I’m going through a lot of old “crap” that we’ve saved over the decades.  This is partly to simplify my life, partly to make it easier for our kids when we move on, and partly to refresh some memories.

A few weeks ago I came across a sheet of paper that staggered me. Notes I’d made to myself a very long time ago.

I’ll try to shorten the backstory. But from 1969 to 1979 I was practically illiterate.  Turns out that I had a rare form of epilepsy that, among other things, made it almost impossible to read intently for more than a few minutes at a time.  I just learned to fake it, listen closely in class, and passed all my courses, although I recall “earning” a grade of D in one high school literature class.  Mercy was in play. I tried to hang around the smarter kids in lit classes (usually girls) … if and when they would put up with my stuttering and facial ticks.

Coming out of grad school in late 1980, now treated with medication, I was determined to catch up.  I read everything I could. Motivation? I felt culturally lost.  I stayed up very late on many nights. Went through piles of books.

I picked up a faddish book of the time: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I really struggled with that book.  What a waste of time. Or so I thought.

Several months later, in November of 1981 {when I thought there was still a chance with Miss Summer of ’81 (See Happy Anniversary, Baby)} I spent many hours in deep reflection and self observation. Revelation: Clearly  Joe, you have some problems.  But, what are they? And what would motivate me to dig critically deep and make some changes?

I scribbled some motivation.  Growing old together.  Just time at the mall, or on a beach. Sledding after a surprise snowstorm. Or lingering over a morning cup of coffee.

Now, dig Joe.  Dig down where it hurts. For some reason some paragraphs from “Zen” came back to me.  I went back to the book.

There is a section in “Zen” on Gumption Traps worthy of review.  I copied some sentences. Then, as memory becomes clearer, I spent hours and days thinking about them.  How could they be expanded and applied?

I really wanted to be worthy. In “Zen’s” words: exhibit Quality.

The Gumption lessons apply mostly to setbacks and struggles. Now slightly expanded, slightly edited and made more blunt by time, these can be simplified to:

  1. Develop patience and fortitude — the good things in life are worth waiting and working for.
  2. When there is a conflict or a setback: step back, mentally slowly walk 360 degrees around the issue to consider all points of view. (i.e. eliminate “rigid thinking“).
  3. Be open to the possibility that others have a good reason (to them) for why they do what they do.
  4. Make yourself a subject of study.  Especially: Know your weaknesses and personality flaws. Then: manage your life and behavior appropriately. If you think you have no serious flaws and weakness — then pride is the first one to identify.
  5. Seek and accept counsel of elders.
  6. Be creative in finding things to be grateful for; and be creative in expressing gratitude.

[* By the way, most of these lessons were in play while courting the wonderful Miss Audrey soon thereafter, although I wasn’t a very good student

** I’ve always thought about the topic of candor, but haven’t included it.  I’ll just say every relationship needs it, and from the beginning.  Too much, too soon is dangerous. And too little too late is dangerous too; in fact, catastrophic.  Be careful out there.  It’s a timing thing.]

Portion of “Notes to Self”, mid-November, 1981

Sad, I suppose, but I have to keep re-learning all of these.  I had only a vague recollection of even writing them down. I had stuffed them in a box with a bunch of other notes of folderol I was accumulating from all that reading.

I nearly wept upon finding them and the decades of memories they brought.  How … could … I … always … be … so … dense?

And … of course … my wonderful mother had been telling me all of these lessons since my earliest memories.

Guess I’m just like the old proverbs, stories and songs: You’ll just have to go through life and learn it on your own. And oh, it will often hurt.

Q: “What words of wisdom can I give them?
How can I help to ease their way?”

A: “Now they must learn from one another …
Day by day”

— Tevye asks; Golda replies. From the  song Sunrise, Sunset, from  Fiddler on the Roof.

I’m also going through piles of stuff from my parents that have been haunting me in the years since they’ve moved on.  Time to thin all this down too, for the same reason: our kids shouldn’t have to do this.

