Monday, January 12, 2009

Swatting the Mosquitoes

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

: Bobby Bare
SONGWRITER: Shel Silverstein
ALBUM: Lullabys, Legends and Lies
YEAR/LABEL: 1974, RCA Victor

I asked Shel to write me an album, and he did.
(Bobby Bare)

One of America’s greatest songwriters of the last four decades, without question, is Shel Silverstein. Everyone knows at least one of his songs: “A Boy Named Sue,” “One’s on the Way,” “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.”

By the early 1970s Bobby Bare had enjoyed over a decade of success in country and pop music with hits like “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away From Home,” and “The Streets of Baltimore.” Bare briefly changed labels from RCA Victor to Mercury and scored a few hits (most notably, his version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Come Sundown”).

Bare returned to RCA in 1974 with a bang as he and Silverstein joined forces on the landmark album Lullabys, Legends and Lies, which was the first double album of all-new material in country music. The album served as a good example of Silverstein’s varied skills: the serious (“Rest Awhile”), the silly (“Paul”), and the inexplicable (“The Mermaid”). Bare scored a #1 hit with one song from the album, “Marie Laveau,” and had another top ten hit with “Daddy, What If,” which he recorded with his 5-year-old son Bobby Jr. (who is now a recording artist on his own). The highlight of the album, however, is Silverstein’s delightful mixture of serious, silly and sick rolled into one song: “Bottomless Well.”

In many respects, “Bottomless Well” is not a typical country song. To begin with, the song is nearly six minutes long. In 1974, songs of that length were usually relegated to “underground FM rock” stations, serving as “bathroom break” tunes for the DJs. A country song that long was practically unheard of. Even in today’s world, country album cuts rarely crack the four-minute mark.

Secondly, and the song’s true selling point, is its descriptive phrasing. Silverstein didn’t write a song, he filmed a movie. Not since Marty Robbins’ masterpiece “El Paso,” where Robbins provided everything except the brand of rifle emitting “the white puff of smoke” and the caliber of the bullet hitting the outlaw’s chest, has a song provided such vivid visuals.

Bare begins a cappella delivery of Silverstein’s account of the opening scene. There’s a big white wicker rocker, candy-coated cashews, and orange lemonade enjoyed by a man named Jesse Langtree beneath green catalpa shade. The listeners are not sitting in front of a stereo, they are on the Okeechobee plantation with Langtree. When the “sweet young thing fans the flies from off his eyebrows,” you’re swatting as well.

Next to where Langtree dozes is the title object, the centerpiece of the plantation. “That water’s cold, but that don’t matter,” Bare reports. “How deep it is, no one can tell.” The well is quickly presented as something as mysterious and dangerous as the surrounding swamp and as ominous as the “mean old man” sleeping next to it.

The song quickly moves from being “a story that the swamp folk tell” to reality for Bare as he, as the narrator, arrives on the scene. Continuing with Silverstein’s remarkable eye for detail, Bare sings he has “wandered lost through the Okeechobee” for fifteen miles of snake and alligator-infested swamp before stumbling upon this supposed refuge of Langtree’s property.

Langtree is sleeping in his big white wicker rocker, so the narrator asks the young lady who tends to the old man for a drink of water. They strike up a conversation, and Bare discovers that the girl is Langtree’s wife and daughter. Perhaps that is a slight at the stereotype of country music on Silverstein’s part; however, more likely, Shel painted Jesse Langtree as a genuine grade-A creep. After all, the girl reports that Langtree’s heart is “cold and dark as the bottomless well.”

Bare gets bold and offers a kiss. Jesse, who apparently took Flatt and Scruggs’ advice and slept with one eye open, sees the move toward the girl and springs into action with “a loud and jealous yell.” Bare is clobbered over the head and “two big hairy arms picked me up and carried me toward the bottomless well.” When Bare recovers he discovers he “is staring down into the jaws of hell” as the jealous Langtree prepares to throw him into the well.

Bobby Bare told me in an interview that law professors have used this song in their curriculum. It is easy to see why: so far, we have trespassing, incest, assault, and the next thing to take place will be the narrator’s murder.

Some of the best country songs have terrific punch lines. Consider the end of “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” one of Bill Anderson’s greatest compositions and a hit for Porter Wagoner in 1969, where the jealous husband walks in on his cheating wife and finishes his story with, “I guess I’ll go to hell or I’ll rot here in this cell, but who taught who the cold hard facts of life?” In Leona Williams’ “Yes Ma’am (He Found Me in a Honky Tonk),” the girl does not deny to the mother who thinks she is not good enough for her son that she is a bar hopper but concludes by saying, “Someone just like your loving son helped to show me how.” Another prime example is Vic McAlpin’s great “The Box It Came In,” a hit for Wanda Jackson once she made the transition from rock to country. That song concludes with the scorned woman declaring, “Somewhere I’ll find him, then I’ll have peace of mind, and the box he comes home in will be all satin-lined.”

Without spoiling the punch line of “Bottomless Well”’s marvelous concluding verse, immediately after Bare reports that he is about to find out just how “bottomless” the well is, he sings, “Now here I sit in Jesse’s big white wicker rocker, eating his candy-coated cashews, sipping his orange lemonade, while that sweet young thing fans the flies from off my eyebrows.” Silverstein writes a twist worthy of a Hitchcock into the conclusion of the song, even causing Bare to chuckle when he delivers the telling line – and law professors to do more explaining.

Silverstein eventually became better known for his children’s books, although he continued to write songs until his death from a heart attack in 1999. Bare continues to perform the hits from a magical era of his work with Silverstein. It’s too bad that “Bottomless Well” is so unconventional that it will probably never see the light of day in Bare’s set list. Fortunately, the album has this gem preserved for everyone to enjoy.


“Quaaludes Again” (from Down and Dirty) – another Silverstein composition that shows just how twisted, sick and perverted he could be, and I mean that in the best way possible. This song is hilarious.
“Rough on the Living” (from the remastered Lullabys, Legends and Lies CD) – this song was supposedly inspired by Lefty Frizzell’s death. Silverstein again penned this scathing tune that pointed out how “Nashville is rough on the living, but she really speaks well of the dead.” This song paved the way for songs like “Murder on Music Row.”
The entire (Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn and Other Controversial Songs album – it is hard to believe that Bare’s song “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” could be considered “controversial,” even in 1969. Other songs on this album (“Skip a Rope,” “If There’s Not a Hell (There Ought to Be),” and “Drink Up and Go Home”) were not exactly scandalous, either, with the notable exception of Dallas Frazier’s marvelous “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” the song about the woman who turned to prostitution to raise her family.

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