Götterdämmerung, Me and the Opera

I love classical music, and I have a lot of it. I know and love a number of classical composers you may never heard of. But I just never “got” the opera. Some of the most interesting people I know love the opera of Verdi, Wagner, and so many others. They can’t get enough of it. Lord knows I’ve tried, but I have always been totally tone deaf to opera as I understood it.

Yet, while I’m not even religious, I love the solemn and devotional church liturgical choral works of Lassus and Tallis.

There are also some decades-old reasons why I should have warmed to opera.

In my youth, I loved Beethoven. In particular, I loved his Ninth Symphony. Now, in the final movement “O Freunde, Nicht Diese Tone!” I found for myself an absolutely spellbinding male and female vocal performance, as stirring as any performance with the human voice I have ever heard.

Similarly, in the second and third movements of Berlioz’s “Romeo et Juliet” I found equally heroic vocals that literally moved me to tears as a youth.

Those are both symphonies or “choral symphonies” of a style popular in centuries past. Yet, put on “Barber of Seville,” and you’ll put me to sleep.

There are some classical opera selections you already know, and probably just don’t know it.

1. If you’re old enough to remember Disneyland (the TV show, 1954-1958), chances are you remember Disney’s animated color spectacular “Wind in the Willows.” The music from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was taken from Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (part of his celebrated Götterdämmerung cycle). This music was also featured in the film score of Apocalypse Now (YouTube HERE).

2. Kohler ran an ad for its bath fixtures starring a singing plumber and an operatic shower. The music is reportedly from Act III of Vincenzo Bellini’s ‘I Puritani. I found a direct link to Kohler’s commercial: HERE (Kohler): . (In a December 11 post last year I incorrectly identified that opera as Lakme.)

3. British Airways ran a “Flower Duet Lakme Commercial” HERE (YouTube)  featuring the best-known aria from the opera “Lakme” by Delibes.

4. Perhaps the most famous opera you know (but never heard of) was from Verdi’s “Marcia e ballabile” in his opera “Aida“, HERE (YouTube).

The other day PBS ran a special on the elaborate stage preparations for their epic 15 hour HD production of the complete Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It promised to be as innovatively staged as anything from Cirque du Soleil. The snippets of music they included were … well, Wagnerian. I thought I was ready for the real deal.

Tonight, PBS hosted the last of the four operas in the Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). It sounded to me like yodeling. I lasted 15 minutes. I guess there’s just no hope for me.

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Classical Music and The Human Voice

a musical travelogue

All musical compositions mentioned in my article are linked to corresponding YouTube video clips. Clicking a musical link should open new browser tabs or windows for you. Musical quality is very good. You can alternately search for and audit most or all of these selections on Amazon, iTunes or similar sources.

Here is a mercifully brief history of my evolving discovery of the human voice in classical music. If you have an audio pipe to “hi-fi PC speakers” or a home entertainment system, now is the time to switch to it.

I’ve been a classical music buff all my life. I still could just never bring myself to understand opera! 99% of it always sounded like glorified yodeling to me. You see, I understood completely that exposure to the genre is the key to understanding it. It was just the exposure to opera that I studiously avoided.

These days, even old dogs learn new tricks. With the help of the amazingly complete YouTube libraries, here are some musical “stops” on my discovery of the human voice in classical music.

non-operatic classical vocals

I somehow did learn that the human voice is potentially the grandest musical instrument of them all. As early as high school I fell in love with two non-operatic classical vocals:

Much, much later I was introduced to the Renaissance church music of Lassus and Thomas Tallis. As you’re no doubt already aware on some level, those abbey monks contributed a lot more to the future of our culture than the fundamentals of wine-making. I’m not even religious in any accepted conventional sense, but I don’t know how one can listen to Lassus and NOT feel a profound reverence for the human spirit. I give you:

Thomas Tallis: A more muted composer who wrote in English for the courts of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth. Tallis speaks of devotion, solace, and perhaps of loss and regret, but all with incredible clarity and precision of expression.

This led to my introduction to the astounding modern twentieth century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Listeners who know nothing else of Arvo Pärt’s music would generally recognize this piece. It is longish (9:50), but listen how hauntingly Pärt blends human voice and human instrumentation into a single unquenchable voice in these pieces from Berliner Messe.

