Blue Bayou, by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson: why everyone should learn it

Roy feels so bad and got a worried mind. The opening to one of the most recognisable songs of the Twentieth Century, sung by a voice that seems so restrained and innocent by our standards, the musicians so cool while playing difficult runs on a simple progression, before the kind of key change Dylan would laud as making no sense. (Not that I’d know if this happened.) Listening to Linda Ronstadt belting it out for half again as long on free-to-bandwidth video makes me realise why I instinctively disapproved of her as a teenager. That of course is unkind, when Elvis Costello lists her version 9th on his greatest country songs, she was in the Mr Plough episode of the Simpsons, sang on Graceland, and has Parkinson’s. It’s just that the Orbison, if cheesy, is classy. Even his backing vocals are a Greek chorus of subtle urging to go, go, go[1]. Also, she left out many of the lyrics, most contentiously, to my mind, the early lines of the first chorus – but we’ll get to those.

Meanwhile Roy is so lonesome all the time. Not all of the time, again possibly a complaint about Linda, but to be lonesome all of the time could be, out of “all”, being lonesome just during time’s passing, yet not when time is not passing, for some of what’s passing is not time, quite a feat, and certainly not available to the waking me. If that’s a stretch I will also admit it’s possible time is unbearably segmented for Linda, and all of those are lonesome, in which case I’m a fool and that’s quite a poignant calculus, infinitely Zeno. Every nanosecond. Getting back to Roy, my point is: even being plainly non-mathematically lonesome all the time is enough of a confession. Especially when this, as it turns out, is an attempt at casting off the blues.

It is never clear why Roy left his baby behind. Possibly he went out to seek fame and fortune. Certainly it’s a place where he had some roots. (Roy and I learned the same song first: “You are my Sunshine.” I can still hear my mother singing it to me. From there he and I diverged.) Born in 36 was a child of the big D – on his official website his father is “a worker” and in biographies as an oil rigger. And of course the War. He was raised in the ten blocks of Wink, Texas, close to Kermit, which you would think was moist or at least green – however all of it was as far away from a bayou as a sensitive myopic child could imagine.

Roy’s longing now has a shape, even if baby never gets clearer: we know more about the bayou than about Roy’s baby. I mean, it might be that he has literally left his baby behind, not his lover, in which case his assurance that he’s coming back someday is, I reckon, a little less dependable than a return to his lover. Although with a baby, there might be some future relationship, whereas with a lover, well, a lover might not want you back, even if you are the Big O. You’re just some guy from the past with big glasses.

So Roy is poor, never mind that in the early sixties things were a little better than when he was born and that this was not his first success. He’s saving nickels and dimes, presumably all he’s earning, on night shift at best. (For surely he’s not just working till the sun don’t shine then downing apron, his working might actually be causing the sun to dim, as do coal miners parasol makers.) So the happier times on Blue Bayou are in any case brighter for all the dark nights Roy is putting in. We know he’s strumming a guitar, but we also know he’s underground somewhere. He certainly can’t see well with those dark glasses, though of course we all know he’s not blind, not really. Anyway, we get it: it’s dark, dark, dark. He’s in black, just so we really do get it. This, we might think, is shouting, but if we compare him to The Cure, it’s so cheerfully innocent that the candy-coloured clown we call the Sandman tiptoeing into our bedroom every night isn’t naturally going to scare the shit out of us, as it might if the Human League were singing it over our crib. Once again, the innocence is all the more moving than the histrionics. In dreams, he walks with me, and in dreams he talks with me; never does he fuck, or pull out a huge cleaver and send me into the arms of Nick Cave. It’s kind of a thing we’d like to do together with Roy, even were we Cardinal Pell after a hard day’s papal fund management, releasing ourselves from the pornotropia we inhabit into lovelier longing.

And the times he’s looking forward to aren’t the end of times. That they are times plural implies there will be times afterward as well. (Echoes of the Linda’s soulful indeterminate periods – maybe she got them from him?) They might not be in Blue Bayou. I’m not at all sure Roy is going to stay there.

I mean, what does Roy expect to do for money on Blue Bayou if he sleeps all day? Then again, perhaps nobody works there: the catfish certainly aren’t, they’re playing – and the fishing boats aren’t really heading anywhere purposeful if their sails are afloat. I mean, really.

Anyway, to be fair, perhaps their sails aren’t afloat, since the dangly ambiguity of saying if he could only see…only see what? Oh, now we know it’s the familiar sunrise Roy’s wanting to see, but until that moment, the first time listening, boats with sails floating round instead of purposefully hauling the boats to a destination, like properly accountable funded and targeted research, seem rather dilly, to the point of being quite unfeasible, if you ask me, so it’s possible he’s having difficulty seeing or visualising the event. Has he been gone so long? Roy and his song-writing partner were both quite young at the time so not all that long but the Roy in the song may have been away longer. Here the sunrise boats – laudable if they’re returning from a session, not so flash if they’re just going out and it’s already light – are one place Roy isn’t going to be because he’s in bed. And perhaps that’s why he’s not working: he’s still down the umbrella mines, or on the oil rigs, even after he’s made it back to his baby. The bayou is blue because it holds the sky, as well as his pooled sadness. The bayou is a stop or a new workplace he’s going to get to come what may. In this case it isn’t a Mondegreen for Roy to be seeing himself on the fishing boats, not just, “Oh, those fishing boats.” Like, “Oh, those scenic mossy trees.” If he’s so determined, you’d think he was going to make a go of it this time. And get a job. It is of course possible he’s so determined he’s going to save so many nickels and dimes he’ll never have to work again.

