, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When I was rifling through the library at the freeform radio station where I sometimes DJ, I found a recording of “Old Blue” by Guy Carawan.

Image from Smithsonian Folkways, where the album is available for purchase

I had a dog and his name was Blue
Bet ya five dollars he’s a good one too.
Ya-oh Blue, you good dog you.

Well, I shouldered my ax and I tooted my horn,
Gonna catch me a possum in the new ground corn.
Ya-oh Blue, you can come too.

Old Blue’s feet was big and round,
He never ‘lowed a possum to touch the ground.
Yah-oh Blue, you good dog, you.

Old Blue tree’d, I want to see,
There was a possum in a ‘simmon tree.

Well the possum down on a swinging limb
Blue barked at the possum, possum growled at him.

Blue grinned at me, I smiled at him
I shook him out and took him in.
Ya-oh Blue, you good dog you.

I baked that possum good and brown,
And laid them sweet potatoes round and round.
Ya-oh Blue, you can have some too.

Blue, what makes your eyes so red.
You’ve run them possums till you’re almost dead.
Ya-oh Blue, you good dog you.

When old Blue died he died so hard,
He shook the ground in my backyard.

When old Blue died, I laid him in the shade,
I dug his grave with a silver spade.

Lowered him down with a golden chain,
In every link I called his name.
Ya-oh Blue, you good dog, you.

Well, I’m gonna tell you, so you’ll know,
That old Blue’s gone where the good dogs go.

But there’s just one thing that bothers my mind,
Old Blue went to heaven, left me behind.
Ya-oh Blue, you good dog, you.

The refrain rocketed me back to childhood, when I first heard this on a collection of Children’s Favorite Songs sung by Larry Groce (produced by Walt Disney Records). It was purchased on LP, but my parents dubbed the collection onto cassette for fear that my kiddie butterfingers would ruin the record player. Given how much time I spent with this set (to the point that some of the cassettes got worn thin and machine-mangled), they surely made the right choice.

This mix of American folk standards was integral to my acculturation process as a young immigrant to the United States. Through folk songs, I first came to envision these idiomatic “American” landscapes: vast tracts of land dotted with buffalo, antelope, and deer (“Home on the Range”), baseball stadiums (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), plantations (“Swanee River”, “Jimmy Crack Corn”), Alabama and Texas and Kansas and numerous other states that I had yet to see, though I quickly learned to find them on a map.

And it was “Old Blue” that provided my most memorable first encounter with the idea of a dog as companion animal.

I’m trying to retrieve the memory of how strange it was to know that Blue dies in this song… Good dogs have to die, too. That’s an epiphany to a kindergarten mind, you know. At least the Disney-sanctioned version provides the slightly less plaintive ending stanza about blowing a horn in heaven and having Blue come running. The theme is consistent and reinforced across other classic dog stories — you may spend a lifetime loving a dog, and your dog may be your everything, but he will not be everlasting. You will always outlive your pets.

If you didn’t, there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

I have never lived through the natural lifespan of a single dog of my own. We had neighbors with dogs, and my family had cats, but the two attempts my parents allowed at integrating a dog into our family both ended in failures. As dogs only truly came into my life in adulthood, I feel like I’ve missed out on [canine] lifetimes worth of experience.

Even now, I think I’m still trying to do right by the memory of those two dogs that we did not keep.

The first one was a 3/4 Bluetick Coonhound named Stevie. I was 11 years old when I picked him out of the local newspaper, overjoyed that an emblem of Americana as I’d read about in Where the Red Fern Grows was available right here in our Midwestern town. My mother and I were the ones who met him and brought him home the same day. He was about four months old. I don’t recall the woman spending very much time interviewing us. But I did remember her telling us one thing very seriously: Stevie is a fear biter. You’re going to have to be very gentle with him.

