January 16, 2005

MUSIC: "Saginaw, Michigan," Lefty Frizzell

Every now and then I hear a song that clicks with me so strongly that I have to let it take up residence in my brain. I'll listen to it nonstop for an hour or so every day for 4 or 5 days in a row, getting to know it better, letting it worm its way inside my head, absorbing it as completely as I can. I think of them as instant earworms.

I stumbled across one this week, which I'm still listening to obsessively: Lefty Frizzell's 1964 "Saginaw, Michigan."

I grew up listening to country music; my parents were big fans of all the 60s/70s singers who are legends today -- Merle Haggard, George and Tammy, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn. When I went off to college, of course, I abandoned country music as hopelessly uncool. It's only in the last ten years that I've started listening to it again, and most of what I've been listening to is the same stuff I grew up hearing.

So I knew the name Lefty Frizzell; I'd seen him pop up in countless interviews as someone who was a huge influence on nearly everyone from that generation of singers. But I'd somehow never actually heard any of his music. He died relatively young, in the mid 70s, so he never got to have the late-in-life rediscovery that so many country singers are getting these days (Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, for instance), and for the last decade of his life, he wasn't as successful as he'd been in the 50s, so my timing was just right -- born in '64 -- to miss him entirely.

But this week, I picked up one of Eric Records' "Hard to Find 45s on CD" anthologies, mainly because there were some 70s and 80s songs on it that I hadn't heard in a while, and on it was Lefty's last big hit, "Saginaw, Michigan." It's a story song -- poor boy outsmarts rich man in order to marry his daughter -- that packs romance, economic class, and revenge into a concise three minutes. (Songs that even mention economic class differences are fairly uncommon in American music, I think, except in country, where they've always been a significant part of the story.) It gives us a superficially happy ending -- father-in-law's out of the picture, and "we're the happiest man and wife in Saginaw, Michigan" -- but there's a dark undercurrent and hints that this marriage isn't going to be all that happy (and that the poor-boy narrator is going to be, in his own way, just as judgmental and unkind a man as father-in-law ever was).

And as soon as the song begins, from the first phrase -- "I was born in Saginaw, Michigan" -- you can't help but hear the connection to those singers who cite him as an influence; my first thought was, "Oh, so that's where Merle Haggard comes from...".

But what really struck me as I thought about this song was just how much good music there is that I'll likely never hear. This is not, after all, an obscure song; it was a chart-topping hit from someone who was a major star for 20 years, and it was popular within my own lifetime (just barely). And I had never heard of it before.

Recorded music as a significant part of American culture is roughly 70 or 80 years old, and there are millions of records out there, thousands more added to the pile every month. Even if I eliminate all the stuff in fields I know don't much interest me -- instrumental jazz and guitar rock among them in my case -- there's still more than I can ever hope to listen to. Throw in all of the books I'll never read, the movies I'll never see, the plays I'll never attend -- it's overwhelming.

The optimistic point of view would be to think "at least I'll never run out of entertainment options," and I try to think of it in that way. But I still want more time, time enough to hear and see and read it all.

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