(Just before we get to his arrival in the bayou, the catfish. You might already have gathered, I love that the catfish are playful, and it’s possible this is an allusion to the ontological disappointment of the fisho. Fishing people inhabit the great place of yearning and surrender to elemental caprice, the realism of sitting still waiting for luck to strike when you might be close to perishing of starvation and its frequent upshot of missing out, so the opposition of the playful catfish – Linda misses out on this nuance altogether – to the boats that are after them is one of the greatest pleasures to me in Roy’s steady rendition of such a remarkable reaching. It’s quite possible the boat’s sails are afloat in the wrong direction, the catfish are so playful. This isn’t projection: all fishos know the fish know what they’re up to.)

Well now Roy’s seeing his baby again and his O is an expression of joy, surely, not just of scenery, and perhaps more than joy, of pleasure. But he’s only with some of his friends. Is this acknowledgement that he’ll leave friends where he is now, working for nickels and dimes, so time has passed and where once all of his friends hung out, he’ll be drawn back to where he is now? Or is it acknowledgement that some of his friends will not be there when he gets to Blue Bayou, perhaps even died? Or is it that some of his friends won’t see him? I’m pretty sure that whatever made him leave the bayou would have either divided his friends, since surely whatever happened he could have stuck it out – at least that’s always somebody’s opinion. In any case, this is a sad line to me. Even in the blueness of the bayou, not fishing, not working, not doing targeted research, friendship is fragile.

Roy will only maybe be happy then, in Blue Bayou. This isn’t paradise he’s heading for, it’s a real place, eight days’ walk from Wink, Texas, to Arkansas, with a lower median income than the rest of Arkansas, but much lower poverty rate, smaller, cheaper housing, and only a small percentage of those involved in the category of “agricultural, forestry, or fishing” actually involved in fishing. So, you see.

I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. I mean, yes, one part of me rejoices that this is no simplistic, jingoistic celebration of rural America, it’s not a Christian heaven, despite its unrealistic fishing and problematic work ethic, it’s a place promising only a possibility of happiness. On the other hand, the admission reuniting with his baby and (some) friends might not make him happy –  that breaks my heart.

But: this last time Roy sings of the bayou he’s not just going back some day, now he’s gonna stay. Really gonna, this time. Not only that, he’s lost or is trying to lose the ambivalence about his so-called friends, the bastards. (Bastards unless of course they’re on the side of the girl he left, about whom the chorus has progressed from reminding him he’s her daddi da to just urging with an ohh.) People are fine. They really, truly are.

He wishes.

Now, not only does he swear he’s gonna stay, like they all do, he’s promising himself, and perhaps his dimbadee ay as well, the world. Now we know he’s not going to work, that he’s counting on enough nickels and dimes raining down in some sort of golden lottery shower so that vocal hiccoughing the word “world” as his will make it true. He’ll never be blue. Against all evidence. I mean: most teenagers aren’t even aware this is a phenomenon like weather: life is like this, they think, because part of being a teenager is not being able to see in the storm of the brain reconstructing its pathways, in the whirling reckless process of the coming redundancy of all those childish neuronal routes devoted to manipulating parents and not dying in infancy, that there’s got to be a morning after.

So this is peak bayou. Silver moon and evening tide which as we all know livens the beasties in the water luminous and vaster than empires with the power to strip the fisho’s bait in minutes while all you feel is the gentlest of tugs from thousands of teensy crabs dimbadeeing all over your pilchard. To me it seems like Roy’s assertion of its reality crumbles back though, like a dyke before tides of molten icecap. A moment ago the folks were fine and the world was Roy’s, but BANG the hurting inside is back once more between now and some sweet day. Who knows why? Perhaps his co-writer Joe Melson opposed the tempering realism here, for Roy’s voice is all heroic quivering sadness of the man who’ll never have a job, not even the oil rig roustabout let alone the fisherman or man of leisure with calico bags full of nickels and dimes –  in any case, we’re back to just stating in present tense his dreams come true on Blue Bayou, as if it were now some sort of theme park, instead of a dream itself, a shot-gunned sign instead of a sorrowful sound, a fading dimbadee ay dimbadee ay dimbadee ay, ooh.

Roy’s closing note could have risen into the clouds I am sure are pink above the bayou. It has in other songs. Here it did not. It took the most expected resolution for the two preceding notes: on Blue, Bay-you. Ra-Ta-Ta Cha-Cha-Cha. We fade away for the longest time. We are not comforted. We are justifiably sad. Not crying over anybody, emerging, rather, with bleak post-teen realism.

We are not heroes. Not even for one day.

And we don’t live on Blue Bayou. Cha-Cha-Cha.


[1]Yes, there’s in which Springsteen maintains they’re singing “bo bo bo dimbadee ay” – OK fair enough he was onstage with Roy and ought to know, but still.