Came across one more gem from my mom’s collection of notes.

Be nicer to everyone than necessary — nearly everyone is fighting some kind of battle.

It’s now my tagline. The only really significant regrets I have are that I’ve hurt others.

Wishing you all peace and strength in dealing with your battles and foibles.

Cheers

Joe Girard © 2017

 

Footnotes
(1) “Ooh La La” has been featured in the following movies: Rushmore (1998); Without a Paddle (2004).  In the following TV series: Grass (2003); Blackpool (2004), Entourage (HBO) and Californication.  It’s also been used by Nike in a 2005 commercial that used images of a very young Tiger Woods playing golf.

(2) Some insightful lyrics [I’ve added the words in brackets that I think can be inferred]
Mama Mia:
“Look at me now, will I ever learn?
I don’t know how but I suddenly lose control
….
“Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted
Blue since the day we parted
[Oh] Why, why did I ever let you go?”

What a Fool Believes
“The sentimental fool don’t see.
Tryin’ hard to recreate what had yet to be created”

No wise man has the power to reason away … [what a fool believes he sees]”

Allison
“Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.”

Oh, Alison, my aim is true.”

I’ll Be Around
“You made your choice, now it’s up to me
To bow out gracefully

and yet …

“Whenever you call me, I’ll be there
Whenever you want me, I’ll be there”

Happy Anniversary Baby
“…when I look back baby
…look back to what we had.
And I know I’m countin’ good times,
But there were just as many bad.”

 

 

 

Meet Louie’s Woman

There are two successful and conspicuous songs from American music history that share a remarkable and unique coincidence — as well as several minor coincidences.

Each is so well-known that it would be difficult to find many adults raised in America who cannot at least hum along to one of them.  Many could hum along to both, recite a few words, and drop immediately into a comfortable toe tapping when each chorus is struck up. Yet, hardly anyone knows the words to the songs; hardly anyone knows the story behind these songs, or knows the stories they tell.

On the other hand, the songs’ differences are stark.

The later song is rowdy and timeless; for six decades running it’s been a top choice at parties and gatherings, especially if there is a dance floor.  And it seems destined to ride that fame indefinitely.

Fireflies at twilight

Fireflies at twilight

The earlier song is stuck in history, firmly planted in the first decade of the 20th century — the Edwardian Era.  And yet it retains its popularity as a quaint reminder of perhaps simpler times: when powered flight and electric lights were new; when great enjoyment could be found in playing flat music records on a gramophone, or sitting on the porch in the company of a comfortable friend, sipping sweet iced tea, watching fireflies in warm summer twilight.

But that one remarkable unique coincidence: a man’s name, Louie, is repeated in both of the songs’ title and chorus.

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There aren’t many finer men than my dear friend Kevin Shepardson. One month after surviving cardiac arrest, he is still in hospital. Finally out of ICU and moved to a hospital closer to his family, he’s still in need of great medical care, and all the love, prayers, good thoughts and wishes we can send his way.

Right up to this past New Year’s Eve day, when the “event” happened, Kevin published a daily newsletter via email, which he called “The Good News Today.”  It came in two parts.  The first was spiritual, connected to the scriptures of the daily office, with a short reflection by a staff member of Creighton University.

The second part was what he called his “ramble”, with whatever was on his mind, from weather to current events.  The rambles frequently contained music tributes to some special event.  Perhaps a birthday  or anniversary of one of his many friends, or an approaching holiday.  They were always appropriate and fitting.  Kevin is a bit of a music expert (OK, music trivia geek), and you could tell he put care into selecting the proper songs, complete with Youtube links so we could hear them professionally performed.

If Kevin were to select a music tribute song for a celebration party (like his 60th, which is next week), or for a nostalgic commemoration of early 20th century America, he might have selected one of these two songs.

Or, maybe not.

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Part I

Singer/songwriter Richard Berry was a talented musician, and could perform early R&B as well as doo-wop.  In 1955, aged only 20, he penned the lyrics to a song that may live forever.

