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number 5

Big Rock Candy Mountain

Well … All Right

by Angus Johnston

My daughter Casey was born on January 5, and so far the singing-to-the-kid duties have mostly fallen on me. If I’d thought about it before she was born, I guess I’d have imagined that I’d have sung mostly kids’ songs — some Woody Guthrie, some of the lullabies that my folks sang to me — but it hasn’t worked out that way just yet. I’m not quite sure how, but William Blake’s “Jerusalem” has wound up in heavy rotation, along with a slowed-down version of “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen that really seems to soothe her.

If she’s pitching a fit, I usually sing whatever happens to pop into my head, or hum nonsense until it resolves itself into a recognizable melody (that’s how we ended up with the Blake). Usually I don’t worry too much about the lyrics, even if they’re creepy or age-inappropriate — I can’t shelter her from “Psycho Killer” or “Cheap is How I Feel” forever. Not in this house.

There’s one song, though, that I’ve always felt strange singing to her, and it’s one of my (and, as much as one can tell these things, apparently her) favorites — “Well … All Right,” by Buddy Holly.

I’ve loved that song for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, the diffidence of a love song with a title like that tickled me, and a few years ago, I realized that it’s got a dark undercurrent to it that’s really powerful. On its own terms, it’s one overwhelmed kid singing to another, but if you imagine someone like Johnny Cash singing it — and singing it now, doing with it what he did with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” it becomes something weird and a little sinister.

Well, all right — so I’m being foolish.
It’s all right, let people know
About the dreams and wishes you wish, in the night when lights are low.

That’s nasty, It’s great, but it’s nasty. Hence my dilemma. And there are only twelve lines in the whole song — six, if you space them the way I did above — so I can’t do what every cowardly cover artist has ever done, and just skip the bits that make me uncomfortable.

About a month ago, though, something hit me. If you change just a few words around, just change a couple of ‘I’s and ‘we’s to ‘you’s, the whole song changes. The singer steps out of the relationship, and suddenly he’s advising someone about an affair he’s not involved with. He’s an older-and-wiser friend. He’s a trusted counselor. He could even be … a father.

This is where my friend the shrink started rolling her eyes and smiling indulgently when I told her the story. The father-daughter relationship is a romantic one, in her eyes, and its great drama comes when the daughter hits puberty and throws dad over for some pimply dork — or worse, a dashing young prince or princess. But Casey’s not even crawling — I don’t have to deal with all that just yet.

What I do want to get started dealing with, though, even now, is sending her the message that she can and should be fearless, and bold, and take risks.

That although folks — maybe even me — are going to tell her she’s wrong, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and though sometimes we’ll be right and it’ll hurt like hell, she should be bold anyway, and love anyway, and believe anyway, and hurt anyway — and in the long run it’ll be okay. It’ll be all right.

Well, all right — so you’re going steady. It’s all right, let people say
That those foolish kids can’t be ready for the love that comes their way.

Well, all right — so I’m being foolish. It’s all right, let people know
About the dreams and wishes you wish, in the night when lights are low.

Well, all right, well, all right. You can live and love with all your might.
Well all right, well, all right. Your lifetime love will be all right.

Sweet dreams, Casey.

Angus Johnston lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at angus @

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