Our grandfather sang it with us before tucking us into bed when we visited his house on the weekends. It was a thrilling, nasty little song about a greedy billy goat who eats his master's shirt from off the clothesline. Jackson responds viciously:
You rascal you, I'll break your back/
I'll tie you to the railroad track/
So he took him down to the railroad track/
And tied him there and turned his back.
The twist comes in the last stanza, when Billy sees the approaching locomotive, coughs up the shirt and flags the train. We sang this song hundreds of times, and every time, my heart raced at the thought of the approaching train. Coughed up the shirt/ And flaaaagggged the traaaain! We sang triumphantly, falling off our grandfather's huge knees, so relieved at Billy's last minute reprieve.
The simple melody of "Jackson Had a Billy Boat" never left me, and years later, I changed the lyrics, borrowing the tune, turning it into an endless series of songs exploring love, jealousy, hatred, bad luck and adventure.
I am a habitual singer, one of those who gets the first song of early morning stuck in my head, then sings it all day. Most recently, the song has been Linda Ronstadt's version of "Blue Bayou." My co-workers have kindly not commented on the constant repetition of the throaty low notes, commencing from my desk throughout the day. Lucky for them, I haven't yet succumbed to the desire to jump up and start belting out the ascending chorus: I'm going back one day/ Come what may/ to Blue Bayou.
Singing, I realize, the presence of a song in your heart and mind, is like having a friend that never leaves. Songs flow through the veins, through the nerve canals of the brain, through hours, days and weeks, keeping company, keeping time.
Imagine my thrill when my daughter became a singer/songwriter. She had always performed, but as a dancer and an actor. Then music seized her and the words of the day became songs. In an interview with a rock magazine, she described passing time, sitting in traffic on the Los Angeles freeway, composing lyrics. She formed a band and has traveled two continents for the past two years, making a bare-bones living showing up at a new city every night, taking the stage and singing.
Proud as I was to see her onstage, a prouder moment came when I read an interview with the band in a British magazine. My daughter was asked how she came to singing and her first response was, "Well, my mother sang all the time when I was growing up." (Praise God, the guilty mother voice whispers; I did something right.)
All of this rambling leads me to a bald-faced pitch for a remarkable musical event going on in town this week -- Opera Theatre of the Rockies' production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Olympics of singing. I know little of opera, but I know great singing when I hear it and there is not a weak voice among this entire, huge cast. After attending dress rehearsal of Figaro on Tuesday night, I couldn't erase the sounds of those voices from my head.
Figaro is funny and bawdy, laced with broad physical comedy. It's vigorous and quick and light-footed. Hearing these singers follow Mozart's melodious lines for three hours is like watching Vassar Clements fiddle while walking and talking at the same time, all night long.
Go to Figaro even if you think you hate opera. You don't. Close your eyes and listen to these voices soar above an entire orchestra's accompaniment, then weave into the orchestration, becoming part of it.
I can't imagine how it must feel to sing like that to open your mouth and have the voice of God, or Mozart, come out. These people work harder and exert more energy than most of us experience in a month. This is joy at work.
Listening to Figaro, I remembered why I love to sing. Maybe you will too.
Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
Presented by Opera Theatre of the Rockies
(sung in English and Italian with supertitles)
Armstrong Theatre, northeast corner
of Cascade and Cache La Poudre
Friday, June 11 and Saturday, June 12
at 7 p.m., and Sunday, June 13 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets $15-$45, available at the
Pikes Peak Center box office,
190 S. Cascade Ave. or 520-SHOW.