It’s about a lovesick guy at a bar, talking to a bartender named “Louie.”[1]  Berry claims he was inspired by a similar song — One for my Baby (and one more for the Road) — best sung by Frank Sinatra, where a lovelorn guy is pouring his heart out to a bartender named “Joe.”  In “Louie Louie” the guy at the bar is talking about his girl back in Jamaica … a three day and night sailing trip away. And it’s time for him to go see her.

The song was finally recorded with his group, The Pharaohs, in 1957 as the B-side to “You are my Sunshine” on the Flip Records label. Their R&B version of “Louie Louie” was totally understandable and was pretty easy to follow.  As a minor hit; it was soon re-released as an A-side.  Richard Berry & The Pharaohs’ original version of Louie Louie is almost painful to listen to. That is, if you’ve been weaned on the later rock version. Their version of the song soon languished, maintaining some popularity on the west coast, from San Francisco to Seattle.

Album Cover - Richard Perry and the Pharaohs

Album Cover – Richard Perry and the Pharaohs

Over the next few years, quite a few groups in the Pacific Northwest picked up the song, and played versions of it in concerts and small gigs. Some recorded it.  In fact, to date, “Louie Louie” has been covered and recorded over 1,500 times. [2]

Well, moving to 1963, “The Kingsmen” were a new group in Portland, Oregon. They had been playing the song for months at parties and gigs, getting wilder and wilder with the song.  No longer Rhythm and/or Blues, it was full raucous Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Ken Chase had a local radio show, and ran a teen night club where the Kingsmen played. After hearing them play the song live, he agreed to set up a recording session for the song.  They did the song in one take, since they were tired from having just performed a Louie-thon. Or because they were cheap (the recording only cost $50).  Or both.

Nonetheless, over the years, it’s the Kingsmen’s almost totally incomprehensible version of “Louie Louie” that has become the standard. Since the Kingsmen, it’s known more for the guitar instrumental bridge than its lyrics or story.  It has been recognized by organizations and publications worldwide for its influence on the history of Rock and Roll.

 

  • In 2007, in Rolling Stone ranked it #5 in its list of 40 songs that changed the world.
  • In 2004 Mojo Magazine rated it #1 in “Ultimate Jukebox: The 100 Singles You Must Own”.
  • Mojo and Rolling Stone have rated it the #51 and #54 top songs of all time, respectively.

 

Stories and commentary on “Louie Louie” and the Kingsmen could fill volumes. For example:

 

  • The lead singer for the famous Kingsmen 1963 recording, Jack Ely, quit the group four months afterward over a disagreement. At the time only some 600 copies had been sold. Ely missed out on large royalties.
  • Washington State considered making it the state song.
  • The states of Washington and Oregon, and the cities of Seattle and Portland have declared “Louie Louie” days. [3]
  • There is an “International Louie Louis Day” [4]
  • The FBI investigated the song to determine if it was obscene [5](the lyrics are that incomprehensible), as it was so popular at raucous parties (as recreated in National Lampoon’s movie “Animal House” [6]).

    • Which is pretty laughable today, considering how “artists” like Barrack Obama’s good friend Jay-Z fill their “songs” with the F-word and the N-word – not to mention gratuitous violence, usually against women – and are rewarded with critical acclaim and Grammy awards. Not that most true music aficionados or anyone with common sense would give two BMs about that.

 

Interlude

Another somewhat famous song nearly shares this unique “Double-double” Louie coincidence.  Each is named “Brother Louie”, wherein “Louie” is repeated in the song lyrics, but not in the title.  One version was recorded by Hot Chocolate (in the UK), and was covered by the group Stories (US based).  The Stories’ recording came in at #13 in the US for 1973; Hot Chocolate’s recording was #86 that year in the UK.

There is a second “Brother Louie” which is completely different, by Modern Talking (1986). It did not crack the top 100 for that year. I’m not familiar with this song, but it seems mildly annoying.