Igor Stravinsky: Best known perhaps for his “Firebird” symphony and “Rite of Spring” ballet, many listeners find the music too dissonant and cacophonous. I happen to like Le Sacre du Printemps, “Rite of Spring.” Incredibly, he also wrote some of the most soothing music in the western world, and I give you two quite different short clips of his work Pastorale:

    • Pastorale: piano by Stravinsky himself (2004)
    • Pastorale: with Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano

Compare Stravinsky’s Pastorale with Arvo Pärt’s instrumental piece Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror).

Classical opera arias I like:

This first one (by Verdi) is something I gloried in as early as junior high school. I heard it on our local FM station – but never found out what it was. I forgot all about it until I heard it again a few years ago. “Aida” is an opera, all right, but this is an orchestral part. It is one of those pieces most people “know” but (sadly) can’t identify:

The second piece is known to tens of millions of TV viewers. British Airways used a muted orchestral version of Delibes’ “Lakmé” (Flower Duet) in a 1980′s TV commercial.  It doesn’t do justice to the original. Fast-forward to around 2009-2010, for a TV ad for Kohler, a high-end manufacturer of faucets and shower-heads [clip here]. A plumber finishes installing a “smart” shower-head and tests it by getting into the running shower, turning its awesome music system to “Lakmé,” and singing along with the operatic passage. He then dries himself off and leaves the bewildered homeowners.

You will recognize it instantly:

The thing is, Lakmé is bona fide opera, and I like it. At least, I like that part of it.

Finally, we return to today with a clip in that great body of classical music that is non-operatic but uses the human voice integrally as part of the story. Of “Powaqqatsi” by modern composer Philip Glass as part of a film score, Wikipedia writes: “Here, human voices (especially children’s and mainly from South America and Africa) appear more than in Koyaanisqatsi, in harmony with the film’s message and images.”

The film and the music may have different meanings for different listeners. For myself, the songs in the score draws me back to my backpacking days in the high Sierras. The mighty mountains surround me with their booming presence. The delicate verdant meadows and wildflowers sing to me. I am transported through time. It is my own time, but for the moment, it is eternal …

The following short clip appears to be the actual trailer for the 1988 movie. Segments of many different tracks in the score are spliced together but they are effective in conveying the power of the idea. The video is spectacular too. Turn up the sound!

One small step for man …

Other References

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Notes From All Over

BIO – No, I’m posting no new autobiographical snippets today, just my status report. Some time ago I read a comment posted by my friend Richard Wanderman on his own blog, to the effect that writing a blog post isn’t the same as going down to the corner local pub to hoot and holler with like-minded, fist-pounding patrons. To that I might add: writing a book isn’t the same as writing a blog post.

For one thing, I had no idea how big my draft was becoming. I’ve never written a book. When I finally created representative draft content for my whole six-decades-plus  autobiographical life span, I started doing what I hoped were some standard metrics to figure out my page count. I’d read many citations that authors don’ t want to exceed 200-250 pages if they’re anticipating the e-book publishing route. I found that paperbacks weigh in at around 325 words per page, hardbacks around 350, and publishers use a standard 250 word page length to allow for white space and, presumably, for photos and illustrations. Was I surprised to find my draft weighing in around the low 500 page range – horrors!

Secondly, blog entries like this one are generally written and posted in under an hour, or a few hours at most. From post to post, readers invariably encounter variations in style, relevance, interest level and raw writing skill. That’s even less acceptable when reading a book! Within one or two boring or badly written paragraphs in a book, most of us bail. I’m re-writing and chopping my book draft, paragraph by paragraph. I’ll confess, it’s tough. My book, “Afraid of Changing”, is up to its seventh major rewrite and 68th serial update.

My editing formula is simple. If my own single sentence or paragraph begins to bore me after ten re-readings, I need to either delete it, or figure out why it’s relevant and find a fresh approach that shows you why it’s relevant and interesting too.

