Sunday, December 2, 2012

Song of the Day: “Cold Missouri Waters”

What I love about Pandora is, you’re constantly hearing songs and artists you never would have known about. Not to mention tunes you should have known all along.

Like “Cold Missouri Waters” by James Keelaghan. Why didn’t I know that he had written a song about the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana, the subject of my all-time favorite nonfiction book, Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (left)?

It’s a song I never would have heard if not for my Ollabelle station on Pandora, which today served up the version of “Cold Missouri Waters” by Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, and Richard Shindell from their only album, “Cry, Cry, Cry.”

I’ll have to write about Young Men and Fire here at “Witness,” as I now see that I haven’t done so since leaving “Why I Am Catholic.” But you can get the idea of this great and moving book by listening to the four-minute tune on YouTube below. What you have to know is:

Wagner Dodge (narrator of the song) was the foreman of a crew of smoke jumpers, Forest Service firefighters most of whom were kids on break from college. Together fifteen men parachuted into Mann Gulch, a feeder of the Missouri, in August 1949. Thirteen died, including a park ranger who crossed the ridge to help them.

Oddly, the legend at the end of the video says there were only two survivors: Dodge, who set an “escape fire” and lay down in the ashes of his own flame (“I don’t know why, I just thought it,” the lyric says); and smoke jumper Walter Rumsey. But Rumsey’s buddy Robert Sallee ran with him and crossed over by his side to safety. In Maclean’s account, the two return with him to Mann Gulch some thirty years after the fire and retrace their steps and revision their past.

Young Men is an old man’s book. On the surface it is the story of men dying too young, but beneath that tragedy is Maclean’s 40-year obsession with the fire and ultimately his own mortality. Which is why I love it.

Here’s the song:


  1. Webster, I have never used Pandora, never heard this song, never heard of the book you mentioned, and never heard about the fire. I have fixed myself with regard to the song. I will make sure I fix myself with regard to the others as well. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed this song a log.

  2. Hey Matthew, thanks for checking in. You will NOT regret reading "Young Men and Fire." I have been thinking recently about turning it into a one-man show. Powerful, poetic stuff.

  3. I had read much about "Young Men and Fire," but never actually read it until hearing "Cold Missouri Waters," which finally motivated me to pick up the book. Great song. Even better book.

    You probably won't enjoy some of the other stuff on the "Cry, Cry, Cry" album quite as much (such as "the Ballad of Mary Magdalene"). Schindell, Kaplansky and Williams are excellent musicians. However, sometimes some of their stuff falls into the stereotype of the liberal coffehouse crowd.

  4. Good to hear from you EPG. I think you used to follow us at YIMC, right? On "Cry, Cry, Cry," I do like "By Way of Sorrow," the only other cut I've heard.

    1. Yes, I did follow YIMC. I've been following this blog for a while -- just did not have any particular comments to add.

      "By Way of Sorrow" is very good, as are many of the cuts on the album. I have seen both Schindell and Kaplansky live (but not together). Good performers, and really good songwriters -- try Schindell's "The Next Best Western," from his album, "Reunion Hill" (from the mid-90's).


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