Placer County, where the weather was a joker...
I think I've told you about this song before.
It is a haunting piece of music, full of depth, rife with emotion. And it's even more poignant because of its tragic tale.
The singer, by the way, is Johnny Mathis. The composer is Michael Moore (no, not that one!). And this song is called "Yellow Roses on her Gown." I had never heard of it until 11-12 years ago.
Briefly, it tells what I have later learned is a true story. A son describes his parents' marriage...how happy it was in the beginning when the family lived in San Francisco, and how strained it became later.
"I remember how they looked then, when their eyes were always living, and my father loved a girl with yellow roses on her gown."
And then they moved to Placer (pronounced with a short "a") County, "where the weather was a joker, and I watched my parents' laughter turn from amber into ice." He says the father would "bear and bear the insults of a pair of loaded dice." And the mother stood beside him, "though her heart was on the hillside of a city where a soldier and his lover bedded down..."
By the end of the song, the father is living eastward, near the Sacramento River, "and he swears to me he's happy with his practice and some land." And, in the springtime and the summer, when the fog is off the valley -- the narrator visits his dad on weekends, "but his grass is overgrown."
And the last part tells us the mother is dead..."sometimes after dinner, I will gaze away the evening, in the attic at a sash of yellow roses on her gown..."
I was struck by the song for several reasons. One, it is interesting stylistically in that it has no chorus or bridge. The closest is the repeating phrase "yellow roses on her gown."
Two, this song is filled with such emotion, such obvious pain, that I knew it had to be a true story.
And, sure enough, it turns out that the songwriter's father was a lawyer who represented those accused of being Communists during the McCarthy Era. The strain of it -- and the danger to his own reputation -- caused his marriage (and his life) to fall apart.
My friend Chuck Kincade (who lives in San Diego) said in response to an inquiry that Placer County is located in the Sierra Nevada, a desolate area that is perfect for those wishing to be alone. Hence, a perfect place for the father, when his grass is overgrown.
Such detail, such descriptive lyric (the words about the family's early life are quiet poetic), such overt passion, is rare in most popular music, at least to this degree. It's a heck of a song, one that deserves a better fate than to have become a forgotten album cut. You can hear it on YouTube if you get curious.
I respond to music. Fast and slow, happy and sad, it tends to stay with me. Isn't that what we really want all good songs to do?
Cause, as silly as it may sound, late at night I've often thought about the father who swears he's happy, though his grass is overgrown; and the mother who's heart was on a hillside; and the son up in the attic, in the evenings, gazing at a sash, with yellow roses on her gown.