Monday, April 13, 2009


I mentioned yesterday I awoke preoccupied with songs about animals (see W. J. T. Mitchell’s fine work of theory and criticism, Picture Theory, and the chapter titled “Illusion: Looking at Animals Looking”), and while I was compiling the song list yesterday, I paused when I remembered Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire,” which seems to have retained a remarkably persistent market presence in the thirty-four years since its release in 1975. An example of mid-70s “soft rock” (see my blog on the subject of soft rock here), it also is strongly influenced by both folk and cowboy music, but it is a folk song that also happens to have an appeal to children. While it is arguably part of the same tradition of fabled animals as Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” (1962) and “Stewball” (1963), as well as Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn” (1967), to my knowledge it is seldom grouped with these songs. It was probably largely inspired by Roger McGuinn’s “Chestnut Mare” (1970, inspired in turn by “The Strawberry Roan”), although I can prove this influence only indirectly, by the fact that when Michael Martin Murphey (as he is now called) recorded an entire album of songs about fabled horses, The Horse Legends (1997), he curiously failed to include McGuinn’s famous song—the tell-tale sign of an unconscious repression. Another musical influence is also, obviously, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” a so-called “cowboy legend” about a cowboy who has a sublime vision of a herd of demonic cattle stampeding across the sky pursued forever by the ghosts of damned cowboys.

There are other sources. My wife Rebecca and I watched just last week a film titled WILDFIRE: THE STORY OF A HORSE (1945), standard “B” western stuff starring Bob Steele and Sterling Holloway, included on the DVD collection, Darn Good Westerns Vol. 1 (VCI, 2009). In the 1945 film, the horse named (by Bob Steele) “Wildfire” has the same beauty and intelligence as other screen horses such as the Lone Ranger’s Silver, Fury, Flicka, Black Beauty, and perhaps most importantly, the horse in the Disney film, TONKA (1958), in which Sal Mineo, playing a young Sioux warrior growing to manhood in the 1870s, proves his courage by catching and training a wild pony he names Tonka—“tonka wakan,” “The Great One.” The Mineo character has a deep rapport with the horse, a horse that embodies for the young warrior the values of bravery, strength, grace—and a vast, untamed spirit. The song “Wildfire” also trades on certain occult fantasy elements that can be found, for instance, in the “Metzengerstein” segment of HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (1967), a film of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The “Metzengerstein” segment features the transmigration of a human soul into a horse. Hence the horse is an ideal object for the projection of human desire, a creature that is both “tamed” (civilized), but also wild—an emblem of Marvell’s oxymoronic “wild civility.”

The lyrics to “Wildfire” are as follows:

She comes down from Yellow MountainOn a dark flat land she ridesOn a pony she named WildfireWith a whirlwind by her sideOn a cold Nebraska night
They say she died one winterWhen there came a killin’ frostAnd the pony she name WildfireBusted down his stallIn a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling WildfireShe ran calling WildfireShe ran calling Wildfire
By the dark of the moon I plantedBut there came an early snowThere's been a hoot owl howlin’ by my window nowFor six nights in a rowShe’s coming for me I knowAnd on Wildfire we’re both gonna go
We’ll be riding WildfireWe’ll be riding Wildfire
On Wildfire we’re both going to rideWe’re going to leave sodbustin’ behindGet these hard times right on out of our mindsRiding Wildfire

“She” remains unnamed, but like many of the women portrayed in rock songs of the 60s and 70s, “she” is a benign female fantasy figure, a quasi-supernatural creature existing in a dreamlike and unreal world. Her intimidating supernaturalism is suggested by the “whirlwind by her side” (think of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”), and her dark feminine power is also suggested by her having tamed the potentially dangerous, impetuous, and unpredictable horse, Wildfire. That we’re in a fantasy world, or mythical realm, is suggested by the improbable existence of “Yellow Mountain” in Nebraska—there are no mountains in Nebraska. The singer also refers to leaving “sodbustin’ behind,” “sodbusting” a Western movie colloquialism for farming, which also makes the setting in time of the song ambiguous, that is, mythic. The lyrics invoke certain venerable superstitions about the time of year and human calamity (think of the warning given Julius Caesar, “beware the Ides of March”), a classic confusion of Nature and Culture. Her death (in the Fall of the year?) both frees the horse’s obligation to her but also drives it mad, and is an instance of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which Nature itself responds to human disaster and suffering (think, for instance, of the faithful dog in a Disney animated film that is sad when it its owner is sad or despondent). The horse is “lost,” which I take to mean, “never seen again,” although it’s possible to understand it to mean the death of the horse; it is also possible to interpret Wildfire’s running off after the death of “she” as meaning the soul of “she” has transmigrated into the body of the horse: she is now the horse, that now runs free. The reference to the “hoot owl” is taken from the song “Stewball,” a song about a horse on which the singer should have bet everything, but did not: “If I’d have bet on ol’ Stewball, I'd be a free man today/Oh the hoot owl, she hollers, and the turtle dove moans/I’m a poor boy in trouble/I'm a long way from home.” According to The Owl Pages, “To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all predicted by an Owl.” But unlike “Stewball,” which leaves the singer’s situation unresolved, the singer in “Wildfire” imagines his own imminent death. His death, however, will not be an ending but a transcendent experience, the beginning of a new life or new form of existence, in which he leaves behind his dreary life and rides off, “into the sunset” as it were, with, literally, the woman of his dreams. The song’s insistent melancholy, so remarked upon, is perhaps no more insistent than that of “The Unicorn” or “Stewball,” musical melancholy being the aural equivalent of a failed love song, a love song not based on the fulfillment of need, but one in which the object of affection is recognized as dead (as in “The Unicorn”).


the weasel said...

whilst i can agree with much of your theorizing on the song 'wildfire', i feel you have confused the order in which 'she' and Wildfire died. 'She' must still have been alive when Wildfire busted down his stall and was lost...'she ran calling Wildfire'.
great song and worth discussing. Has anyone asked the songwriter?

MG said...

I think she can call to wildfire because she is a spirit lost without her horse. She is waiting for wildfire on the "other side" then she and wildfire come to get the writer when it's his time to go. She is dead while wildfire busted down his stall. In a blizzard he died and reunited with her.

CJ NJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CJ NJ said...

I personally place this song among my very favorites thus have listened and pondered its meaning for some time. Unfortunately for those who seek definites, Michael Murphy has, in concert with other artists who leave songs open to interpretation, been ambiguous about its meaning being it originated in a dream. I beleive, however, there is a story being told.

The first verse speaks of a legend of an apparation; a girl on a horse seen riding the open plains. As to whether the "singer" has seen her or is merely speaking of her is not clear.

The second verse tells the origin of the legend; both the girl and the horse died during a blizzard. Something spooked the horse causing it to break out of its stall and run off into the blizzard and she followed. Neither survived.

The final verse tells the story of the singer himself. He planted his crops properly (by the dark of the moon alludes to planting by moon phases) but was unable to successfully harvest due to an early snow. He will ultimately starve to death (the hoot owl imagery)and yearns to ride off with the girl and her horse leaving the hard life of subsistence farmer in the plains (a sodbuster) behind him.

While this is the meaning as I have come to see it, the metaphorical meaning (which would allow for more personal application) could be easily construed to mean anything which allows for the escape from life's problems.