Sorting by

Skip to main content

How We Sing Good-bye

By June 6, 2015 No Comments

Ok, kids, it’s time for the answers to the music jumble in my last post. Get ‘em all right and you’ll find your prize at the bottom of your next box of Cracker Jack.

The most familiar lyrics I quoted come from what commentator Mike calls ‘that terrible song’ by Paul Anka, “My Way.” Not quite as bad, Mike allows, as Anka’s ‘worst song ever,’ “Having My Baby.” But Mike, there’s something iconic, so definitively American about “My Way,” especially in its most familiar rendition, by Frank Sinatra. It’s the swagger, the command, the pronouncement by the Chairman of the Board that he’s proud to have confirmed the myth of the self-made man. (While you’re at it, check out Elvis performing the number in jumpsuit at Vegas toward the end of The Chubby Years. Don’t you wish you were the woman who got his sweaty towel at tune’s end? Would you swoon, gentle reader? She did….) All in all, Mike, I have to say that if you hate “My Way,” you hate America, and if “Having My Baby” bugs you, you don’t have family values. But I repeat myself. Your punishment is to listen to it nineteen times in tribute to the latest icon of Christian America. Guess you could say he keeps on doing it, his way.

There are two songs by the Rolling Stones rolling around in the mix: “Time is on My Side” (1964) and “Out of Time” (1966). The latter has Brian Jones playing the marimbas and served as the soundtrack to the opening credits in Hal Ashby’s great Vietnam movie, “Coming Home” (1978). The message in both songs is that if a woman treats Mick Jagger bad, she’ll regret it. Cue “Under My Thumb;” same vintage, same marimbas. In the movie Jane Fonda moves from simpering military wife to liberated woman, taking the paraplegic Jon Voight over he-man Marine Bruce Dern. Lousy Commie, she didn’t let him do it his way, so he has to take the long goodbye into the ocean surf.

Two classic American-guy tunes are in the jumble too: the Eagles’ “Already Gone,” and Percy Mayfield’s “Hit the Road Jack,” made famous by Ray Charles’s chart-topping version in 1961. The first voices quintessential dissed white guys coming to a quick and sure triumph, as befits the 1970s’ most popular American band with its California vintage. He’s saying goodbye before she can rub it in, and doesn’t feel even a little bad about it. By contrast, Mayfield and Charles are classic R&B—the guy plaintively appealing to his woman who’s not taking a bit of it. There’s some humor in the exchange, even in her painful put-down: “it’s understood,/You ain’t got no money, you just a no good.” Well, he replies, “I guess if you say so/I’ll have to pack my things and go.” (“That’s right,” she echoes in the background.)

Leave it to a woman from dirt-poor Mississippi to ramp up the emotion of leaving with nuance and some open wounds. I dare you listen to “Till I Can Make it on My Own” by Tammy Wynette and not mist up a little bit. A truly self-made woman—can you count 23 #1 hits after losing her father before she turned one and being reared by grandparents in a home without indoor plumbing?—Tammy never lost the white blues of the reality that lies behind her songs. No Sinatra sneers for her, rather deep-felt affection, and affliction. Of course, the pedal steel doesn’t hurt.

And for you high-culture folks, two selections as well. The first, “Farewell,” by Emily Dickinson, finds our Amherst hermit in her more theistic vein, telling “my Lord” that she’s “held fast in everlasting race/by my own choice and thee.” For me, it’s only partly “good-by to the life I used to know,” though sure it is that “we must ride to the Judgment/and it’s partly down hill.” And what of these goodbyes, all this verse about endings and leaving and time? Ah, let John Donne enjoin our silence this once more, from his “Valediction Forbidding Mourning”: “So let us melt, and make no noise,/No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;/’Twere profanation of our joys/To tell the laity our love.” Maybe next time.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Leave a Reply