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?Continue reading