MUSIC STREAMING – In January I wrote about the sad demise of our Bay Area’s last classical radio station, KDFC. They went to an NPR format and a low-power transmitter that doesn’t even reach the South Bay. KDFC does stream ad-free music over your broadband connection. If you’re tired of commercial broadcasting advertisements insulting your intelligence and eardrums with obnoxious ads, you can find your own kind of music streamed to your Mac or PC whether it’s hip-hop, classical rock, classical classical, jazz, or traditional and big-band jazz.

Unfortunately for KDFC, they went from being a big frog in a Bay-sized pond to a little frog in a huge digital pond. I prefer classical station KBAQ out of Phoenix (either streamed or on FM), but I’ve also bookmarked WFMT (Chicago) and KUAT (Tucson). There’s a great classical jazz station in Paris, France … but right now I’m listening to “Classical Jazz – JAZZRADIO.com” for early Dixieland and 40′s style tunes … Who’s Sorry Now?

Assuming you do love music and do have broadband, I’d suggest you download Apple iTunes to your Mac or PC today if you didn’t already do that years ago. Even if you never load a single favorite CD into your iTunes – and how could you NOT do that? -  the Radio icon in the menu bar gives you far better access to American and international radio than your table radio or even that $900 FM tuner.

Cheers,

Alex

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OLD FRIENDS lyrics (Mary McCaslin)

Mary McCaslin wrote this wonderful song in 1977. Over thirty years later, it gets better and truer with age. I could not find the lyrics anywhere, so transcribed them by hand. The tune is available from Apple Store, Amazon and elsewhere as a hit MP3 single for about 99 cents.

 

OLD FRIENDS by Mary McCaslin ©1977

I saw an old friend the other day
In San Francisco by the Bay
Took me back to only yesterday
The years somehow that slip away

And after talked about the days gone by
Brushed a tear away by the side
We promised not to let it be this long
Like the old refrain from the old old song

Remember old friends we made along the way
The gifts they gave that stay with us every day

Looking back it makes me wonder
Where we’re going how long we’ll stay
I know the road brings rain and thunder
But for the journey what will we pay

I often think the times be crazier
As this whole world goes round and round
Just the memory makes it easier
As the highway goes up and down

Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day

Make their words come back to me
There’s a few I will no longer see
Faces will we see no more along the road
There’ll be a few less hands to hold

But for the ones whose turn is ended
Though they started so much the same
In the hearts of those befriended
Burns a candle with a silver flame

Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day
Remember old friends we’ve made along the way
The gifts they’ve given stay with us every day

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New KDFC FM Format – Kudos!

Bay Area classical radio station KDFC has migrated from ad-supported commercial radio to listener supported public radio. The broadcast format is now pure classical, with no ads (grating or otherwise).

There are some frequency changes coming as well, effective Monday Jan 24. South Bay listeners at first may get weak signals or none at all. I plan to stream the broadcast from the internet. For more information on this major change, see the KDFC Changes statement on their website.

In part, the announcement states:

KDFC is the last major commercial classical station in America to make the transition to public radio. This move ensures that classical radio is sustainable for our community into the future.

Having been so publicly critical of this station in the past, I am delighted at the new format, and wanted to share this update with classical music fans who had not yet heard.

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“Rains Down In Africa”

Well now, that’s only the name of the great old song by the group Toto. It’s playing on my system in Phoenix right now. No one’s around to complain about the sound volume. It’s 11PM Mountain Time. I like to point out my body clock is on Pacific time. Even though my body clock says it’s 10PM, I’m not passing up an excuse to say the time change leaves me unrecovered from jet lag. Never mind that I drove down to Phoenix. Never mind that the Pacific storms always follow me down here. We’ll get the snow in Flagstaff tomorrow. We’ll get the rains down in Phoenix. This is a ramble.

I discovered the pool has been losing water – fast. Too cold for swimming, but when the water level is down 6 inches or so, the system takes in air and loses its prime. I think I found the leak, a PVC aerator pipe. My pool man says there’s a shutoff valve we can use to turn just that nonessential part of the system off. That would be nice. Excavate to repair that one section, you might as well rip up the whole east side concrete pool walkway and replace everything. That could run a grand without blinking an eye.

