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OF COURSE MY WIFE and I do not want to drag our children out of the innocence that is rightfully theirs, but we do not want to sugarcoat what it means to be human, either. Any child who has seen what a predatory housecat can do to a bird or a rabbit is not likely to be traumatized by lyrics about a dead goose; my kids happen to have a father who is nonplussed by lack of carnage where carnage should be. It bothers me that there are people who don’t know that a certain miner (Forty-Niner) and his daughter Clementine have something to be dreadfully sorry about. Such people have probably heard “Kumbayah” in a candy-coated form (no “someone’s dying Lord, Kumbayah”), but Tom Dooley’s short temper and date with the hangman means nothing to them. Nor are they likely to sit down with Marty Robbins for a whack at the ballad of old El Paso, where frontier justice in the fourth verse is retribution for murder committed in the second.
The bowdlerizing impulse at work in the fowl example that provoked these thoughts also cons certain church musicians into wrecking “Amazing Grace.” It’s a tough hymn to wreck, but some doe-eyed imbeciles wreck it anyway, by substituting “saved and set me free” for “saved a wretch like me.”
Where revisionist lyrics pretend that life has no rough edges, original lyrics sometimes manage the same trick through understatement. Consider the gospel tune “Lord, Build Me a Cabin,” by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe; it scans as too laconic for its own good:p> em>Lord, build me a cabin br> In a corner of Glory Land, br> In the shade of the Tree of Life br> Where it may ever stand, br> Where I can just hear the angels sing br> And shake Jesus’ hand, br> Lord build me a cabin br> in the corner of Glory Land. /em> /p>
That lyric drives me crazy. A mandolin player from a part of the South where grown men are moved to tears when the dog dies at the end of Old Yeller ought to know better than to greet his Savior with the same gesture he’d use to congratulate Cletus or Bobby Lee for a good game of horseshoes. A handshake in heaven seems emotionally constipated. If nothing else, it’s evidence of a dire need for more range in the emotional woofers and tweeters that occupy every human heart. Any self-respecting Italian author of self-help books for manly men would have told Monroe to lighten up and give Jesus a hug.