After Jack Ely had left the Kingsmen he soon realized he was going to miss out on those royalties.  So he wrote and recorded several songs with his new group, The Courtmen, alluding to his “Louie Louie” connection, including “Louie Louie ‘66”. But it is really the same song, although this time easier to understand.

Subsequent lawsuits between the Kingsmen and Ely resulted in him getting paid $6,000 and label credit as the lead singer on future record pressings.

You can read much more about the history, mystery and saga of “Louie Louie” here, here and here. And about a zillion other sites.

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Louie, part deux

July 1848 was a seminal moment.  The Seneca Falls Convention kicked off what could be called the Women’s Movements that still have modern-day repercussions.  Historians have suggested that it was not so much a feminist movement or a woman’s rights movement – it was a wide reaching social movement. [7]

By the turn of the 20th century, it was women who had led the charge for founding the Red Cross (Clara Barton) and for humane treatment of severely ill mental health patients (Dorthea Dix).  Women were becoming doctors and surgeons (not the same thing then).  They supplied the energy and drive to reform labor: advancing stricter child labor laws, organizing unions to drive for better and safer working conditions (especially for garment workers), and for five day work weeks, instead of the usual seven days. And pushed for forty hour work weeks, instead of the usual 60 or 70, with paid overtime compensation.

Alcohol abuse – in fact downright drunkenness – was a huge problem in 19th century America.  The temperance movement – based on the desire for a healthier family life – owes all of its early energy to Women.

Yes, women were feeling their oats and ready to do more.  They were shockingly daring to smoke in public and demanded the right to vote (By 1900, several western states, — Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Colorado — had already granted full women’s suffrage [12]).

In marriage, women grew less and less inclined to be totally subservient to their husbands.  Yes, they loved their men and were devoted spouses and mothers, but – especially in the middle and upper classes – they were eager to get more out of married life than children and laundry.

Women, their influence and their interests, cut a wide swath across the social milieu as America approached the grandest, the largest, and the most extravagant World’s Fair in history: the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, to be hosted at Forest Park, in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1904.

In 1890, Saint Louis was the nation’s second largest producer of beer. By 1904 they had dropped to number five, but that’s still a lot of beer. The big brewer Anheuser-Busch sold large quantities on the East Coast thanks to enhanced distribution via refrigerated cars they had helped pioneer on the nation’s ever expanding railroad capacity.[13]

Early in 1904, New York lyricist Andrew Sterling was trying to come up with a song to promote the upcoming World’s Fair in Saint Louis.  Two stories of his inspiration for the earlier “Louie” song survive, although it is likely that each is apocryphal.

The first story claims that in New York, those Saint Louis beers (Budweiser and Busch) were often called “Louis”, pronounced “Lou-ee” —the same as the French Saint, King Louis IX, after whom the city is named. It seems that at a bar one night, Sterling hailed the bartender, whose name happened to be Louis (Louie).  Wanting another beer, he called out, “Another Louis, Louis.” [8]

A second, similar, version of the song’s inspiration has Sterling and co-composer Kerry Mills (who wrote the music) sitting together across a bar from a bartender named Louie and ordering a mixed-drink called a Louie. [9]

In any case, it was the repeating of the name “Louis” — pronounced “Louie” — that caught on and inspired Sterling to pen the lyrics to the song “Meet me in Saint Louis, Louis.” He must have been feeling a bit jolly, since he wrote each half-verse and the chorus in the form of a limerick (A-A-B/B-A).

In the opening verse of the song, we find that Louis’ wife (Flossie) has left him, apparently without warning.  She leaves a note with the line: Life is just “too slow for me here.”  She’s perfectly willing to re-connect with him, but on her terms, as her note continues in the chorus:

Meet me in Saint Louis, Louis. Meet me at the Fair.
Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there.
We will dance the Hoochee Koochee. I will be your Tootsie Wootsie.
If you will meet me in Saint Louis, Louis; meet me at the Fair.