So the pool guy comes tomorrow and then the electrical guy comes Tuesday for the annual “free” electrical inspection, and to fix a back porch light circuit that’s probably infested with spiders. Just contemplating all this surely makes apartment or condo life sound more attractive to the retired leisure set.

The drive to Phoenix was uneventful – 10.5 hours. It’s the first time I’ve been “trapped”: by tomorrow Gorman (Tejon Pass) will probably have plenty of snow. You might be able to get past the LA basin via the Mojave and Bakersfield. But the Tehachapi Pass is still expecting rain and snow right now. I’ve only driven in the snow once or twice as a kid, don’t have chains or know how to put them on, and I’m not interested in learning. I was returning Saturday anyway.

As the current iTunes WAV server plays on, it’s just Another Brick In The Wall.

One of the songs I’ve bookmarked for my “Favorites” playlist is named Long Toi, found in the CD album of the same name by artist Duc Thanh. I have no idea how I found it, but I like it. Actually, I find I enjoy the whole album. Instrumentation is traditional Vietnamese, featuring (I think) a 16-string zither. The songs are traditional folk. You can tell it’s pop music, but with a different cultural zing – many westerners might take it in the spirit of a travelogue movie and say, “how cool!”

Some of my other musical tastes, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, do drive many of my friends nuts. I may no longer care for driving in the snow, but I still like adventure.

I was also thinking about the year I served in Vietnam, way back when. I was proud enough to serve my country.  What a shame how it all turned out.  Dove or Hawk, most of us realized  at some point we had no national idea what in hell we were supposed to be doing over there. Everybody had their own theory.  Some still do. Fact is, history shows we neither defended our own country in Vietnam, or theirs.

Just now the haunting Beggar for the Blues is playing, on the ’60′s album Bashin’ by Jimmy Smith. If you really like blues, Smith’s keyboard jazz mastery on that big theater organ, the incredibly excellent backup orchestra and percussion of Oliver Nelson (or any of those three alone), the CD is still available at Amazon and other purveyors. I digitized this cut from the original vinyl. Personally, I think Smith often goes over the top with the keyboard, but this guy could play jazz, and this cut is a must for any collection.

Another one to look out for, if you even think you like jazz piano, is Summertime, from the CD The Best of the Ray Brown Trio – also currently available from the usual sources. Also don’t miss Brown’s wistful, dreamy, evocative cut That’s All. Even friends who say “normally I don’t care for jazz” write that Brown’s keyboard is not to be believed until heard. Utterly astounding playing – and truly wonderful music too.

All in all, it’s a wonderful night for “cocooning” – staying warm and dry indoors. Go. Put on one last good record or CD. In another half hour or so, it’ll really be time for bed. G’night!

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Pop Classical, or Dolce De Coco

I feel like a traitor to my class writing this.

In principle, I have to feel obliged to applaud the efforts of classical radio stations to bring new listeners to our classical musical heritage. To a certain extent, I even support the effort to promote “classicized” versions of popularized contemporary music. I can easily imagine younger listeners, hearing “Diamond Music” and similar soundtrack scores on FM, saying “if this is classical music, I want to find out more about it.”

Like any other fad, it can be overdone. In the 1960′s, Percy Faith, the Hollyridge Strings, and similar pop orchestras turned timeless standbys and light classical into schmaltz. I actually still have those old LP’s somewhere, but I haven’t played them in 30 years. I’m still sick of them.

But it gets worse. I’m sick of Haydn and Mozart. They are easy for beginners to follow and like, so they get aired too much for my tastes.

If you’re a musician and want to take an old popular tune and “set it to music” (a la Baroque Beatle Songbook, also from the 1960′s), it helps if you can be Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman.

Right now I’m listening to a traditional favorite Dolce De Coco, played by Yo Yo Ma, Paquito D’ Rivera, and Romero Lumbambo. I didn’t know the song before, but I love it now.

The moral of my story: if you’re going to popularize classical music, do it right.

Oh, yeah: what was this crack about “a traitor to my class” supposed to mean? I love classical music, but I’m untrained, don’t play an instrument or read sheet music, am largely self-taught, and I didn’t even like the Brandenburg Concertos until I was over 40.

