Thursday, October 20, 2011

Duet (at a distance)

In the summer of 1960, I spent a couple of weeks (or maybe only a week; but at that age, it seemed like all summer), at Camp Bernie, in -- well, in a woods somewhere, and run by the YMCA.  Ike was still President; the nation was at peace.  I was ten years old; and I knew nothing about almost anything at all -- still pupating, you might say.

That summer, Hank Locklin had a country hit, "Please Help Me I'm Falling", which somehow I heard over and over at that camp.  My musical world was ordinarily circumscribed by Top-40 radio (taking it in, as a baby takes milk); C&W was not part of that world.  It must have been my counselor who kept listening to it.  (Those of you who follow these memoirs, may have met him already as the Tyrant of Table Two.  Still a teenager, and already a vet.  Least, so he said.)

My only active hormones at that age, were the ones that urge a lad in the direction of a hamburger.  I knew nothing of desire, nor of what adults can call love.  There were pop songs which indicated that boys felt things about girls -- from a hopeless distance, usually; and that girls felt -- well who knows what girls felt; time for that later.  These tunes treated of (what they called) "love", but not of consummated marriage.  The typical scenario involved: dreaming of a girl -- and this, generally on what philosophers would call the 'attributive reading' of the noun phrase: a girl, any girl; no one girl in particular.  Or, invoking Venus to send such an attributive entity.  In the unlikely event that this did come to pass, the sweethearts were swiftly separated (off vacationing with their families), and the burden of the song involved the composition of letters, to be sealed with a kiss.  (Mom to provide the actual stamp.) Only occasionally did we get a hint that, at the end of all these travails, lay marriage.  At most, a song might sing, sentimentally, of a wedding.  To get a picture of marriage itself, you pretty much had to go Country.

"Please Help Me I'm Falling" took the listener as far as marriage and then some -- to an astonishing, almost unimaginable state in which --  well, words fail.  A temptation to -- adults had a word for it, a very *adult* word; but it was not in my vocabulary; not then, and I wish it weren’t now.  It was like getting a glimpse of Relativity, or Heisenberg, before you'd studied Newton.


Since some of you reading this  were not yet born, when that song came out and later faded, I should quote some of the lyrics.  But this is with the utmost reluctance.  Bare words on a page cannot conjure up the scent of the grass in the meadows, the confused but slowly focussing musings of the boy dreaming there, chewing reflectively on one bold blade of that grass; notes drifting in from someone's radio; thoughts forming on the horizon like distant clouds.  You either lived it or you did not.
Well, here goes.

Please help me I'm falling
in love with you.
Close the door to temptation;
don't let me walk through.
Turn away from me darling
I'm begging you to
Please help me I'm falling
in love with you.

I belong to another
whose arms have grown cold
But I promised forever
to have and to hold
I can never be free, dear,
but when I'm with you
I know that I'm losing
the will to be true.

Such lines evoke the memory, no less and no more, as rock-scratchings might evoke the lays of Rome.


I never once heard that song, after leaving camp, but it has echoed in my head, forever.  And by the miracle of YouTube, which seems to herald the end of History as a linear structure, one can relive almost any seminal public experience one once had.  So I dialed up Hank Locklin, and heard the tune again.  Nothing much to report  -- not a madeleine experience, since I'd remembered every note in any case.

But what was eye-opening was an item in the "Related Videos" sidebar:  an answering song, by one Skeeter Davis, titled "(I Can't Help You) I'm Falling Too".

Now, I am not in general interested in cover versions, or re-runs, or sequels, especially by singers I've barely heard of.  What caught my attention here  requires a rather indirect introduction.  For, with the passage of time, and the yielding of hearts, I did at last get married (thanks be to God); and we were blessed with a child (praise Him); who has grown to manhood, and who moreover, after tribulations at least the equal of those his parents have known, is becoming quite an intellectual companion for his old dad, as I grow increasingly recondite.  To stimulate his philosophical reflections (for he is a carpenter by day, and we live not by bread alone), I  from time to time  mention some topic that has occupied me;  and the topic for yesterday was Duality.  This is a very general principle in mathematics, illustrable in the simplest set-theory, where intersection and union are mutually dual.  It then exfoliates luxuriantly in the upper regions, where its exemplars are often signalled by a prefix: covector; cohomology; cobordism.  One can spend a lifetime learning the subtleties of such endeavors.   Additionally, we may imagine how this abstract concept might illuminate other aspects of our experience.  One image condenses the analogy:  the relation of a sculpture, to the mould in which it is cast.  In a way they are opposites, in a way they're the same.   Consider next the simplest thing you might say to someone; say, "Morning, Bob!"  And consider the wealth of vectors which fill out this mask  -- your own motives in saying greeting him; in greeting him thus; in saying "Bob" rather than “Robert”; and the sheer explosive perhaps-unpremeditated action of your own free will, in thus blurting this out.  Now, dually, consider the impact, from Bob's point of view.  Bob's perception of your utterance is not a free-will act on his part; indeed, however welcome greetings in general, this one may have interrupted some private reverie. He -- But before he can respond audibly, some version of the preceding reflection has occurred to yourself, and --  (Set aside an afternoon, to think this through.)