Billy Murray was a very popular singer of that era.  In fact, his voice graces four of the top ten hits of 1904.  His recording of “Meet Me in Saint Louis, Louis” was made in May of that year and was immensely popular.  It was the #2 song of 1904 (behind Sweet Adeline, which actually had three different recordings make the billboard).

The Murray version is kept light and cheery – it skips a key verse that makes it quite clear that Flossie (Louis’ wife), is making an extreme act of defiance.  She wants more out of this marriage.

The dresses that hung in the hall,
Were gone; she had taken them all.
She took all his rings, and the rest of his things.
The picture he missed from the wall.

“What? Moving?” The janitor said.
“Your rent is paid three months ahead.”
“What good is the Flat?” said poor Louis, “Read that!”
And the janitor smiled as he read.

Chorus: “Meet me in St Louis, Louis …”[10]

 

Flossie had not only left, she took all of HIS things.

Further fixing the song firmly in a long ago era, Flossie’s note pledges “We will dance the Hoochee Koochee; I will be your Tootsie Wootsie.”

We might recognize Tootsie Wootsie from context, as it also appears in “In the Good Old Summer Time”, the #6 song of 1902 as recorded by William Richmond, charting at #1 for seven weeks.

You hold her hand and she holds yours
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your Tootsie Wootsie
In the Good Old Summertime

“Tootsie Wootsie” is a sweetie pie: a boyfriend or girlfriend you can cuddle up to. And more.

The Hoochee Coochee was a dance that was considered very daring – even lewd – at the time. It was sexually provocative with lots of mid-section gyrations. It had become somewhat popular through exhibits at two earlier well-attended World’s Fairs in America; the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

The Hoochee Coochee was an “entertaining” dance to observe —usually men observing women with a bare midriff.  Flossie says “we will dance” it — as in, together.  Hmmmm.

If you think about it, Louis’ runaway wife, Flossie, really had a lot on her mind, and lot to offer.  As Michael Lasser says in “America’s Songs II” — “It offers a tempting invitation: She promises him a good time at the Fair and afterwards. … the promise borders on sexual abandon.” [10]

So Flossie was not simply rebelling and running out on poor Louis.  Her offer was all, or nothing.  As in: All of her, or none of her.  She was promising him some exciting “action” — connubial pleasure, if you will — if he would simply comply with her demand to leave home and…

“Meet me in Saint Louis, Louis.  Meet me at the Fair!”

No wonder it was so popular!

Yes indeed!  Marriage can be plenty interesting in a fun way if men would just take the time to listen to their wives once in a while!

Here’s hoping and praying that Kevin, and his Tootsie Wootsie Sue, can very soon run away and enjoy the delights of “hoochee koochee” as well.

Kevin and Sue Shepardson

Kevin and Sue Shepardson

Until then, I wish you all peaceful snuggling; or rowdy dancing.  Or both.  Your choice.

Cheers,

Joe Girard © 2015

 

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Final notes and thoughts, followed by footnotes and bibliography.

 

  • Neither Sterling nor Mills attended the Fair in Saint Louis.
  • The Song was revived in the 1944 movie starring Judy Garland “Meet Me in Saint Louis” (this time pronounce the American way: like “Lewis”), wherein the chorus is sung by quite a few excited folks in the opening scenes. [Plot flaw: this is mid-summer of 1903, and according the sources I cited, the song’s words and sheet music were not written yet, nor had it become popular]
  • My Friend Max Storm, founder of the 1904 World’s Fair Society, has his doorbell set up to play the chorus to “Meet me in St Louis, Louis” when it rings. His Tootsie-Wootsie, Shara, lovingly puts up with this, and much more.
  • The song is often shown without the second “Louis” and  without the comma between.  This is incorrect.
  • The Berry song “Louie Louie” is often shown with a comma between the two Louies.  This is also incorrect.

 

 

Footnotes/bibliography.