In a nutshell, I’m no more qualified to promulgate musical pronouncements than younger listeners who are just discovering classical music. Like them, I know what I like. Unlike them, I’ve the pleasure of expanding my own musical horizons for decades longer.

Listen to what you like, but seek out more of what you like the best.

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Mysterious Barricades

Back in the 1950′s younger brother Nickie would play harpsichord records from dawn to dusk if he could get away with it. Our childhood household had all the keyboard masters of that recording genre and era: Wanda Landowska, Sylvia Marlowe. Everyone in the family except he and our mother hated it. We made fun of it. I, a loud-mouth vociferous teen, was embarrassed by it.

Here today I sit listening to a Couperin CD – Mysterieuses Barricades, and other Pieces de clavecin. Technically a far superior recording than anything available in 1958, the artist is Blandine Verlet, French, maybe well known in France but I have never heard of this person. The playing style is a little gilded, with frills and gratuitously extended trills where Marlowe would have just let the light shine through the traditional Couperin score, and where stern, metronomic traditionalist Landowska would have turned it into a funereal dirge.

And I’m enjoying it immensely, almost over-emotionally: “you were right”, I would say, but these days there’s no one left to phone.

There’s more, I realize. I’m beginning to fathom how many decades of distance have crept between me and that old oversize sun-flooded living room of the old days. This could be scary. I could be at risk of turning into one of those fragile oldsters who can no longer reconnect to the past without bursting into tears.

Exactly as it happened to my mother in 1989:

By that year my mother was no longer able to drive, but my youngest brother bundled her into the car and they drove over to visit me where I was staying in San Lorenzo. It was a wonderful sunny Saturday afternoon, and shafts of late morning sun were filtering through the living room window plants, almost like our living room of old. I decided to treat my mother to some classical music I thought she wouldn’t have heard in a long time. I had a nice stereo system and enormous Klipsch theater speakers that could flood a home with intensely rich music even at very low volume.

The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto wafted out of those speakers – the notes everybody remembers if they remember nothing else of Rachmaninoff. The speakers made the piano sound like it was in the living room. And Mum burst into tears.

My brother and I looked at each other in alarm: what could be happening? I hurriedly turned the music off. “What is it? What’s the matter?” we asked.

It turns out that, long before she’d met my father or her first husband before Dad, she used to date a Russian named Sergei. This is the piece he used to play for her, and she’d loved it. She never listened to it again after she and Sergei stopped seeing each other – which explains its absence from the vast musical library she amassed for her children in the old house on the hill.

So I guess it’s OK for me to reconnect. I never “stopped” listening to most of the old family music, because I carefully built my musical collection around it. I didn’t play Bach of almost any sort until about 1989 (as it happened). I started listening to the Goldberg Variations and 3-part Inventions about a year ago. It was only by chance I missed orderingMysterious Barricades” (Francois Couperin, 1668-1733) until just last week. A very short piece, it was always my one unabashed favorite. So, look at it as self-denial or penance or what have you, I am so glad to be hearing it once again.

But I waited too long. There’s nobody left to call who would remember.

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Letter to Stereophile Magazine

I wrote the following letter to Stereophile magazine in reply to another letter to the editor. My reply was was published in the December 2007 issue.

Editor,

I would like to chime in on the side of all of us “crybabies, whiners, and other sniveling jerks out there” [letters, Patrick Bajtka, Oct 2007]. I am certainly used to bandpassing content and filtering out personal soap-boxing. So I agree with Mr. Bajtka that you’re doing a good job with the magazine. But unsolicited personal rhetoric is still annoying, because it gets in the way. And it’s also annoying because it’s presumptuous. Whether I agree or not, the author is thinking I might magically find his personal political opinions relevant to the music or equipment I’m thinking of buying.

I really do enjoy a lot of the work of Phillip Glass, so when an acquaintance suggested I look at the DVD for Powaqqatsi, I went to Amazon and read the peer reviews. Now, here’s a case where the reader is pre-sold on the music; for me it was just a question of which “-qatsi” DVD to try. Most reviews that I saw would have me think Powaqqatsi is a thinly disguised leftist commie pinko plot to one end only: to defame the whole idea of capitalism. One writer took it upon himself to explain for the benefit of all that wealth is good and probably intrinsically so; folks mired in the rut of a third-world slum or caste system would do well to look at certain political philosophies in the USA for a get-real explanation of how they’re going to feed the family tonight.

