By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
Aaron: This work is often misattributed as “traditional”. The poem was originally published as “A Border Affair” in the June 1907 issue of “Pacific Monthly”. It was republished in 1915 by Chapman & Grimes as part of a compilation of Clark’s works entitled “Sun and Saddle Leather”. The song ended up with several variant lyrics.
Although there has been some controversy about whether Bill Simon composed the tune, that is the consensus nowadays. Simon heard the poem, thought it would make a good song, and worked out a tune while riding the range as a cowboy. Some twenty to thirty years later somebody added a bridge to the music, which is how it is now typically played but, as with the lyrics, there is variation in the tune.
The song’s first release was as The Border Affair by Tex Fletcher in 1936.
Tony: What hits me as the dominant feature of the song is the empahsis on the 123-123 pattern of the guitar accompaniment (which is completely lost by the time we get to Judy Collins – see below) while the melody itself is a lilting four beats to a line. It makes a pleasing effect, but after a while to my ear there is nothing to hold my interest.
But of course when it was written, this was the popular way of telling simple stories, so it would have held everyone’s attention. It is really simple, but if one takes in the lyrics, it somehow seems to be gripping, although reading the lyrics now I’d immediately want to slow the whole piece down.
Spanish is a loving tongue Soft as wind, light as spray Was a girl I learned it from Living down Sonora Way I don't look much like a lover Yet I say her love words over Often when I'm all alone Mi Amor, Mi Corazon
Aaron: Ian & Sylvia recorded the song for the 1963 album Four Strong Winds
Tony: I’m much more comfortable with this slower speed and of course the change of chords is much more in keeping with the way we expect songs to go these days. This really is beautiful, as long as one has to stop doing anything else and just take it in.
Aaron: Bob’s version appeared on his 1973 studio album
Tony: If I didn’t know this was Bob, I would not guess. It’s the recording to give to anyone who says Bob can’t sing. But I do have problems with the accompaniment both in the opening slower, softer sections and in the second half. Bob singing with the piano accompaniment and maybe the chorus singing along, is enough. The other instruments just seem to be fighting for space. And indeed in the latter part of the recording the piano seems to want too much space, and appears to be fighting back. I’d love to get hold of the original recording and cut out most of that accompaniment and listen… in my head it sounds so much better.
Just listen to the “I don’t look much like a lover” line near the start and imagine it without the piano. It maintains the effect much more. I wonder, did Bob do the arrangement or was it the producer who pushed him to this? The la la la section around the two minute mark almost seems a parody of the whole song with every instrument fighting for its space. What a shame.
Aaron: Subsequent versions include… Judy Collins
Tony: Oh Aaron, how can you introduce this as “Subsequent versions include…” This is one of the great moments of contemporary music. Judy Collins is always one of my favourite performers; what an utterly exquisite voice and invariably a full understanding of the song she is performing. Actually I don’t want to write anymore; I just want to listen… although if I have to say something it would be that if only Bob had listened to this version and realised this is all this delightful song needs, then his version would be so much better.
What works here is not only the sound, but the understanding of the link between music and lyrics…
Still I've always kind of missed himSince that last sad night I kissed him Broke his heart, lost my own Adios, Mi corazon
If you are not crying your eyes out by now you have either no emotions or have never lost a lover, or perhaps it is just that Judy Collins’ voice does something for me.
Aaron: Emmylou Harris
Tony: I approach this with trepidation. Apart from the fact that I find so much in Judy Collins work that I admire, I find it hard to imagine anything that could surpass her rendition of this song.
This final is delightful, but I would again be critical of overdoing the accompaniment, and I find the beat over-emphasised. But now I am just an old man having been taken back to thoughts of lost loves of the past by Judy Collins. I don’t want to hear anyone else. I don’t want to do anything else. I just want to sit here and listen to Judy and wallow in my sorrows of what might have been. The tears are running down my face. I can’t write no more.