Last March when Si Kahn challenged me to write a song commemorating the 1929 Loray Mill Strike for the Mill Mothers Lament project last March, I studied Si Kahn’s Aragon Mill and Eric Taylor’s “Deadwood”. After about an hour analyzing these songs, I was thoroughly depressed. I realized I had sauntered into the Sistine Chapel to figure out how to paint.
One of the most difficult tasks for an artist (story-teller, poet, journalist, songwriter, painter, photographer, etc.) is to convey a controversial story in a complex way that touches an audience’s emotions without being preachy or moralistic. The best artists tell a story by painting a picture (either literally or with words and music). The details, colors, shading, inflections and angles draw the audience in allowing them to discover the meaning however they wish. Painting a compelling picture is the secret. So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, can one song be worth a thousand words? And if you are master songwriter, can you make one word worth a thousand stories? If you are Eric Taylor, the answer is yes.
In his song “Deadwood” Eric Taylor writes about the death of Crazy Horse (one of the Indian chiefs who soundly defeated the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment [“Custer’s Last Stand”] at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876). The first verse sets the scene by describing men in a saloon in colorful detail—subtly conveying who, what, when, where, and even why by hinting at tantalizing layers of many more stories:
The good times scratched a laugh
From the lungs of the young men
In a Deadwood saloon, South Dakota afternoon
And the old ones by the door
With their heads on their chests,
They told lies about whiskey on a woman’s breath
Yes, and some tell the story of young Mickey Free
Who lost an eye to a buck deer in the Tongue River Valley
Oh and some tell the story of California Joe
Who sent word through the Black Hills
There was a mountain of gold
We know these men; we’ve heard their stories (many times). And when Eric Taylor sings the song he smiles with an awareness that we might even see him in that Deadwood Saloon. We settle back, ready for a familiar story. Then he launches into the chorus and slips the hook in without our even knowing it: “The gold she lay cold in their pockets.”
That single word "she" is a word most songwriters would not have thought of inserting. But by personifying gold—the object of the men’s desire—as a woman, Taylor surreptitiously causes the listener to instantly recall a thousand stories, movies and songs we know: the unrequited love of a passionate man, a hard-hearted prostitute who duped an unwitting man, a young woman murdered by a greedy man. The hook is in. Whether the men are victims or villains (or both—it’s up to the listener), we care about the story. We want to know what happened. The chorus continues while our unease grows until the sharp pull of the last line sinks the hook deep in our hearts, and we realize we’re caught.
And the gold she lay cold in their pockets
And the sun she sets down on the trees
And they thank the Lord
For the land that they live in
Where the white man does as he pleases
It gets better (or worse!) from there. The subtle bigotry in the second verse creeps in on you like a fog. And the very last line (with another single descriptive word about a boy sweeping the floor) will make you gasp out loud with the pain of recognition. I will follow my own advice and not ruin the song by talking about it, so listen to it here. But be warned: Eric Taylor plays for keeps. This song will never let you go.