When I was little, my father used to sing to me.
He was one of those people who couldn't really sing--at least, couldn't carry the tune quite right, and probably couldn't have matched key to save himself. But he had one of those voices.
You know, one of those.
I could've listened forever. It was a good voice for a dad to sing with, I remember that. He sang low, and quiet, and his voice was a little rough. I think, now, looking back, it would've been one of those that's good with an old guitar playing old--old--country songs. Jimmy Rodgers old. But I can't really hear it, anymore. Not quite. It's been too long.
Have you had that? Remembering something you're not sure you really remember well, but you've seen the photos or watched the videos or heard the story told so many times, you've sort've filled it in? I remember him singing. I remember what he sang, how he sang it. But I can't hear his voice. Except for how it sounded on family movies from when I was 4 or 5. My father's voice: perpetually muted and muffled and 20 years ago tape-deck.
It's strange; I can still sort of smell him. Bay rum, something just a little sour and damp behind it from sweating, sometimes. And the way the scarred skin by his shoulder felt when I hugged him and got that smell, those times, soft and cool. I touched his forehead at the viewing: that's a feeling I wish I didn't remember as well as I do, the absolute cold, there. Stiff like clay, but not as pliable. But it's fading.
His face is come a shifting amalgam of every picture ever taken of him. His hair anywhere from dark, deep brown to almost white with grey--every time he shaved it off, it came back whiter. He dyed his hair and beard green, once, for me, on St. Patrick's (I'd done my own hair with food coloring, before). I found that picture, recently. I'd forgotten. Him with his jambok (what he called his bamboo walking stick--he'd never, ever use a cane), sitting on the bed in their room, with the tropical murals on the walls that my mom painted over when she tore the house apart. It couldn't look the same as it had.
But his voice. I remember him singing to me, at night. Songs I'd never heard anywhere else, some. He'd come to sit on the edge of my bed, and sing me a song about a lovely Indian maid and her handsome brave, and he'd humor me by putting my name in instead of Little White Dove and the name of whatever boy down the street I had a crush on that week in for Running Bear. Soft and sad and sweet, that song, old and calm and gentle, full of love.
Sometimes he'd sing Purple People Eater. We had that on a tape--I knew that one, that way. He drew me a picture of the monster, once, after asking me to draw what I thought it looked like--it was good. I'd never known him to draw, otherwise.
Then he'd sing one that was environmentalism disguised as religion. About the old oak tree, that loved the babbling brook, and on up to the clear blue sky, until man came along. ". . . And the babbling brook is solid ground. And the mountain hiiiiigh don't stand so high, and there's a cloud of smoke, cov'rin' up the clear blue sky-y-y. . . " Then something about if she'd left the apple on the tree. Sometimes he'd end with Amazing Grace. I liked it. It's never sounded the same, from anyone else.
Day to day, he'd sing bits of "Sixteen Tons," and "Soldier Boy"--"You are my first love, and you'll be my last love," he'd say to me, sing-song. I didn't know it was "Soldier Boy"--didn't know the song at all--'til I heard an Old School night on the local hip-hop station, lying in bed.
I was probably fifteen or sixteen when I realized how badly I missed all those songs. When he'd been gone a couple of years, and hadn't sung them in years before that, either. When I remembered them, and could remember whole verses, but realized I didn't know the names of the songs. Where they'd come from, whose they were. No amount of searching seemed to be able to turn them up, for me. I would be 20 before my ex-girlfriend's father--who had a strange knack for singing out loud the songs in your head--started gruffly puffing, "'was a tall oak tree! 'loved the babblin' brook!" one night.
It took every ounce of will and pride I could muster to not cry before I could ask about it. I remember feeling desperate, elsewhere, and I think my eyes were like that, like my face had sunk back away from them; I was up off the floor and turned 'round to him like I didn't weigh anything, and my voice too high and thin, asking, "What's that song? How do you know it?"
Hee-haw, or Hoe-Down, or something. One of those old country shows when he was a kid. "Tall Oak Tree," that was all. Not an old oak tree. I thanked him before finding a bathroom to crumple in.
I found that song. Glen Campbell. I found "Running Bear"--two versions, Johnny Rivers and Sonny James.
Some of the kitschiest, most over-the-top, annoying tracks I've ever heard, the lot.
My dad really couldn't sing very well, if well means representative of the original. (Johnny Cash's "Sixteen Tons" was closer.) But I could kind of hear him in them. Slower, without the trumpet lines (why on earth were there trumpet lines?), without the badly--insultingly--faked Native American flair, without the snappy swing, without the twang or Roy Orbison-esque vibratos. Some of the melodies missed. A verse skipped, once--the one about the devil tempting Eve. But something like.
Somehow, my father took that stuff and made old--old--country from it. He took Johnny Horton and made Jimmy Rodgers. He took jump and made lullabies.