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Faith in Vermont: I Just Can't Get That Song Out of My Head

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Posted on September 4, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“I want to play you a song, to see if you know it,” my husband said to me at breakfast last week. 

My husband is what we jokingly call a “binge listener”—he’ll latch on to a song or the oeuvre of a particular artist, and listen to it on repeat for weeks on end, until the rest of us are clutching our heads in desperation, praying that he’ll move on to a new obsession. 

If my husband and I shared musical tastes, it wouldn’t be so bad. To be fair, there are artists that we agree on, but over the nearly two decades that we’ve known each other, our tastes have diverged dramatically. When I’m able to listen to music that enjoy (rather than what my daughters are demanding from the backseat), it’s usually something in the alternative/folk genre; anything heartbreaking with a banjo, fiddle, and a twangy voice will do. My husband, on the other hand, likes music that he can play (on repeat) while he works: jazz, classical, rhythm and blues. One of his constants throughout our relationship -- and a song that I will never be able to embrace, no matter how much I love my husband -- is Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” 

So, as my husband hunted down his latest favorite on his tablet and pressed “play,” I braced myself. 

With the first few notes, I was transported back to my childhood home, the split-level house on Mayflower Drive in McLean, Virginia. It could’ve been anywhere between 1978 and 1984. My mother was making dinner or folding laundry, and the radio was tuned to the local “easy listening” station (which had the call letters – I kid you not -- WGAY.) 

The song, one of the background songs of my early years, was: “If You Could Read My Mind.”

It was never one of my favorites, in part because the opening lyrics always baffled me:

If you could read my mind, love,

What a tale my thoughts could tell.

Just like an old time movie,

About a ghost from a wishing well….

 

A ghost from a wishing well?!? What the heck kind of “old time movie” is that?!? Even as a five-year-old, I smelled a lyric that prioritized rhyme over sense. 

The version that my husband played was a 2015 cover by Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan. It was lovely and haunting, forcing me to rethink what I’d always considered a ho-hum song. What hadn’t changed since the early 80s was the ability of this particular song to park itself in my brain and overstay the meter; for days now, I just can’t get it out of my head. 

“Do you know who sang the original?” my husband asked.

“I dunno. Linda Ronstadt, maybe?” I replied, because it seemed like every other song on WGAY in those days was by Linda Ronstadt. 

We hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, until I said, “I’ll just look it up!”

By now, over half of my readers are probably throwing their arms in the air and shouting, “Gordon Lightfoot!”

And they’re right: “If You Could Read My Mind” was released in 1970 by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. It reached number one in the Canadian music charts, and was his first song to appear on the American music charts. It’s been covered numerous times over the years; in fact, Linda Ronstadt is one of the few recording artists who hasn’t covered it. 

“Gordon Lightfoot. That’s a great name for a musician. I wonder if it’s his real name?” my husband mused.

“I’ll look it up!” I said again, jumping up from the table.

“No, that’s okay,” my husband said. “I don’t need to know. I just want to listen to the song.” 

Just as my husband and I have divergent musical tastes, we also have vastly different research priorities. My husband, as an economics professor, does research for a living: He will track down data on subjects like the most deadly diseases over the past 2,000 years, run the numbers through complex statistical analyses, and present the results in baffling, un-readable papers filled with Greek letters. He’s also your man if you want research done on something useful, like the best sunscreen on the market, how to stack wood most efficiently, or where to get a good deal on a pickup truck. 

Me? I love a good pop-cultural rabbit hole. If I read a book or hear a song, I’ll want to research the entire backstory. 

So yes, Gordon Lightfoot was born Gordon Lightfoot (Jr.) He wrote “If You Could Read My Mind” as his first marriage (to a Swede named Brita, with whom he had two children) was breaking apart.  I even checked up on that “ghost from a wishing well” lyric: It turns out that (of course) there are entire internet threads on the topic, with opinions split between those who claim the line refers to a 1946 Abbot & Costello movie called The Time of Their Lives, and those who insist, “It’s a metaphor!” 

I reported these findings to my husband after dinner. Then, because I now knew the song was about the dissolution of Gordon Lightfoot’s marriage to his first wife (and was feeling a little touchy, as a first wife myself), I went after Lightfoot’s view of relationships. 

“The whole problem is this garbage about, ‘The feeling’s gone, and I just can’t get it back.’ You can’t base a marriage on feelings!” I preached. 

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the staying power of marriages lately, because our family just celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I’ve been married only 16 years; I can’t even imagine all the “feelings” you have throughout a 50-year marriage, or where that marriage would be if it depended solely upon those feelings.

But if marriage isn’t built on feelings alone, what holds it together? I have no easy answer. Sheer determination -- plus shared memories of what it was like to be young in the earth-toned early '80s, before the internet or VHS, with your mom’s easy listening radio playing in the background. A common mission -- plus the recognition that life together requires both the useful and the cultural; someone to dissect the lyrics, and someone who just likes the tune. 

Usually, when I start picking apart a song’s lyrics, my husband says: “Huh. I never really paid attention to the words, I just like listening to the music.” 

But this time – perhaps thanks to 16 years of experience – my husband just nodded and smiled. To paraphrase Gordon Lightfoot: When you reach this part, the hero would be him. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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