So here we have a musical mirror-image, of a soul-forming song.  Potentially a pinnacle and distillation, of all those counter-thoughts of the never-attained belovèd -- the little red-head girl, whom we were too shy to address; the tentative offering of one not yet well known to us, for which we were not ready, and turned it aside with a jest; the lover lost through a misunderstanding.  Pang, upon pain, upon pang.  We never did yet know her mind, until at last she said: "I do."  (A unique moment of simultaneous union and intersection.)

It was with some trepidation that I clicked on the link; for since that first song was recorded, before Ike's doomed successor had yet won the fatal palm, a lot has gone down; and gone downwards.  (By the time the man was slain, taking much of America with him, he'd left his own vows in shreds, though we didn’t know it at the time.)  Tares planted in the Endarkenment (humorously known as the Enlightenment) have sprouted to weeds that choke the vacant lots where atheists briefly couple and depart -- unacquainted with Temptation, since now to desire is incontinently to take; and unable to commit adultery, being after all strangers to vows.

Fortunately  the answer-song's ethic was unstained by any of this, and was consistent with what we learned in Sunday School.  The original lyrics are echoed just enough to be appropriate, and not over-clever. Yet the vocalization, and the instrumentation, in this album version, were slick, and I was not satisfied.  More looking, another link -- to an old black&white video of a corny country venue -- the "Pet Milk Grand Ole Opry", from February of 1962.  (At which time, the assassin’s bullet  was still in the magazine.)
A brief and formulaic introduction; and then, to a much simplified intrumental accompaniment offscreen, and against a background that looks like a default set for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – an acoustic guitar  hastily hung upon the wall, as though to disguise the fact, that the selfsame backdrop had served, but the week before, for a Campbell’s Soup commercial, and would soon serve again, for Romper Room , --  Miss Davis, looking as though she just stepped off a Betty Crocker box, steps up to the mike.

[You too can watch it, here:

The phrasing is unvarnished, as befits a statement of fact.  The delivery, unhurried:  We have all the time in the world.  The tune is the same, and simple:  it has rung since we left Eden.

(The night late, moon shrouded in clouds, I rewatch the video, again and again, by way of correction, in rebuke to whatever I may once have envisioned  amiss.)
(This is not a young lady, whose career I have followed.  But urged by the instance, I consult further sources.  She is known (I learn)  as an early exemplar in the matter of country-to-pop crossover;  well, we all have our faults.  But as well:  as country, to plain gospel.  Google “I’ll Meet You in the Morning”,  “Child of the King” – ah!   God bless her.)
(Over and over, over and over… as though absorbing an alternative upbringing,   this time in a Christian household …)

She looked a lot like my girlfriends of the time (though at the same time, like somebody's mom  -- a face I have seen, at many a bake-sale  -- -- a face which, in the latter capacity, may once have frowned on me, as I reached, open-mouthed,  for a brownie: not realizing that these must be paid for):  Too tall for me; hairdo emblematic of the era; a modest and nondescript dress; not remarkably pretty if considered coldly: but of course we never considered anyone, anything coldly:  She's the sweetest durn thing on God's good green earth, enough to turn any lad's head. (Or else:  The best Mom a feller ever had.)  Voice no better than it need be (on this live performance without overdubbing), seemingly actually an unprofessional voice, more like what you might hear at a church social, or a family sing-along -- and you can bet, if I'd met her, I’d’ve asked for her hand:  and with God’s grace, she'd've become family, and brought forth a family, as my wedded wife.  (And I did -- and she did -- -- mutatis mutandis.)   She even kept the nickname her granddad gave her ("Skeeter", from “mosquito”, from an active little girl's tendency to buzz around all over the place -- boys too).  I like that in a girl.  (My own bride's "Ranger".)


That original song from the summer of '60, posed a problem unresolved for many years.  The response-song resolves it, tying the knot.  Yet how so?

In the case of another song noticed recently in this space (“I Wanna Be Evil”, by Eartha Kitt), the problem dissolved upon re-hearing; the pussy-cat turns out to have been a paper tiger.  But in this other case  the problem only grows, the more you live, the more you know.  At times, it becomes acute. 
            We exchange vows when young, not knowing how to live up to them, barely understanding them perhaps.  We have never encountered such sickness, or such poverty, as we may later meet.  Maybe we make it, or maybe we break them.  Yet in time, Grace granting, we swear new vows, and these with open eyes:  vows to Fidelity itself; whereof our own best acts – be they in marriage, or on the field of battle, or in some sickroom  aside from sight --  are but a terrestrial reflection – -- a sort of dual, if you will.
(And Fidelity is just the Latin word for Faith.)

"The Lord be with you."   --  "And also with you."

© David Justice, 2009

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