Our parents influence us in ways that are sometimes mysterious. My late father, Bill Forsberg, was a Renaissance man of sorts, with talents for writing, art, poetry, music and more. He certainly influenced my own love of writing and music, but until recently I didn’t realize how much he influenced the writing of my sister, novelist Caroline Fyffe.
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That influence was subtle. Sometimes these things don’t become evident until the parent is gone, and you’re looking back in a manner you almost never do until they are gone.
I was reflecting that way the other day, about our dad’s fondness for old cowboy songs. He used to sing them to my sisters and me while strumming his ukulele, an instrument that now sits on the “memory shelf” in my office. Dad knew so many of those sweet old songs. It never occurred to me at the time, but now I have to wonder how he committed so many lengthy lyrics to memory.
The horse-oriented ballads were among our favorites, as all five Forsberg girls were horse lovers. There was “Strawberry Roan,” about the bronco that refused to be busted. He turns his old belly right up to the sun / He sure is a sun-fishin’ son-of-a-gun.
And “Old Paint,” about a cowboy riding a pinto on a cattle drive. I remember being troubled that “the fiery and the snuffy” had tails that were “matted” and backs that were “raw.” Clearly, cowboyin’ was hard on all concerned.
We also loved the ballads relating dramatic and sometimes devastating life events. “Cool Water” tells of a man who sees a mirage as he’s dying of thirst in the desert. Keep a-movin’, Dan, don’tcha listen to him, Dan / He’s a devil not a man / And he spreads the burnin’ sand with water.
“Big Iron” relates how an outlaw might have gone on living but for one fatal slip: When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip.
(By the way, if you want to hear any of these songs, simply search their names at YouTube.com.)
Saddest of them all, however, was “Streets of Laredo.” In this heartrending ballad, one cowboy comes upon another who is “wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.” The injured cowboy pleads: Come an’ sit down beside me an’ hear my sad story. / I’m shot in the breast an’ I know I must die.
He then recounts the happy times of his life: dashing and riding and card-playing, plus courting at Rose’s. We never learn exactly how he went wrong, though I’ll bet Rose had something to do with it. In the end, he gives instructions for his funeral:
Then beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly.
Play the dead march as you carry me along.
Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o’er me,
I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.
That hits home, doesn’t it? I can still remember the wistful look on my father’s face as he came to the end of the song. He was a tender-hearted soul.
And so is his daughter Caroline. That’s one of the reasons I wondered if perhaps the early impressions of these cowboy songs wound up influencing her choice of genre as a writer. To date, she’s written five Western historical novels, including “Where the Wind Blows,” winner of the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award. In this book, a cowboy agrees to pretend to be a husband — just for three days, mind you — to help a young widow adopt a child.
“Where the Wind Blows” was published in 2009; its long-awaited sequel, “Before the Larkspur Blooms,” hits shelves tomorrow (carolinefyffe.com). In it, a cowboy released from prison — following a crime he didn’t commit — returns home to discover his parents dead and his neighbors eager to suspect him when things start to go wrong. All the neighbors except one, that is: a young woman who still remembers him as the boy she once loved.
It’s a great story and, like all of Caroline’s books, it owes much to the sensibility of those old cowboy ballads our dad used to sing. At least that’s what I thought as I was mulling things over the other day. So I asked her about it.
“Funny, I do think of Dad a lot when I’m writing,” she admitted. “You may’ve stumbled onto something, there.” Then came the kicker. Regarding the book that debuts tomorrow, Caroline explained that Jake, an important side character and a bit of a misfit, finds himself tempted by drink and gambling. At that precise point, what cautionary tale comes wafting his way courtesy of the singer at the saloon piano? The sad strains of “Streets of Laredo.”
“That song in particular always makes me think of Dad,” Caroline mused. “I remember asking him over and over when we were little to ‘sing the song where the cowboy dies.’ That always made Dad smile.”
I’m sure it did. But I’m sure he never imagined that song would one day wind up in a novel written by his youngest daughter.
Such is the subtle yet powerful influence of a parent. We miss you, Dad.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer, a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat, favors Marty Robbins’ renditions of old cowboy songs on YouTube.com.