Over the weekend I was lucky to attend an online award ceremony organized by the Texas Institute of Letters for winners of their annual literary prizes. I was honored to have Luz recognized, and also grateful the award winners didn’t have to read or speak since I was running a fever, having gotten my second COVID shot the day before. Only the TIL’s newly inducted members read—Cristina Rivera Garza live, and then George Saunders and a singer/songwriter named Michael Martin Murphy via prerecorded videos. I was surprised, then delighted, when I realized that I knew who MMM was: as a kid I’d really liked a song of his called “Wildfire,” about a horse and a girl who died. I was even more surprised and delighted when he proceeded to play an acoustic version of that song for the ceremony. After, he talked a little about where the idea for it had come from—a dream he’d had, he said, possibly linked to stories his grandfather would tell.
I thought about the song all the next day. I’m still thinking about it. Do you know it? “Wildfire” is a song from the 1970s, just a little before my time, but I heard it because every night I would fall asleep to a San Antonio station called KQXT, which played soft whitebread music, instrumentals and easy listening from the 60s and 70s. My parents had tuned my clock radio to that station, setting it so it would play for an hour and shut itself off. They figured the music would relax me, but I’d stay up listening intently to Burt Bacharach, the Carpenters, Herb Alpert, Gordon Lightfoot, that “Send in the Clowns” song, the weird-as-hell lounge cheese of “Muskrat Love”…and then “Wildfire,” whose chorus always made me want to cry, though I didn’t fully grasp the story at the time. A few years ago, I revisited the song as an adult, and it was as musically beautiful and emotionally powerful as I’d remembered it…tho it also surprised me that what had seemed like the climax (“oh they say she died one winter / when there came an early snow / and the pony she named Wildfire / busted down his stall”) happened in the first stanza. As a kid I’d thought the song was about the love between a girl and her pony; when the girl tragically died at the end (possibly thrown in a pony accident?), the pony grew so guilt- and grief-stricken it busted down its stall and ran away. But no, the final verse was about…leaving sod bustin’ behind?
After seeing MMM’s video performance the other day, I went back to the song again and found myself struck by how much storytelling and emotion Murphy had packed into just three short verses. Now that’s songwriting! I thought. A Wikipedia entry on the song echoed Murphy’s assertion that the story came most immediately to him in a dream, and also mentioned that it had some connection to a story his grandfather had passed on, a Native American story about a ghost girl who’d died in a blizzard searching for her horse (which—who knows if it was. Which nation? Wiki doesn’t say). And the sod bustin’ part? In the final verse, the song’s narrator, crops lost to an early snow, hears a hoot owl outside his window that he understands as a terrible omen: “she’s coming for me I know / and on Wildfire we’re both gonna go.”
What I missed last time around, adding another emotional layer to the song, is the tacit acknowledgment of the narrator that his presence on the land as a settler is unwelcome. In a postcolonial literature class I took many years ago, one central idea we learned is that the ghost is often a radical figure—symbolizing the return of whatever the dominant reality (the modern, the western, the settler-colonial) has repressed in order to claim supremacy. Read postcolonially, the ghost figures the debt the settler doesn’t realize he’s saddled by—a rightful claim on the present by those others the settler assumes have been relegated, vanquished or dead, to the past. So to ride with the ghost girl and leave sod bustin’ behind is to acknowledge the futility and violence, and ultimately to abandon, the settler-colonial project of Westward Expansion via conversion of grassland plains to agricultural productivity.
God, what a great fucking song. Up there with Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) and Galveston. If you’ve never heard it, check out out that vintage 70s performance above, complete with MMM’s flat-ironed pageboy.