Wednesday, March 11, 2009

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' 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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you indulge me with what seems an aside, my favourite part of Johnny Mathis' "When a child is born" is the very end as it fades into silence. The song comes from Johnny's 1976 album "I only have eyes for you" which I listened to from start to finish many times but lost the album some years ago. However any time I would hear "When a child is born" on TV or radio in subsequent years, as the song faded to silence my imagination would anticipate the opening notes of the next track on that album and I would find my eyes moisten and get goosebumps. And the name of that next song?, "Yellow roses on her gown". It is a song of unparalleled beauty both melodically and lyrically. If I begrudgingly say it is a song which Mathis has made his own (and I'm a dedicatad fan) it's only because this song should have been celebrated more in the subsequent decades rather than have fallen into the oblivion of musical archive. I take considerable consolation in finding a live Mathis performance of it on youtube which surpasses Johnny's studio vocal.

8:24 PM  
Anonymous andy brettell said...

I have always loved "Yellow Roses on Her Gown." After many years, it can always makeme emotional. I would like to write to say this to Michael Moore. It seems a most unplayed and underrated song. Can you tell me whereI could contact him,please? I don't want to confuse him with the "that one",who he isn't.

Kind regards

Andrew Brettell

12:21 PM  
Blogger Jeff York said...

I've just discovered your great blog. Your thoughts and emotions are so rich. I'm very impressed.

As I was by the song "Yellow Rose On Her Gown." I first heard it in high school 30 plus years ago and it devastated me. My family was a broken one too and it really hit home. And Michael Jackson Moore's detailed lyrics were so poetic and haunting that they are almost difficult for me to hear. And yet I listen again and again. The Johnny Mathis version is sublime and he was and still is a soaring artist. And I think you are too, sir, in your writing here. And your illuminating of such a song. Thank you and I look forward to following you here.

3:31 AM  
Blogger Jake Mabe said...

Thanks for your too-kind comments, Jeff. Always glad to hear from a fellow film buff and fan of "Yellow Roses on her Gown." I really appreciate your taking time to read my blog.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Greg Mitchell said...

quite simply, the finest song ever written. I was at Mathis' Carnegie Hall debut in 1997, and just about lost it when the orchestra started this.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Jake Mabe said...

Thanks for sharing the memory, Greg. I agree about the song and my only regret is that Mr. Mathis didn't have it in the set list when we saw him in '03. Hearing him sing it at Carnegie must've been a special moment.

6:49 PM  
Blogger George said...

Thanks for clearing up the mystery (to a certain degree) about this song. Your info has made a hauntingly tragic song seem unbearably moving now. (And – given the ostracism the songwriter’s father faced – is there perhaps another reason for the song’s neglect?)

I always thought the most beautiful aspect of the song was the way the mother’s fate was left a mystery. Also – there can’t be too many songs that feature the word “carillons”!

1:34 PM  
Blogger Leigh said...

Yes, the finest song ever written. Poetry set to music, unbearably haunting. Thank you for the background information.

2:53 AM  
Blogger gayle said...

My favorite mathis song. Finally found it on a multi disk on mathis songs. I figured it was based on a true story

10:03 PM  
Blogger gayle said...

My favorite mathis song. Have the CD. Figured it was based on a true story

10:05 PM  
Blogger Barry T said...

Mr. Mathis performed the song in Nashville recently with the symphony. I had never heard it before and was dumbstruck at its poetry and beauty - yet hauntingly tragic depiction of a child's take on his crumbling family... Who can't tear up at that last line...
I'll add that at 80 years of age, Johnny Mathis performed this song with the controlled vitality of a singer half his age and packed more emotional punch into this song than any live performance I have ever seen or heard from anyone - ever.
Raw and perfect. From the first mysterious notes - swirling through its majestically melodious peaks - and finally to its wistfully empty conclusion.
A ride well worth taking...if you've never heard this masterpiece.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found out about this song around 2 yrs ago,researched the meaning,knowing it had to be a true story. The song is beautiful, knowing the story makes it only more emotional for me. I was blessed enough to hear him sing it at a concert in Nashville about 2 yrs ago. When I hear the opening of the music I got chills and the tears came in my eyes. By the end of the song I had silently cried my make up off and was so moved I stood up and applauded my behind off! It was so very beautiful and of course John told the story as only he can! I listen to it often on YouTube. My favorite one is John standing in front of a piano! I am so glad God gave us John Royce Mathis during my lifetime!

10:16 PM  
Blogger Chuck said...

Yes, this song always elicits an emotional response each time I hear it:

chills - the haunting melody and orchestral accompaniment,
tears - visualizing the young lovers progress from joy to despair,
melancholy - it's a sad song and it stays with me. Lots of "what if" questions,
joy - that Michael Moore was able to encapsulate his parents' story into such a moving poem and, when sung by Mathis, takes life to another level.

And the song is also the reason I met Jake Mabe on-line and have developed a very close long-distance friendship with him.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug said

I have been fascinated by this song for so long. I used to be a disco d.j. at two hotels in new England when it came out ( I had gotten a promo copy). I'm pretty sure this is the beautiful ballad I was playing when a guy walked out saying "you've got to be kidding"(!). I guess he wasn't expecting this incredible ballad amidst the often vacuous disco tunes

1:10 PM  
Blogger Bob Taylor said...

I don't object to labeling it the finest song ever written. It may be. It is absolutely haunting.

9:46 PM  

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