Traditionally, the car trip from the ski slopes of Colorado back to mid-Missouri doesn't involve a side trip through Saginaw, Michigan. But the route Pa-pa and I took a couple weeks ago did just that--if not literally, then figuratively--by way of the 1964 country hit of that name by the late, great Lefty Frizzell.
When the gentle familiarity of the ballad washed back over me verse by verse, I was surprised to realize that I could sing every single word along with the radio. Although I had not even thought about "Saginaw, Michigan" in years, Lefty and his guitar gently coaxed the song's long-forgotten-about lyrics from the deep recesses of the mysteriously amazing receptacle of treasure that is the human brain.
I did not miss a lick, and it was a good key for me if I do say so myself. For those three minutes or so, it was just me and Lefty, bemoaning the misfortune of a poor fisherman's son and his unrequited love for the daughter of a rich man who vowed to keep them apart. (If you have heard the song, you know that young love triumphs when the young man fakes a successful strike during the Alaskan gold rush, then sells the old curmudgeon his worthless claim.)
"Saginaw, Michigan" was Frizzell's last Number 1 hit, topping the country charts in 1964, the year I was twelve. Back then, my music collection consisted of stacks of 45-rpm records recycled from the juke box at Chuck's Cafe, a small neighborhood grill and coffee shop located just around the corner from my dad's mechanic shop.
Back then, I lived for the three or four days every year when Chuck updated his juke box. That meant Dad would come home for lunch with a special parcel for me. Joyfully, I would shuffle through a whole repertoire of new records to place one at a time onto my little suitcase-style turntable and watch, mesmerized, as the needle bobbed its way across the grooves. By the time the records got to me, some of them were warped and scratchy, and some of them occasionally skipped or stuck--but to me, in that time and place, the music that spun out of them was no less sweet.
I could not have revisited Saginaw, Michigan, at a better time. Lately, I have been worrying that I have sung the kids all the songs I know. I was afraid that I had pretty well exhausted the store of tunes that could be whipped out at a moment's notice to shorten a long car ride or build a magical ladder toward sleep.
But, thanks to Lefty, the old neurons are charging, and I am remembering a whole genre of country classics from the Chuck's Era. Many of them, like "Saginaw, Michigan," are the kind of stories-in-song that the kids love. Even now, I am anticipating the inevitable questions: "What does klondike mean?" "How do people find gold?" "Where is Alaska?"
Just think what I can do with "The Battle of New Orleans" by the inimitable Johnny Horton. Now, there is a lesson in American history and geography for you. Not to mention Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves, Burl Ives . . . the potential seems endless.
I am glad we were able to take the Saginaw detour on our trip home from the slopes. It didn't seem out of the way at all. Instead, it was like being home a little sooner than we had planned.