Music Lessons, Guy Clark, and my Randall Knife moments

I’ve written before about music and its importance in my life.  From road music to house-cleaning music to relaxing music and grading music, somehow music always seems to sneak into my life.

Today it popped in as I was reading CNN on line and clicked on a link I saw about “True Love and Homegrown Tomatoes.”  Though the link was to the Eatocracy page of the site, I just knew what I’d find.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Though the focus was indeed on the deliciousness of home-grown tomatoes, the source of the title was clear to me:  a Guy Clark song long a favorite of mine.  Clark wrote this in 1983, a warm, funny Texas take on a Southern favorite — homegrown tomatoes. His lyrics celebrate the down-home lusciousness, the very ordinary homegrown tomato.

“Ain’t nothin’ in the world that I like better
Than bacon & lettuce & homegrown tomatoes
Up in the mornin’ out in the garden

Get you a ripe one don’t get a hard one
Plant `em in the spring eat `em in the summer
All winter with out `em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Everytime I go out & pick me a big one.”

With the first lyrics, I am transported back to childhood, to my dad’s garden, to picking tomatoes right off the vine and biting into them, juice dribbling down my chin.  Or to the simple presentation of thickly sliced tomatoes on a plate, sprinkled with a bit of salt.  Or even just slapped between slices of mayonnaise-slathered bread with lots of pepper and a bit of salt.

Yes, Clark’s got it right.  Nothing better than homegrown tomatoes — one of two things money can’t buy:

“Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.”

He even jokes about how he’d like to end up:

“If I’s to change this life I lead
I’d be Johnny Tomato Seed
`Cause I know what this country needs
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cemetary
Out in the garden would be much better
I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes.”

One of my favorite Texas singer-songrwriters, Clark manages to write about so many ordinary moments in life.  The whimsey of “Homegrown Tomatoes,” a light-hearted look at the joys of food, gives way to other songs touching on memory and loss,.  Two of his songs bring me tears every time I hear them:  “The Cape” and “Randall Knife.”  Both of them take me to childhood, to family, and to the adult’s retrospective look at what’s been lost.

Growing up the 50s and loving Superman both on television and in comics, I was one of who knows how many kids who tied bathroom towels to my shirt and hopped off of steps, pretending I could fly.  The sheer fantasy of freedom, of flying, somehow faded with growing up, though flying dreams persist to this day (don’t go Freud on me).  So when I heard Clark sing “The Cape,” all of that joy rushed back.  Clark’s “boy” jumps off, falls to the ground; and “All grown up” he’s still at it, “pretty sure he could fly.” Even “old and gray” he’s still at it, “He’s still jumpin’ off the garage/ And will be till he’s dead/
He did not know he could not fly /So he did.”

The chorus reiterates what this song brings to me every time I listen to it:

“He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape.”

That leap of faith, taking off and leaping, and trusting your cape. How often we grow up and grow out of that sense that we can do anything.  Fear holds us back, holds us down.  Remembering to trust the cape — that’s key.

Where “The Cape” takes me to something we often lose as we grow up, another song takes me back to being a child with a father to being an adult dealing with the loss of a father.

A tribute to his late father, “The Randall Knife” appeared in 1983.  The lyrics evoke both the child’s experience with the knife and the adult’s association of the knife with his father.

“He let me take it camping once
On a Boy Scout jamboree
And I broke a half an inch off
Trying to stick it in a tree
I hid it from him for a while
But the knife and he were one
He put it in his bottom drawer
Without a hard word one.”

Though the father never rebuked the son, it’s clear that the memory lingered for the son:

“There it slept and there it stayed
For twenty some odd years
Sort of like Excalibur
Except waiting for a tear.”

As an adult, the son sings of the loss of his father, of not being able to cry, not because of lack of love but because he wasn’t quite ready somehow.  And that his father deserved something better:

“And I couldn’t find a way to cry
Not because I didn’t love him
Not because he didn’t try
I’d cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready.”

Years later, the knife long forgotten in the drawer, the son looks back at the loss of his father, adding the perspective of yet more years between his father’s death and the song itself.

“My father died when I was forty
And I couldn’t find a way to cry
Not because I didn’t love him
Not because he didn’t try
I’d cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready.”