[1] “Louie Louie,” the saga of a lovesick sailor pouring his heart out to a patient bartender, named Louie. — and other “Louie Louie historical highlights: http://seattletimes.com/html/entertainment/2003643550_louietimeline01.html

[2] According to some references, Louie, Louie has been recorded over 1500 times. LouieLouie.net and Peter Blecha, 4/1/2007 Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.com/html/entertainment/2003643548_louie01.html ]

[3] Washington, Oregon, Portland and Seattle “Louie Louie Day”.  April 12, 1985 (Washington), April 14, 1985 (Seattle), April 2, 1986 (Oregon): http://www.louieday.org/default.htm

Finally, in the city where the Kingsmen recorded it, Portland celebrated “Louie Louie Day” October 5, 2013: http://koin.com/2013/10/05/its-louie-louie-day-in-portland/

[4] April 11 (the birthday of Richard Berry) is celebrated as International “Louie Louie Day“ [http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Louie_Louie_Day]. It is also listed by Chase’s Calendar of Events, and the National Special Events Registry

[5] FBI investigates “Louie Louie” for obscenity.  http://vault.fbi.gov/louie-louie-the-song

[6] Plot error.  Animal House supposedly occurred in 1962, one year before the Kingsmen’s recording was released.

[7] Women’s movement as Social Movement. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/647122/womens-movement

http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com/socm/intro.htm

“Women and women’s organizations also worked on behalf of many social and reform issues. By the beginning of the new century, women’s clubs in towns and cities across the nation were working to promote suffrage, better schools, the regulation of child labor, women in unions, and liquor.” http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/progress/suffrage/

“Women were key players in the push for prohibition (meaning outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol), improved housing standards, regulations of the food and drug industry and government inspections of factories. ”

http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/womens-suffrage-early-feminism-movement-19th-amendment-leaders.html
The above link has been changed to: http://study.com/academy/lesson/womens-suffrage-early-feminism-movement-19th-amendment-leaders.html

[8] The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought,  William R. Everdell [chapt 14/pg 206]; https://books.google.com/books?id=yVRb9sJ2KjEC&pg=PA206&lpg=PA206&dq=sterling+get+me+another+louis,+louis&source=bl&ots=znJQdCCPif&sig=zfezVLEHcMmQC78dXauLWFRVxJo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HX7IVPGaIoKnNv7wgqgM&ved=0CD0Q6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=sterling%20get%20me%20another%20louis%2C%20louis&f=false

[9] America’s Songs II: Songs from the 1890’s to the Post-War Years, Michael Lasser [1901-1905/pg 27]; https://books.google.com/books?id=RlmLAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA243&lpg=PA243&dq=America%27s+Songs+II:+Songs+from+the+1890%27s+to+the+Post-War+Years,+Michael+Lasser&source=bl&ots=H_e1kCaphg&sig=hnTC8TDuh_gj_vV2NjlgW9l9e_A&hl=en&sa=X&ei=U4DIVLK7GYedNrfwgbgN&ved=0CDkQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=America’s%20Songs%20II%3A%20Songs%20from%20the%201890’s%20to%20the%20Post-War%20Years%2C%20Michael%20Lasser&f=false

Note: In further research, I could find no such drink called a “Louie” or a “Louis.” But that could just be that Google hasn’t found it yet.

[10] Meet me in St Louis, Louis: lyrics. “500 Best Loved Songs”, edited by Ronald Herder, page 219-220.

Verified lyrics; http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/j/judy_garland/meet_me_in_st_louis.html

[11] The Hoochee Coochee (or Hoochie Coochie) in America: http://www.readex.com/blog/hoochie-coochie-lure-forbidden-belly-dance-victorian-america

[12] Women’s suffrage timeline by state in the US: http://constitutioncenter.org/timeline/html/cw08_12159.html
Odd that Washington as a territory granted full suffrage in 1883, but not as a state until 1910. In fact, the territorial laws were twice overturned.  http://www.washingtonhistory.org/files/library/TheFightforWashingtonWomensSuffrageABriefHistory.pdf

[13] Primm, James Neal (1998). Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764–1980, pg 328-330

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