After more than eighty years, I can still squeeze out a tear for Jack, the lonesome cowboy whose heart was so brave and true. You see, he fell in love with a maiden with heavenly blue eyes, and they planned to get married. But they had a little spat, and Jack rode off in a huff, joined a band of cowboys and tried to forget about her. He couldn’t, so he decided to go back and apologize, since he knew it was all his fault. But while he was riding the prairie, he found a new grave, and to his horror, it was Miss Blue Eyes. Well, it nearly killed him.
My mother often sang that song and a passel of other tear-jerkers as she sat on the front porch of that rickety old house away out on an Oklahoma prairie.
There was one about a guy who had murdered his girlfriend, Florella, but I don’t remember why. He was all broken up about it as he was waiting to be hanged. My mother also sang about an unfortunate fellow who wished he had the wings of an angel so he could fly over his prison walls. I was sure he had been sent to prison unjustly.
And there was the sad song about a guy who had to sleep in the rain because he was always getting kicked off the freight trains. The brakeman always yelled at him, “Get off, get off, you railroad bum!” as he slammed the boxcar door.
There was also the song about ol’ Shep, a great dog who had saved his master from drowning, but he grew old and sick and his owner, a boy, was about to shoot him to put him out of his misery. He couldn’t do it, and he “wished they’d have shot me instead.” It made me sad because I thought ol’ Shep must have looked just like our old dog, Buster. Buster never saved anyone’s life, but I was sure he would have if he’d been called upon.
I always got a lump in my throat when my mother sang those sad old songs, but I loved to hear her sing in her strong, alto voice. Sometimes she sang gospel hymns, and although she hadn’t been a regular church-goer since her girlhood in the Ozarks, she knew them all.
On a lonely summer evening, she’d pull one of the old wooden rocking chairs out onto the porch and serenade the night with “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Love Lifted Me,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Beulah Land,” “Standing on the Promises,” “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” and countless others.
I still remember those songs, and I remember how much I loved the only entertainment we had in those early depression years. On a starry summer night, with the pond frogs croaking, the crickets chirping, and my mother’s vocal assurance that God was watching over us all, I felt happy and secure.
Soon enough, however, a battery radio arrived at our house, and instead of my mother’s singing I heard programs from KGGF in Coffeeville, Kansas and KVOO in Tulsa. Bob Altendorf, “the happy roving cowboy” woke us in the morning, and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, sponsored by Playboy Flour, serenaded us at noon, right after the cattle and hog market report.
On Saturday nights, Prince Albert smoking tobacco brought us “The Grand Ole Opry.” Sometimes, if my mother knew the words, she’d sing along.
But it was never the same.
I miss those sad old songs.