And to the best of my memory, we were gentle. My sister and I were raised not to be rowdy, and to be soft and quiet around animals. My selective memory tells me that I personally didn’t encounter any problems with Stevie’s fear biting. As far as I was concerned, he was a dream dog come true. I was especially fond of the cute little caramel smudges over his eyes on his beautifully masked face, and quite pleased that I soon gained his trust so that he would let me gently rub my thumbs against those smudges as I held his face in my hands (which is still one of my favorite ways to pet a dog, when they permit me). I even fashioned a crappy little makeshift bow that could shoot a stick arrow about 6 wobbly feet, pretending to “hunt” for “possums” in the backyard with my trusty sidekick. He wasn’t allowed inside the house, but this was early enough in my childhood and during the summer so that I could spend hours playing outdoors, which was all the more enjoyable when there was canine company. Summoning as mighty a muse as a middle schooler could, I wrote a couple poems for him. And I would sometimes sing the chorus of “Old Blue” at him.

I think it was the song that conditioned me to see him as a good dog, and only as a good dog.

“OBEY” by bark on flickr

The incident that ended the dream really reveals how little my family understood about dogs. Our neighbor’s three children, who were roughly between three and eight years old, were relatively frequent visitors and good playmates for my five-year-old sister. We were all in the backyard playing without adult supervision one afternoon. As is wont to happen when five young kids are congregated, everyone got a little rambunctious and moods were elevated. When I tried to introduce Stevie to our neighbors, he couldn’t handle the excitement. He snapped at the youngest girl, and she burst into tears. I don’t remember if she actually got bitten; the fact that I can’t even remember tells me how oblivious I was to the severity of the offense. However, the other two kids were horrified and ran back home to inform their mother.

Soon enough, the neighbor’s mom came to talk to my mom. Now, my parents seldom talked to white people, unless it was a situation like those dreaded parent-teacher conferences… so I knew that her presence signaled trouble.

I do not remember how the contents of their conversation were relayed to me, if at all. Surely I had to provide witness as to what happened? What did I say? Did I try to defend Stevie at all? Or did I have to assume responsibility for being the eldest child on the scene and therefore the one that should have known how best to handle my dog? Was it then that we essentially confessed to not knowing what we were doing?

At any rate, I can’t remember the showdown anymore, though I doubt that our neighbors were the litigious type. They just wanted to be clear on what happened.

I guess my mom made up her mind on what was to follow after that, even if I can’t remember for myself. We didn’t go to puppy classes with Stevie. We didn’t consult a behaviorist or a trainer. We didn’t read any books or talk to any other dog owners.

Instead, we drove back to the other side of town to return Stevie to his original owner. He had been with us for only a month.

He was elated to see her. Witnessing their reunion is what finally broke my heart. He appeared not the least bit sad to leave us, though I thought we had some good times together. Not knowing how else to read his body language, I took it as damning proof of our lack of animal rearing skills.

My mother made me explain why we were returning him, maybe so I could hear myself say it — He’s a fear biter, and we don’t know how to handle that. And the tears came forth as I said that.

That overwhelming feeling of failure gnaws at me, to this day. Part of me now wants to fault the original breeder/owner for not screening us properly, for believing the convincing show we put on that first (and only) day we met Stevie without bothering to check our home or requiring us to get the necessary training to help him. A larger part of me wants to blame my parents for not being more proactive about socialization and careful about monitoring Stevie’s interactions with new people. Though my parents had childhood dogs (who fell victim to either rabies or poverty, and thus never lived out their natural years), they had no concept that raising a dog in suburban America even needed to be different from rural Taiwan. For my parents, getting a dog wasn’t about getting a dog, but something for the kids and teaching me some “responsibility.” The problem, as I now realize it, is that the dog doesn’t teach the kid about being responsible — the parents do. And I don’t think I was taught anything about this dog other than it hurt like hell to give him up.

Ultimately, none of that matters anymore, except that even this short time with my first dog goes a long way in explaining why I feel like I have something at stake when I encounter difficult dogs…

… like both Shiba Inu and Basenji are reputed to be.

If you would like to hear 25 renditions of “Old Blue,” as well as read up on old folk, blues, and country inspired by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, The Old, Weird America is a blog that’s worth your time.