While we’re on the topic of music…
Last night we went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox, which featured a few Burl Ives tunes, including “The Grey Goose.” I didn’t grow up with Burl Ives (nor Fantastic Mr. Fox, for that matter), but Michael did (Burl Ives, that is), and he’s introduced Hyla and me to his old favorites. “The Grey Goose” has become one of mine.
There are several things I love about this song. One is the way it plays with time. The narrator begins by telling us about something that his father did last Sunday:
Last Sunday morning, Lord, Lord, Lord
Oh, my daddy went a hunting, Lord, Lord, Lord
He went hunting for the grey goose, Lord, Lord, Lord
(Note: See the full lyrics for Burl Ives’ version at the bottom of this post.)
It’s quite possible, since this song was originally recorded by Lead Belly, born in Louisiana, that the reference to “daddy” could be that of a grown man about his father, but since I learned this as a children’s song, I think of the narrator at the beginning of the song as a little boy.
In either case, Daddy raised his shotgun, “pulled back the hammer, and the gun went too-boo-loo.” You just have to love that. Too-boo-loo.
Now here comes the first time-shift:
Well, it’s up to his shoulder, Lord, Lord, Lord
We’ve swung from past- to present tense, just for a moment, to watch his daddy move the gun up to his shoulder.
Here comes the next time-shift. He shot the bird, and it started to fall. We’re still in the present tense as the bird begins to fall, but then:
And down come the grey goose, Lord, Lord, Lord
He was six weeks a-falling, Lord, Lord, Lord
So, we have a story that started “Last Sunday morning,” but somehow we’ve managed to skip ahead six weeks while waiting for the goose to fall from the sky.
This is cool. It’s clearly a magical goose, and he messes with time.
Now, here comes the next part I love about this song. He’s telling us a story about something that happened to his daddy, and suddenly you, the listener, are part of the story.
And they had a feather-picking, Lord, Lord, Lord
Ho, your wife and my wife, Lord, Lord, Lord
“Your wife.” You’re a man, and your wife was there, picking the feathers off this magical goose. And maybe you were there, too, for all we know. And the narrator has a wife, too. So if we had any notion before that he was a boy, well, he’s either magically aged, or he was a grown man all the time. Since the song is free-wheeling in time, I prefer to believe the former.
Then we get another leap forward:
He was nine months a-cooking, Lord, Lord, Lord
We’re now quite a long time away from last Sunday morning.
The next part of song tells about the various ways they try to cut up the goose when they discover that “the fork couldn’t stick him” and “the knife couldn’t cut him”. They go through a lot of trouble, which is understandable, since they’ve been waiting around for many months to eat this bird.
After they take him to the saw mill, and then try to feed him to the hogs (who turn up their snouts at him), the goose flies away.
Ho, the last time I seen him, Lord, Lord, Lord
He was flying over the ocean, Lord, Lord, Lord
With a long string of goslings, Lord, Lord, Lord
They was all going queen-quack, Lord, Lord, Lord
This is lovely. He patiently waited for these hapless humans to pluck, cook, and carve him, and then, when he’s decided he’s had enough, he goes and fathers a “string of goslings” and takes them off over the ocean. A featherless father, leading his string of “queen-quack[ing]” progeny far away from this bunch of brutes.
Listen to Burl Ives for yourself.