Michelle Barney has a great dad. The only songs he liked were sad ones, however. One day she found out why. Now she wrote this to try to soothe his soul.
My father listened to Tom Dooley on long road trips through the winding roads between Arizona and Utah. He’d get this sad look in his eyes, and the words would come ringing out of his mouth, and we would all sing them together. Hang down your head and cry, hang down your head and cry.
I never thought it odd, sharing songs of tragedy in our little minivan. It was a tune of secrets and sadness, and I knew the darkness, even as a child, from the first note. I recognized the regret, even if I didn’t understand the words back then. In those moments when the story of Tom Dooley blared over the speakers, we shared some secret bleakness through that folksy melody.
My father was a man of few words then. He didn’t know the ways to tell us all the things a father has in his heart to say, so he spoke to us through his songs. When Chantilly Lace came blasting over the record player, it was time to relax, have fun, dance on Daddy’s feet for a few turns until I couldn’t see straight and I had to lie on the floor and feel the music flowing in my soul.
Sometimes he would play songs meant only for me. Michelle, by the Beatles told me things my father didn’t often say, that he loved me, that he was proud of me, that I was a thing of beauty. When he played me Green Eyed Lady I felt grown up, wild and mysterious, a force. For what, I didn’t know. But the songs uttered missives that were sacred and irrefutable. No one argues with a swinging rhythm and a rhyming word.
I should have known, when he played us Ode to Billy Joe, that he had a story to tell, but I let the words wash over me, and I grieved for the boy jumping off that bridge.
One day, my father spoke of his story, hypnotizing me with his words, spinning a tale I knew to be true before I even heard it because the songs had convinced me years ago. He’d been a lonely child, my father, too shy to be popular. He’d had a stutter, and life had been rough. But he’d had one friend. They ate lunch together, quiet, reserved, but not alone. That was all the comfort my father needed. One true friend. Until the day his lunch companion did as the ode sang and jumped, drowning in the rushing waters of the Weber River.
My father told me this in his usual quiet, unassuming way. He never spoke of what came next: years of grief, fear, heartache.
He only listens to Billy Joe jump as he remembers.
I want to ask him if the song helps. Can reliving this moment force it to make sense? Can remembering keep his friend from leaving him? Then I think of Tom Dooley, swinging on his noose, and I wonder if in some way my father feels guilt for the death of his friend. Perhaps he relives these moments, carving them into his soul with music so he will never forget, never again be blind to the cries of a tormented soul. I do not ask him these things.
Instead, I listen and I try to send him messages of my own. Only I have no ballads for I love you. I have no songs that say I understand. I have no anthems to tell him that I heard his voice. Instead, I send him streams of words. I sing him my love in paragraphs, and I hope somehow we can speak the same songs again.
Photo: Flickr/The Old Brit