That’s it for me; my ears can’t take any more of these. I’m sure you’re glad, too, but there’s one more to go.
Like yesterday’s selection, “Old Rivers” is a talking song, featuring Walter Brennan expatiating on a mule farmer he knew. I know this song because one of my dorm-mates during freshman year in college actually had a Walter Brennan album, and played this song endlessly, driving me bonkers.
Do you remember Walter Brennan? If you do, it’s probably as Grandpappy Amos on the t.v. show “The Real McCoys” (1957-1963)—the crusty old paterfamilias in overalls. But I bet you didn’t know that he’s only one of three men to win three Oscars, the others being Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. Brennan won them for Best Supporting actor in 1936, 1938, and 1943, the movies being “Come and Get It,” “Kentucky,” and “The Westerner,” respectively. And he was a prolific actor, appearing in over 230 movies, many of them Westerns.
Wikipedia tells the story straight, which always makes me laugh with a song like this:
The title character of “Old Rivers” is an elderly farmer, a childhood friend of the song’s main protagonist. The protagonist, whose family is very poor, recalls how Old Rivers used a mule-driven plow to cultivate the fields in the hot sun. The mule’s name was “Midnight,” and he would plow straight rows for the crops. During a break, Old Rivers would take the boy aside and tell of a place he one day was going to go, by “climb(ing) that mountain.” The place is not specifically named, but it can be inferred through the lyrics — “Walk up there among them clouds/Where the cotton’s high and the corn’s a-growin’/And there ain’t no fields to plow” — that Old Rivers was speaking of Heaven.
Years later, the young boy is now an adult and, having moved away from his dirt-poor farming community, is now a success in his chosen field. He talks about a letter he received from his hometown, where he learns that Old Rivers has died. The protagonist is stunned and deeply saddened by this news, and needs to find shade to gather his thoughts and grief. However, he is able to take comfort in what Old Rivers one day told him about Heaven.
I love the way Brennan’s voice appears to break in sorrow at the last phrase, “That mule, Old Rivers. . . and me.”
Below is Brennan as Amos McCoy. I can still see him limping across the t.v. screen crying, “Little Luke. . . Little Luke!”