Later, when asked what he wanted to remember his father by, the singer continues:

“When we got back to the house
They asked me what I wanted
Not the lawbooks not the watch
I need the things he’s haunted

My hand burned for the Randall knife
There in the bottom drawer
And I found a tear for my father’s life
And all that it stood for.”

Long before my father was ill, long before he died, this song moved me to tears, but afterwards it just reduces me to puddles.  As Kay and I have gone through decades of Dad’s life, I kept discovering things that, like the Randall knife of Clark’s song, weren’t really much in themselves but somehow embodied the man who owned them.

I’d certainly cried many times before the loss, as well as during the months of watching my dad simply disappear in so many ways before my eyes.  Yet throughout I kept seeing my dad over time, as the young father who helped me, who admonished me, who tried to show me the honorable way to live with others.

Being a girl, I was never allowed to hunt with my older boy cousins or my younger brother.  Yet Dad made sure I knew how to handle the guns we had.  And while I might never use them in the same way, they are a reminder of something he held dear.

Some of the guns were his father’s.  One in particular — a pearl-handled pistol that Granddad Ware carried during World War II when he was a guard at the shipyards in Beaumont.  Dad had promised that gun to his nephew Charlie, and in May Kay and I got that gift to him.  Now we’re trying to figure out other gifts for the other boys in the family.  A few years ago, Dad gave my brother’s deer rifle to my cousin Barbara’s son James — James and his own father, Herb, had hunted together for years, and Dad though that Phil would like another young man to keep the tradition up.  Another gun needs to be selected for my cousin Mike, Charlie’s brother (their mother is Dad’s older sister).  And yet another for Jim, Barbara’s brother (their dad was my dad’s older brother).

Right now, I’m cherishing a 12-gauge shotgun that was Granddad’s.  And Dad used it too.  More than I can handle, probably, with a heck of a recoil, as I remember Dad saying, and as many others have warned me.  Yet the gun itself — made probably around 1902– is so much more than it appears.

It’s a link between generations, a clue to something about my dad and his dad, to the ties that link us together as family.

I’m a liberal with a gun.  When I went to the Antiques Roadshow in Baton Rouge last month, I took two items — both family heirlooms.  I brought a small dinner ring that had been my mother’s and her mother’s — a 1930s Art Deco ring, 14-caret yellow and white gold, 3-tiny-diamond ring.  It’s precious to me because it links me to them.  I can imagine my grandmother Ella wearing that ring.  It has a story, too.  She didn’t buy the ring; she wasn’t given it as a gift from a boyfriend or a husband.  While she was a single mother with two daughters to take care of, Grandmother ran a boarding house in Beaumont.  One of her boarders couldn’t pay rent at some point, and thus the ring came to my grandmother.  For me, it’s a symbol of a woman who was taking care of her daughters, who was a businesswoman and a stylish woman.  That ring is one I wear a lot.

The second item?  I brought Granddad’s 12-gauge Winchester 1897.  When i took it out of the soft case, four or five men swarmed around me, admiring it, knowing exactly what it is.  One of them showed me that it wasn’t frozen, that it racked just fine.  I must admit that the sound was quite nice.

How much more Southern girl can you get?  A 12-gauge shotgun and a diamond dinner ring.

And so my Randall knife moments.

Guy Clark does it to me every time.  From making my mouth water for freshly sliced homegrown tomatoes (or unsliced ones right off the vine); to reminding me not to forget that life’s a leap of faith, to trust the cape and just jump; to making me cherish the Randall knife moments of a child missing her father.

When I finished reading the CNN piece, I thought immediately that I knew what I wanted to write about — all the Texas singer-songwriters who have woven through my life.  I never got past Guy Clark, however, and that’s okay.  There are many other days to write about those other fine artists.

Today, though, is a Guy Clark day.  Specifically, a three-song Guy Clark day.

I ended up searching YouTube for each song, and I’ll pass those links along to you.  If you’re not familiar with Clark, take time to listen.  You might be surprised.

“Homegrown Tomatoes” :

“The Cape”  :

“The Randall Knife” :

Yes, Guy Clark sings of the most ordinary items, the most ordinary memories, and the most common of experiences — and I can only recommend that you give him a listen.

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