“Green,” “lush,” and “western South Dakota prairies” are not words you’ll often find in the same sentence, unless there’s a “not” in there somewhere. This year is an exception.
We’ve had thunderstorm after thunderstorm this spring and early summer. Every little stock dam is full to the brim, every little creek and gully has flowing water, and the pastures are thick with rich green grass that ripples temptingly in the wind. It’s enough to make even someone who works at a desk and hasn’t been on a horse in decades indulge in brief wistful thoughts about going into the cow business.
Driving west a few days ago, with the long shadows of early evening showing the prairie at its loveliest, I was simultaneously enjoying the beauty of the present and indulging in thoughts about the past. My nostalgic mood came from the family reunion I had just attended, and it was further fueled by the “classic country” oldies radio station I was listening to.
Somewhere between Kadoka and Wall, a familiar song with an especially apt title came on: “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
The song is a tearjerker that starts with a man going back to his old home to see his parents and his sweetheart Mary, with her “hair of gold and lips like cherries.” Then he wakes up, in his cell on death row, and we realize the only time he’ll “touch the green, green grass of home” is when he’s buried under it. It’s the kind of song you are irresistibly drawn to sing along to, even while you hope no one catches you doing it.
Written by Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr., the song was recorded in the 1960’s by performers as diverse as Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joan Baez. Tom Jones’s version became an international hit.
Hearing it this week, I was instantly transported in both time and place. It sent me to 1972 and a location far removed from both green grass and anything that meant home to me: an underground railway car in London.
My then-husband and I were part of a trip to Great Britain organized by the English and drama departments at our small college. The idea was to allow students to experience the culture of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Late one night, heading home from an evening at the theatre, our group got onto the tube (the subway to us) and found ourselves in a car crowded with fans heading home from a football match (a soccer game to us).
These fans were a group of Welsh guys whose team had won. They had obviously been celebrating earlier with alcohol, and now they were celebrating with song: “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Just the rousing ditty anyone would choose for an occasion that called for jollity and rejoicing.
One of the singers, spotting me standing with the rest of our group in the crowded car, staggered to his feet. He waved me to his seat with an expansive gesture that almost sent him sprawling.
It was the first time a gentleman had ever made a point of giving me his seat. So I sat. It seemed only polite, even though it felt awkward to take a seat in the middle of someone else’s drunken party. I was much too uncomfortable to join in the singing, even though I did know all the words.
After a few minutes, my husband, who had somewhat more experience with drunken young men than I did, suggested quietly but with a certain urgency that I get up. I stood, with relief, and we sidled a few feet away through the crowd.
Just in time, too. The gallant who had so graciously given up his seat threw up right in front of it. Fortunately, on his own shoes and those of his friends instead of on mine.
To this day, it only takes a few bars of “Green, Green Grass of Home” to take me right back to that London tube car. I realize the melodic voices of drunken football fans and the aroma of regurgitated ale may not be exactly the atmosphere that Curley Putman intended to evoke when he wrote the song. But I can’t help myself. Sometimes you just have to take your nostalgia where you find it.