And I do think wealth is simply ducky, though I don’t have a lot of it, and I could probably have articulated the Amazon reviewer’s political position better than he did, though I mostly disagree and just don’t give a rat about his opinion anyway. Worse, I didn’t find out anything about whether the DVD could possibly be interesting — once you filtered out all the editorializing. One reviewer actually did remember to mention the music. I think the word he used was “lame”. Hell, I just bought the DVD to find out for myself if I can supply meaning to the video that fits the music.

Alex Forbes
Castro Valley, CA

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Charlie Dunn 1898-1993

Charlie DunnI practically grew up with a song named “Charlie Dunn”, written and sung by country western icon Jerry Jeff Walker. Chances are, you may not have heard the of song or even the performer, but apparently a lot of folks still remember and sing this song about the Austin bootmaker. They sang it at Charlie’s funeral.

You can hear the song on YouTube, complete with some old stills on the video, one of which I ripped off.

There really was a Charlie Dunn. Chances are, if you did hear of him, you know him through this enchanting 1960′s Jerry Jeff Walker song. I know the song from Jerry Jeff’s first album, which sadly I don’t have. I believe it was named simply “Jerry Jeff Walker.”

You can find a bio on Dunn at FamousTexans.com [site no longer available 2013]; complete with lyrics to the song.

It took me three years to rediscover these notes of mine and post them, but you never really forget Charlie once you hear the song. Charlie made mighty fine boots. I always appreciated fine leather, but I never owned a pair. He sold to the stars.

I had researched this on Google after finding out there was a real Dunn in The New Yorker, of all places. It is buried in an article about singer and songwriter Lyle Lovett, by Alec Wilkinson (Profiles, “HOMEBOY, The world of Lyle Lovett, The New Yorker, March 1, 2004).

Wilkinson writes the Lovett’s boots are made in Austin, Texas, by a man named Lee Miller:

He went to a bootmaking college in Oklahoma. Each year, an old bootmaker in Austin named Charlie Dunn hired the student who graduated first in the class. Miller went to work for Dunn, who was in the habit of driving off his employees. Miller grew accustomed to being fired, then arriving home and having Dunn call and hire him back. “He was from the old days,”, Miller says, “when you said it like it as, then regretted it later.” Dunn died in 1993 — he was ninety-five — and Miller took over the business.

The lyrics to the song are also posted all over. You can find them on the Famous Texans link. If found them first on “100% Legal MP3 Downloads” (I have a tape of the record so didn’t do the download). I’ve re-posted them below.

Well if you’re ever in Austin Texas
A little run down on your sole
I’m gonna tell you the name of an old man to see
I’m gonna tell you right where to go
He’s working in Capitol Saddlery
He’s sewing in the back of the place
His name is Charlie Dunn the little frail one
With the smile and the leathery face

[Chorus]
Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see
Charlie done the boots that are on my feet
It makes Charlie real pleased to see me walkin in these
Charlie Dunn, he’s the one to see

Charlie’s been makin boots over there
He says about fifty some odd years
And once you wear a pair of his hand-mades
Boy, you’ll never wear no store-bought pair
Charlie can tell what’s wrong with your feet
Just by feelin’ ‘em with his hands
And he can take a look at the boots you wear
And know a whole lot about you, man

Chorus

[Bridge]
And ol’ Buck’s up front he’s countin’ up his gold
Charlie’s in the back patchin’ up the soles
All the people comin’ in smilin’ at him
They all wonder how’s ol’ Charlie been
Buck’s makin’ change but he never ever sees no one
And he never understood a good thing ol’ Charlie done

Charlie’s never had his name on a sign
He don’t put a mark in the boot
He just hopes you can remember him
‘Bout the same way that he does you
He keeps your measurements in a little book
So you can order more boots later on
Well I’m writin’ down ol’ Charlie’s size
I’m a makin’ him up a song

Chorus

Buck’s up front but he never ever sees no one
And he never understood a good thing ol’ Charlie done

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