My name is Tom Murdock and I’ve taught English at Cranbrook for a decade. My wife and daughter and I are leaving Cranbrook this week, too, so I like you, might be fighting tears today. But I want to say goodbye to you and to my friends, the people who are also your teachers. So I’m going to be anti-sentimental for a few minutes and, of all things, take this opportunity to explicate and extol the virtues of a silly song from the vantage of this serious, serious lectern. A song written by Lyle Lovett, a country singer with very big hair. Dave Mattews also has a cover of this song, it is called “If I had a boat.”
The song opens with a chorus, not a verse. This means that the first thing we hear is important enough to be repeated a number of times.
Lovett writes: “If I had a boat/ I’d go out on the ocean / And if I had a pony / I’d ride him on my boat / And we could all together / Go out on the ocean / Me upon my pony on my boat.”
This is the moment when my colleagues regret choosing me for this farewell.
Still and yet, the first line of the song is couched — wonderfully — in a conditional tense: “If I had a boat.” So the author is dreaming of having a boat that seems out of reach for some reason. But if he had a boat, he would want to ride a pony on the deck of that boat. The problem is that the pony also seems out of reach. So our song begins with two separate imaginative acts combined together.
My first question is: why the boat and the pony at the same time? Then I think: a song about longing, why not? So here’s the rub and a key word for this song: longing. What kind of world does the narrator long for? A world with ponies AND boats, we know that. How big a world do you long for? What has Cranbrook taught you and me to desire?
My sister, Kate, found a quote about this that crystallized my thoughts. It said that great schools have the duty to not only teach what the world is, but what it should be.
This song is Lovett’s vision of how the world should be.
To appreciate the first verse, you may need to know that Roy Rogers, the famous cowboy, was married to Dale Evans, an equally famous singing cowgirl. Roy also had a well-known horse, named Trigger.
Lovett writes: “If I were Roy Rogers / I’d sure enough be single / I couldn’t bring myself to marrying old Dale / It would just be me and Trigger / We’d go riding through them movies / Then we’d buy a boat and on the sea we’d sail.”
I think the narrator gets really excited here. You see, it is somewhat sacrilegious to imagine Roy without Dale: after all, they were a glamorous couple. Why have Roy riding around by himself on a horse, through the movies, and then out onto the deck of a boat which is out to sea? I think the only answer is that the author believes romantic cowboys should be married to longing, rather than to perfect alto-singing-cowgirls.
Seniors, are you married to longing? Are you imagining a future that is difficult and delicious enough? Or are you willing to settle for one that makes sense? Almost too much sense?
After a repeat of the chorus, we hear the second verse, and its about the Lone Ranger and his trusty side-kick Tonto. You are aware of the “masked-man” hero of the West, I hope, who sniffed around ghost towns and foiled bad guys. It has never made sense to me that the brilliant Native American side-kick to the Lone Ranger –– the guy who reads the trails, takes care of the horses, hunts for the food, and often saves the day — gets a Spanish name that means “stupid.” Anyways, Lovett seems to have the same feeling because this verse relates Tonto’s come-uppance:
“The mystery masked man was smart / He got himself a Tonto / ‘Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free / But Tonto he was smarter/ And one day said Kemo Sabe / Kiss my blank, I bought a boat / I’m going out to sea.”
The crowd roars right here on every live-version of this song I have. Tonto needs to say what what he says. We cheer for him. We’re glad that he won’t be stepped on. We love knowing that the double-difficult dream of having a hard-to-get boat, and hard-to-get pony, can be achieved, and wants to be achieved by deserving hearts other than our own.
Tonto wanted the same thing as the Lone Ranger. Who would have guessed it? Were they both asking too much? Why desire the pony AND the boat at the same time? Why not? The heart only grows bigger when it lets things in.
What else can I get into that heart? I want peace in Gaza, I want peace in Kashmir. Is it too much? Isn’t it the way the world should be? If I want it, is there a chance others want it, too? If I don’t articulate something that might not happen, does it have less of a chance of ever happening?
I can’t speak to your collective experience at Cranbrook Kingwood, but I know that I’ve stayed here so long because Cranbrook, was often like a big heart, trying to open up and up. Trying to pull in everything, including all kinds of problems. The heart only grows bigger when it lets things in. Once you have trouble inside you, it becomes even more worthwhile to sort it out, to make sense, even if it is a complicated kind of sense.
So we leave today for our various journeys out into the world. My hope is that we’re all journeying into the world that is and also the world that should be.